The 2013 Korean Cinematic Invasion


As much as I love Japanese films, (I did dedicate an entire blog to it, you know?), one cannot deny the groundbreaking cinema that has been churned out of South Korea for over ten years now. Films such as Oldboy, The Host, and A Tale of Two Sisters have amassed dedicated cult followings worldwide.

So it was only a matter of time before some of the biggest directors in South Korea’s New Wave of Cinema, chief among them being Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, would wash up on US shores – Hollywood beckoning them to showcase their skills on the largest stage in the world.

Years from now, there is a chance 2013 could be looked back upon as the year of the Korean cinematic invasion of the United States, with not one, not two, but three English language directorial debuts by Korean filmmakers.

However, this movement has gotten off to a rocky start.

Kim Jee-woon’s ‘The Last Stand’

The Last Stand - Photo Courtesy of

The Last Stand – Photo Courtesy of

This January, director Kim Jee-woon released the rated R action movie, The Last Stand, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who hadn’t starred in a leading role for almost a decade). The critical response to the film was mixed (it currently sits at a “rotten” rating of 59%, just one percentage point from being considered “fresh,” on film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes) and it was a flat-out bomb commercially. According to the website Boxofficemojo, The Last Stand yielded a disappointing $12 million in the United States, and with a production budget of around $45 million it was considered a colossal failure considering this film was expected to usher in a new era of Schwarzenegger films.

The American response to Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand is undoubtedly disheartening for fans of the director’s work which runs the gamut of genres – the 2003 horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, 2005’s gangster picture A Bittersweet Life, the 2008 ode to spaghetti-western The Good, The Bad, The Weird and 2010’s cat and mouse serial killer revenge thriller I Saw the Devil.

Jee-woon is known for his artfully constructed over-the-top actions scenes and yet still imbuing his films with solid characterizations and heart. The fact that Lionsgate Film gave him the keys to a $45 million R-rated movie – Liam Neeson was initially going to star – speaks volumes to his talents as a filmmaker and, hopefully, Hollywood doesn’t blame the lack of success the movie garnered on the Korean director.

So why did the film flop so badly? One must wonder how the movie would have fared had Liam Neeson stayed on the project. Unlike Schwarzenegger (who has been out of acting for nearly tens years and it’s not like the last several films he starred in before become a California governor were raking in the cash), Neeson has been able to put butts in theater seats on his name alone – The Grey, Taken, and Unknown are just a few examples – and hasn’t tarnished his reputation like Arnie (remember the whole extra-marital affair he had with his housekeeper? The one which ended with him having to publicly admit to having a child out of wedlock?).

The advertisement campaign for The Last Stand also didn’t help matters. The trailers made it appear that the obnoxious character played by Johnny Knoxville would be a major player throughout the film. There is something very wrong with playing up the appearance of a former Jackass member while downplaying the presence of Forest Whitaker, an Academy Award Best Actor winner. The fact that Lionsgate Film dumped the movie in the cinematic wasteland known as the month of January – a place where all films go to die – was another indicator this film wasn’t going to be successful.

Park Chan-wook’s ‘Stoker’

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

I honestly doubt Park Chan-wook, perhaps the most famous of the three Korean directors releasing English-language films this year, is fretting over the poor performance of his fellow countryman’s The Last Stand.

This March saw the limited release of his film Stoker, a small-budgeted Fox Searchlight picture (it’s estimated to have cost around $12 million, according to that stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode.

The film stays true to the artistic vision Chan-wook has employed over the course of his career in South Korea and, thematically, adds to his former body of work. The themes of inherent evil and revenge are present in Stoker as they are in his much lauded Vengeance Trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.

With such a small budget, Stoker doesn’t have as much to prove as The Last Stand did. In fact, the one thing Chan-wook had to prove was that he hadn’t lost his edge in making an American film. One just has to look at the film’s subject matter – a uncle/serial killer comes to seduce the wife and daughter of his dead brother – and any fears Chan-wook has sold-out will immediately vanish. Stoker currently has a rating of 68%, which is quite high considering it’s taboo subject matter and visceral violence. My review of Stoker can be found here.

Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

Snowpiercer, directed by Bon Joon-ho (The Host and Mother), stands the best chance of being a blockbuster hit. The film, based off of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting where Earth has been ravaged by global warming which triggered a new Ice Age. The only remaining members of the human race are stuck on board a train called The Snow Piercer. Very quickly a class system begins to develop on the train which sparks a rebellion.

