Top South Korean directors on hitting Hollywood - EXCLUSIVE
There’s a scene in South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 revenge classic Oldboy, currently being remade by Spike Lee, in which the film’s wild-haired, wild-eyed lead Min-sik Choi plops down at a restaurant and slurps on a huge fidgety live octopus, its long tentacles squirming out of his mouth. To American audiences, the moment may seem totally strange. But Park says the scene is less disgusting to Korean audiences. “They would be able to sympathize with the protagonist at that stage, who was incarcerated for 14 years,” he told EW. “He wants to eat something that is alive and moving. By chewing on this living thing, he’s venting his anger to an unknown protagonist.”
What is really gained, or lost, in translation?
Park and two other top South Korean directors — Kim Jee-woon, known for 2003 ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters and the recent serial killer thriller I Saw the Devil, and Bong Joon-ho, known for 2006 monster tale The Host and beautifully filmed psycho mom mystery Mother — will soon find out. All three are set to debut their first English language films next year, mining Hollywood and a slate of A-list stars to reach their broadest audiences ever.
Park comes out with Stoker, a dark coming-of-age story starring Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman as her scarily intense mother, through Fox Searchlight on March 1. Kim directs Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aging sheriff battling thugs in action-packed The Last Stand, through Lionsgate, out Jan. 17. And Bong has the snowy sci-fi post-apocalyptic train survival tale Snowpiercer, starring Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, and John Hurt, through a non Hollywood studio, South Korean company CJ Entertainment, also in 2013.
Park, Kim, and Bong (who spoke to EW through translators) happen to be close friends, and also big fans of each other’s work. Park, for instance, co-produced Bong’s Snowpiercer. Although the three South Korean directors are only now launching into the Hollywood atmosphere, they are already well-known by many American actors and directors and have been getting English language scripts sent their way for years. There’s a mutual respect on both sides. Swinton, for instance, was already a fan of Bong’s The Host when the pair met at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival when Bong was part of the festival’s jury. Evans and Hurt love Asian films, Bong said. Park didn’t realize at first that actor Wentworth Miller, a Park enthusiast, had written the script to Stoker when it was given to him in 2010. “I was very surprised. Wentworth Miller is a very well-known and admired actor in Korea, because of Prison Break, which has a huge fan base among young people. The script mesmerized me,” said Park.
Added Kim, “I felt that I had passed on too many offers from Hollywood, and there was a darkness looming over me after being so deeply submerged in the story of I Saw the Devil, [so] I decided that working on a high-spirited action film would be a nice change. I accepted the offer for The Last Stand with this thought in mind – ‘I’m going to make an entertaining film.’”
Working with A-listers through a translator
One of the biggest challenges for the directors was communicating with their stars through translators. Each of them noted the power of emotion, speaking with one’s eyes and hands, a wordless language that still communicates a great deal, especially with seasoned actors who know how to gauge facial expressions.
“I’m amazed and impressed that these Korean directors will direct films outside of their native language,” said Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “That’s got to be a challenge for any director. Kim, Park, and Bong have all shown in previous films, though, that they have tremendous filmmaking skills, and know how to guide actors to deeply affecting performances.”
Take Kim working with Schwarzenegger. The director, who emphasized “actors are actors, regardless of nationality,” was at first completely overwhelmed by the possibility of working with the former California “Governator.” “Arnold was always smart, and not once did he complain,” Kim said. “Even when the 1st AD or the producer would tell me that we were running out of time with Arnold, he would tell them to give the director time to think and take my side. Arnold was able to clearly understand even the vaguest directions I gave him. I also love his aging appearance. He is no longer the Terminator, but a real person who exudes warmth from his wrinkles and deep eyes, and I love that about him.” Of co-star Forest Whitaker, Kim said he had “the presence of a mountain,” adding, “It seems as though all great actors, both in Korea and Hollywood, embody some sort of charisma and aura. … I had a chance to peek over at his [Whitaker’s] copy of the script once, and he had filled it with handwritten notes, even more than what I had written down in mine.”
