America may periodically flirt with xenophobia, but Hollywood is always welcoming. Almost since the first studio backlots replaced orange groves in Los Angeles, directors from foreign lands have been summoned – or sometimes just shown up – to make their mark upon the movies. Various regions and individual countries have had a burst of prominence, whether it's the Germans and Austrians of the 1920s (Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Josef von Sternberg) or the Australian graduates of the 1980s (Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, Fred Schepisi). This year, the focus is undoubtedly on South Korea.
Three of the Asian nation's leading filmmakers, commercially successful at home and boasting strong reputations internationally, have English-language features with American stars and financing releasing this year. Kim Ji-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters) is already in cinemas with his Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle The Last Stand, while Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska star in the gothic mystery Stoker for Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst). Later in the year the dystopic sci-fi adventure Snowpiercer, with the remnants of humanity living on a train and Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans starring, will allow Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) to complete the trio.
South Korean cinema has been detailed and delighted in around the world for over a decade now, but it's only a coincidence that all directors have made the move roughly in unison. But the attraction is clear for Hollywood studios struggling to find fresh perspectives. Kim, Park and Bong all have an original visual feel, while they use traditional genres as the foundation for their stylistic leaps. Park's Oldboy, for example, is a crime thriller with obsessive tendencies, but it's powered by a peculiar moral worldview, elegantly composed set-pieces and bursts of visceral violence.
“We are more classical in our style of filmmaking. In other words, we don't follow trends, and we're not dictated by trends,” Park Chan-wook (pictured) recently told the New York Times in the lead-up to Stoker's release. “It's not to say necessarily that's what we can offer to American films, but how we are different, maybe that's one way.”
That interview, as with the filming of Stoker, was undertaken with interpreters. Park's collaborators, both actors and department heads, noted his meticulous preparation and fully storyboarded scenes – it turned out that everyone could understand what the director wanted even without a common tongue.
One inducement for the three is that making new English-language features means they won't be judged by proxy on the strength of Hollywood remakes of their previous work; Spike Lee's version of Oldboy, with Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen starring, is currently in post-production. The Last Stand has not been a commercial success, although it's fared better internationally than in the United States, and there's every chance that the South Korean filmmakers could suffer a similar fate to what befell a diverse mix of Hong Kong luminaries, such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai, who ultimately retreated from Hollywood. What's clear is that whatever eventuates, the trio's movies won't simply slide into the background as disposable product.
The one thing everyone who has seen Stoker agrees upon, noted Park Chan-wook, was that “it very much looks and feels like a Park Chan-wook film”.