snow_piercer film
Korean New-Wave comes to Hollywood

Last weekend saw the full return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the action genre of which he’s carved his iconic image. After the hints of ‘classic’ Arnie in ‘The Expendables’ franchise ‘The Last Stand’ will sees him in full throttle as he goes head to head with a drug cartel racing to the Mexican border. Though Arnie’s return in front of the camera has made many fans’ dreams come true (I am one of said fans) it’s the man behind the camera on this occasion that has my equal attention. Korean director Jee-woon Kim makes his English language debut with this action vehicle, a genre he’s raised the bar of thanks to the explosive technical virtuosity of his ‘A Bittersweet Life’ and ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’. Jee-woon isn’t the only Korean director exploring American shores this year, though, as he’s also joined by Park Chan-wook (‘Oldboy’) and Joon-ho Bong (‘The Host’).

2013 marks the year of the Korean new-wave in Hollywood as three of world cinema’s most exciting cinematic voices make their crossover. Here I examine this exciting prospect while looking at Hollywood’s frequent power to dampen high talents.

“Pretty much all the directors in Korea are close to each other because the industry itself is so much smaller here. A group of us are kind of close, part of a group of directors a little closer than maybe everyone else”, says Joon-ho Bong as he describes his personal and working relationships with his fellow filmmakers who like him are embarking on western success this year. Whether or not they took the leap together or if one acted as catalyst for this triple threat is unclear but this is an exciting prospect and one that still holds a risk, as history has taught us already.

Filmmakers such as John Woo have had their spark extinguished by a Hollywood transition, his talents reached an all time high with the unprecedented action spectacle that his ‘Hard Boiled’ (1992) before directing the uninspired Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle ‘Hard Target’ (1993), the abysmal ‘Broken Arrow’ (1996), before going on to disappoint many with the weakest inclusion in the ‘Mission Impossible’ franchise. After more diminishing examples that ended with ‘Paycheck’ (2003), Woo returned to China and subsequently regained some momentum. Perhaps Woo was always destined to peak with ‘Hard Boiled’ but the feeling can’t be shaken that Hollywood put a lid on an exciting director who up until then had given the impression of never being shackled by limits. Another example is that of Mathieu Kassovitz; the actor/director who’s recognised more for his work in front of the camera such as ‘Amelie’ (2001) and ‘Munich’ (2005). His career began with a bang as ‘La Haine’ (1995) had critics compare him favourably to Martin Scorsese and his equally gritty ‘Mean Streets’ (1973). Since then Kassovitz helmed the critically savaged horror ‘Gothika’ (2003) and the equally chewed ‘Babylon’ A.D. (2008), starring Vin Diesel. Need I go on?

Often is the way that once this transition occurs the talent that caught the eye of X number of studio executives is squeezed through the same machine as any other with results equalling standard film fare that could be produced by any interchangeable filmmaker. What is the point of being drawn in by a talent if all the process does is mould them into a product they already had to begin with?

Let’s take a look at what the three South Korean heavy-weights have in store for us this year:

The Last Stand (dir. Jee-woon Kim)

In cinemas now, this tale of an ageing small-town sheriff and his motley crew coming up against a violent drugs cartel coming their way screams of a throw back to Howard Hawks’ ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959) and the many John Carpenter films it inspired. The numbers don’t look good but we’re sure Arnie will save the day with some cinematic fireworks aided, of course, by Korea’s leading action director.

Stoker (dir. Park-chan Wook)

With shades of Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’ (1943) and the supernatural edge of his last film ‘Thirst’ (2009) , Park-chan Wook has assembled a fantastic cast with Nicole Kidman, Mathew Goode, and Mia Wasikowska in a film that looks to unearth dormant horrors of picturesque American suburbia. How much of ‘Stoker’ is sincerely about vampiric familial relations or is merely symbolic is yet to be known but we can’t wait to find out!

Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong) (pictured above)

Showcasing one of the best ensemble casts of the year, ‘Snowpiercer’ looks set to be the most ambitious of the three films. Charting the lives of the sole survivors from an ice age that devastated Earth, the year is 2031 with the last remaining humans residing in a train in which a class system develops and a subsequent revolution follows. From the synopsis to the mouth watering concept art ‘Snowpiercer’ looks to be a tantalisingly bleak affair.

For all the examples of foreign talent that has produced disappointing results from Hollywood, we have to look back a long way to find cases where great work was produced. The likes of Max Ophüls, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Douglas Sirk all fled Europe in the build  to World War II and went on to have illustrious careers in the US. A more contemporary example would be that of Roman Polanski who for all his troubles has still contributed great American films to various enduring genres. We can only hope that these three highly respected talents from Korea will leave a lasting mark in American cinema and prove this common conception that foreign talent and Hollywood relations are disastrous is far from definite.

The Last Stand is in cinemas now.

Stoker is released in the UK on March 1st

Snowpiercer release date TBA.

Words by Joseph McDonagh


3 Comments
3 Comments
  1. As much as I love Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho (and elements of Kim Ji-Woon’s ouevre expecially The Quiet Family and the Good, The Bad, The Weird), the two Korean directors who I would most like to make an English language film would be Kwak Jae-yong and Lee Chang-dong. The amount of talent in the Korean New Wave is unprecedented.

  2. Absolutely, yes you’re right about the amount of sheer talent coming out of Korea! Perhaps those you mentioned will follow in the coming years but I can see why the three focussed in my piece have beaten them to it. Another director I’m surprised hasn’t made his crossover is Hong-jin Na who made ‘Chaser’, a rather westernised thriller and a brilliant one at that.

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