Once, after a take, Kim felt something was off with a particular scene, and he started walking over to give directions. “But the actor saw me approaching in the distance and told me that he understands, even before I said anything,” said Kim. “I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t say anything, and you really understand? We’ll see about that.’ I returned to the playback monitors and called ‘Action!’ and amazingly the actor did exactly what I wanted to do. This type of artistic interaction that precedes spoken word is what moves me.”
Bong based Snowpiercer on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which he bought and read on the spot in a Korean comic book store, he said. He also cast South Korea’s Song Kang-Ho, a talented chameleon actor who has starred in films directed by Park, Kim, and Bong. From French to Korean to English, Snowpiercer‘s storyline twists through a roller coaster of translations.
“If the translator is competent, there are no problems on set,” said Bong. “Even when I’m working with Korean actors, if they don’t connect emotionally or on a personal level, it doesn’t really work. As long as you connect on that emotional level, even if there are two or three translators in between, there are no problems communicating.”
Kidman, who was interested in playing the lead mother role in Stoker, Park said, was the director’s first choice, and also respectful of the language barrier. “Not only is she an actress who trusts in the filmmaker, she’s very passionate doing good work that would satisfy the director,” said Park. “It felt she decided very resolutely to be more considerate of a director from overseas. I felt very looked after by Nicole.” It also helped that Stoker co-producer Wonjo Jeong acted as a translator. “In order to reduce the amount of time lost on set because of translation and communication, I tried to have as much rehearsal time as possible with the actors,” Park sad. “During that, I went through each line of dialogue, I listened to what the actors thought about each line. There were arguments, but we were on the same page.”
Hollywood studios, a different system
For Kim and Park, working within the Hollywood studio system also proved to an uncomfortable adjustment, at least at first. Directors reign supreme in South Korea, “on top of the pyramid,” with the director’s decision always final, said Kim. For instance, South Korean directors are always referred to as “Director” as a sign of respect (no one says “Director Nolan,” “Director Eastwood,” “Director Spielberg” here).
“In the U.S., however, the director, the producer, the studio, and the main star are all equals, so when the director suddenly has a moment of creativity, sometimes there is difficulty in bringing a spontaneous idea to fruition,” lamented Kim. “Nevertheless, I pushed hard and convinced everyone for the most part, but this procedure was difficult and draining. Still, with Lionsgate providing a lot of creative room, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura being a skilled producer, we were able to finish shooting with flexibility and efficiency.” Park also said he became more comfortable with the idea of studio input after feeling pressure at first. “I decided to change perception, and these would be the people who would sit in the audience and watch my film,” Park said. “Once I changed my perception, I became more comfortable with the feedback.”
Bong, who didn’t go through an American studio, said that while the production was Hollywood-based, it wasn’t a “Hollywood” film. “I didn’t face pressures other directors might have faced. I had to follow SAG regulations, and didn’t have any other issues,” said Bong. “In order to protect my beloved actors, I followed all the regulations.”
English language influences: Hitchcock, De Palma
While Park, Kim, and Bong’s movies in Korea are all different, spanning an ambitious range from westerns (Kim’s The Good The Bad The Weird) to bloody revenge thrillers (Park’s trilogy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) to humor-laced though frightening crime procedurals (Bong’s 2003 Memories of Murder), they share some things in common: an emphasis on heightened emotion, violence, and startlingly intense performances, filmed in a tech-savvy style. Koreans themselves have dealt with longtime political turmoil, stemming back to the Korean War in the 1950s, and living under despotic rule from the late ‘70s through 1988.
“In U.S. films, there’s more explosive violence, gun fighting. In Korea, it’s more the violence is associated with everyday life,” said Bong. “There was dictatorship in Korean government. That’s why, when you look at my movies, you can see glimpses of that. … There is a lot of extreme emotion in Korean film. It’s because there are a lot of extremes in Korean society. Korean people are a little more aggressive, a little more similar to Italian people. Snowpiercer also deals with extreme situations and extreme emotions.”
