In the next few days, I should have a chance to see ‘The Last Stand’, Korean director Kim Ji-Woon’s (‘I Saw the Devil’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’) first American film. It’s not just Kim Ji-Woon who’s working abroad now though, this year marks the US debuts of three of the biggest names of the Korean new wave. Soon afterward ‘Oldboy’ director Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Stoker’ comes out, and later in the year we have ‘Snowpiercer’ from Bong Joon-ho (‘The Host’, ‘Memories of Murder’).
While I’m very excited about seeing all of these films, I can’t help but be a little concerned too, as in recent years, many great Asian directors have struggled to make an impact in Hollywood.
In the 1980s – early 1990s, Hong Kong was the filmmaking powerhouse of east Asia, producing countless great films, usually with an action or martial arts element, and even sometimes spawning new sub-genres.
It wasn’t long before Hollywood started taking notice, and hiring some of Hong Kong’s star directors for American action films, all of which seemed to star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Ringo Lam (‘City on Fire’) went on to make ‘Maximum Risk’, Tsui Hark (‘Once Upon a Time in China’) made ‘Double Team’, and the king of Hong Kong action cinema of the time, John Woo (‘The Killer’, ‘Hard Boiled’) made ‘Hard Target’. While ‘Hard Target’ is actually one of the better Van Damme films, that’s not saying a great deal. John Woo in fact was initially quite successful, moving to ‘Broken Arrow’ (average), ‘Face/Off’ (fantastic) and ‘Mission:Impossible II’ (pretty bad but financially successful). His career soon went downhill from there though, with ‘Windtalkers’ and ‘Paycheck’ flopping critically and commerically.
Hark and Lam got in a few more Van Damme films between them but retreated back east, with Woo eventually following (to make ‘Red Cliff’).
J-Horror was getting a lot of international attention in the late 1990s/early2000s, mostly in the form of American remakes. A few names from the J-Horror stable ultimately made their way over, but just ended up making crappy remakes of their own material, such as Hideo Nakata (‘The Ring 2’) and Takashi Shimizu (‘The Grudge’) and Takashi Miike (‘Ichi the Killer, Audition’) found his episode of ‘Masters of Horror’ left unaired.
Likewise in recent years Hong Kong/Thai twins the Pang brothers (‘The Eye’) have found themselves making a rubbish remake of their own ‘Bangkok Dangerous’.
There is of course, an exception to this trend; Ang Lee. While Lee did go to film school in America (and is a US citizen), he began his career back in Taiwan, and has since made successful films in several different countries, and become the first Asian director to win the best director Oscar.
I really don’t know why most of these filmmakers haven’t been able to carve a succesful career in the US, but I do hope the Korean directors are able to overcome this unfortunate trend.