The film stars Chris Evans (Captain America: First Avenger), Ed Harris, John Hurt, South Korean actor Song Kang-ho (who has starred in films by all three Korean directors discussed in this blog entry), Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer.

So far not much is known about Snowpiercer besides that it will be released sometime in 2013 and that it filming for it wrapped back in July, 2012. Supposedly, Joon-ho read the graphic novel while filming his fantastic film The Host and shared it with Park Chan-wook who loved it as well. Chan-wook would eventually secure the film adaptation rights of Le Transperceneige for Joon-ho.

Joon-ho has very wisely made an English-language debut film that will no doubt be alluring to an international audience. With the film being based on a French comic, its cast made-up of American, British and South Korean actors, Snowpiercer stands a great chance of being the most successful of the 2013 Korean Invasion films.

Final Thoughts:

Whether Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho ever get another shot at filming more English-language films – or perhaps they won’t want to – it’s nice to see them leave their comfort zones and expose a different audience to their exceptional filmmaking skills.

If all three returned to South Korea to make their future films, more power to them, but here’s hoping the Korean Cinematic Invasion of 2013 leads to a more culturally diverse Hollywood – a Hollywood that treats Asian filmmakers and artists with the respect that they deserve.

‘Stoker’ Review: A near evil masterpiece

Rating: R
Length: 99 minutes
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller

India Stoker: Mia Wasikowska
Charlie Stoker – Matthew Goode
Evelyn Stoker – Nicole Kidman
Richard Stoker – Dermot Mulroney

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut Stoker is somewhat of an odd duck. As a meditation on the inherent evil that resides in all of us – how this seed of evil can be nurtured and encouraged by another – Stoker is a beautifully macabre experience, filled with rich imagery and symbolism that, no doubt, make it a worthy addition to the pantheon of Chan-wook’s films (e.g. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK). Unfortunately, Stoker’s script (written by former Prison Break star Wentworth Miller) often works against the films powerful visual storytelling, undermining it with several predictable revelations and some odd characterizations that will compromise the suspension of disbelief of many of its audience.

Evil is a common theme found throughout Chan-wook’s filmography and no where is it more prevalent than in Stoker. There are multiple murders committed throughout the film and they are often ghastly. With one exception, none of the killings are done in self-defense – they are lustful executions. One female character masturbates in a shower, reliving the image of a young man’s neck being snapped with a belt. Many viewers of the film will find this too appalling and off-putting to be able to see the larger message that Chan-wook is attempting to convey about the seeds of evil that can blossom in all of us.

The story focuses on Mia Wasikowska’s character, 18-year old India Stoker, a meek and sheltered young woman with porcelain skin, who is grieving the loss of her father, Richard (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), who was just killed in a mysterious automobile accident. Richard’s death prompts a visit from his brother Charlie, an uncle India never knew existed. Very quickly the family’s world is turned upside down as Charlie moves in and begins seducing both India and her emotionally unbalanced mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman who gives an great, icy performance).

As we get to know more about Charlie – he has just returned from a lengthy European business trip, he informs the family – we can immediately sense something is not quite right about him. Early on in the film, the loyal housemaid, Mrs. McGarrick, is seen shouting at Charlie, clearly not happy to see him return and inect himself into the Stoker family dynamics. Later, Charlie’s Aunt Gina visits and attempts to warn the mother and daughter about their new housemate.

It becomes quite evident early on it’s India who Charlie is ultimately trying to seduce. He sees an evilness inside of her that resembles his own and uses his good looks and charm to bring about a sexual and murderous awakening in his niece. Charlie begins to ensnare India in his violent web, making her complicit in his murderous actions and, you know what? India seems to love every minute of it.

As mentioned earlier, the main problem with Stoker is its script. Chan-wook does a wonderful job ratcheting up the suspense at all the right moments, masterfully juggling several taut and suspenseful intercutting scenes that all build into a crazed, blood-soaked crescendo. However, the big reveals are never that shocking, most are predictable, and no matter how damn good Chan-wook is at building up to the film’s payoff scenes (and he is that damn good), they are, in effect, flaccid and lacking the punch needed in a psychological thriller like this because the script shows most of its cards to soon.

It’s because of this that Stoker works best as a symbolic visual representation of how evil is attracted to evil – how the evil in all of us can be brought to the surface by the most unlikeliest of sources. Unfortunately, because of its script, Stoker never quite reaches the heights that it should, given its exceptionally talented cast and director, but despite all this, one cannot walk away from this film and not have a visceral reaction – which is something all quality art should evoke.