That’s another risk all three directors are taking: transitioning from a distinct Korean style of filmmaking to one bound up in American and Western ideology and approach. Still, the trio – despite their own varied styles – adore and have also emulated some of Western film’s greatest directors.
Bong loves ‘70s auteur American films and Alfred Hitchcock, part of the inspiration for Mother (he watched Hitchcock’s Psycho) and Snowpiercer (Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest). Kim named a slew of directors as inspiration, from Hitchcock to Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, and one of his favorites, Wes Anderson. “He makes films he wants to, no compromises,” Kim said.
Park cited Martin Scorsese’s Hugo as a recent English-language movie he enjoyed, though his favorite contemporary English-language movie is David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. “Cronenberg is my hero,” Park said. While Wentworth Miller drew on Hitchcock for Stoker’s script, Park said, the director himself channeled sleek, stylized, sexy Brian De Palma. “Stoker is a film with cross-cut scenes in it. In making such a film, I couldn’t help but think of De Palma,” said Park, who noted his favorite by the director is 1980 murder thriller Dressed To Kill. “Once upon a time, I used to write film reviews for a living, and I reviewed Dressed to Kill. While I was conscious of DePalma, I wanted to make Stoker differently. How could I make it different from DePalma, maybe through less use of slow motion?”
Coming to Hollywood and English language films is a huge opportunity, and risk, for Park, Kim and Bong, similar to Taiwan’s Ang Lee transitioning from 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to 2005’s Brokeback Mountain with Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhaal, or Hong Kong action master John Woo leaping into making American films with 1997’s Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and then 2000’s Mission: Impossible II (though Woo has since gone back to focusing on Hong Kong cinema).
“From the outset, I never decided I was going to make films only in the U.S., in the English language,” Park said. “I always thought I would go back and forth between Korean- and English-language films, much like what Ang Lee does.” Park confirmed he’s in active discussions to direct English-language crime drama Corsica 72 and western The Brigands Of Rattleborge. Meanwhile, Bong is preparing a project that’s half in Korean, half in English, based in both the United States and Korea. He looks to Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s successful switch from Spanish language films to English. Kim said he wants to make films in both countries.
But will the three directors actually accomplish reaching a wider audience next year? Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science and an Asian film expert at the University of Southern California, voiced some skepticism. Chinese directors such as Chen Kaige and Xiaogang have had a harder time finding crossover appeal at the box office with English-language movies, he said, and Korean directors have already cast an influence on American and European directors, who generally remake Korean films with more box office clout. Park’s South Korean Oldboy, full of hyper choreographed violence, sex, and revenge-filled freakouts, for example, has set a high bar for Lee’s English-language version, starring Josh Brolin.
“Because of this, it makes good sense for the Korean directors to seek an American and international audience with English-language films that avoid dubbing or subtitling. But it won’t be easy,” Rosen said. “Ang Lee is of course the most successful Asian director. Although he started out making popular films in Taiwan — which did well at the U.S. box office — he learned English and how to make films while at NYU Film School. In general, the Korean directors don’t do as well with English, don’t have the same top U.S. film school background, and even many of the Hong Kong directors — such as Ringo Lam — haven’t been able to duplicate their success in the U.S.”
The field is also open for female directors such as South Korea-born So Yong Kim, who lives in New York and is fluent in English and entrenched in American culture. Growing up watching Korean films before being introduced to European and American movies, she just released her own first English-language film, the stark indie For Ellen, starring Paul Dano, and provides a female-centric outlook within a scope of directors that is heavily male dominated. “Each director has their own style, so it’s hard to blend them together into one expectation,” she said of Kim, Park, and Bong. “However, I’m excited to see how they transport their Korean-inspired visions of the world to English-language audiences.”
The future, then, for Bong, Kim, and Park in Hollywood is both sweetly plentiful, and unknown.
“We will have to see once the Last Stand releases, but I am hoping for the best. It is my first Hollywood film, and admittedly getting familiar with the system took some time,” said Kim. “I feel that I was not able to showcase everything I’ve got, and in my next Hollywood film I really want to show what I am capable of. The Last Stand has shown me all the possibilities in Hollywood, and I will continue to make films here.”
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