Early on in Stoker, South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English language debut, a series of lap dissolves shows us the identical pairs of shoes our heroine, India (played by Mia Wasikowska) has received each year on her birthday. From this, Park cuts to a wide shot of India lying on her bed, encircled by the shoes, still in their original boxes.
It is an exquisite example of visual storytelling, informing the audience that the first 18 years of India’s life have unfolded without incident, without change, and more importantly, without her yet becoming a woman. Surrounded by these testaments to her unblemished innocence, India lies entombed by her own childhood, in what we can assume is the only bedroom she has ever known.
In narrative terms, however, the scene doesn’t make a lick of sense. It is highly unlikely India’s parents would have allowed her these gifts, considering they come from her deranged Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whose existence has been kept secret from her. Even if India had been permitted the shoes, how did Charlie manage to find and purchase the exact same style in 16 different sizes over the years? And would anyone really have held onto them all this time?
This level of criticism may seem reductive and pedantic – the shoes are a device, an aesthetic tool, not to be taken literally – but when applied to Park’s directorial style, it rather concisely underscores both the strengths and weaknesses of Stoker. The film is visually lush and stylized to the point of suffocation, while the narrative is driven by bold, obvious imagery and symbolism, while dialogue is rarely given the same degree of importance as characters’ physical interactions.
Silver-tongued Charlie may be able to dispense of a law enforcer or inquisitive relative with only a few choice words, but it’s his boyish good looks and freshly-pressed slacks that really seal the deal. Conversely, India barely utters a word outside of her angst-fuelled narration, but her unflinching gaze and quivering pout ripple with untapped lust and rampaging adolescent hormones.
As a vehicle for introducing Park’s unique neo-noir aesthetic to a wider English-speaking audience, Stoker must be deemed a success. Even though it marks the first time Park has directed a screenplay not his own (in fact penned by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller), the film nevertheless touches on many themes recurrent in the South Korean’s filmography.
Isolated, disconnected protagonists like India and Charlie are ubiquitous to Park’s films, whether through disability (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), mental illness (I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK), discipline (Joint Security Area), faith (Thirst), kidnapping (Oldboy) or incarceration (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Stoker’s central triumvirate also push the boundaries of recognised and respected family roles, a taboo that echoes both the strange brother/sister dynamic in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as well as the tragic revelations at the centre of Oldboy.
Certainly the director’s best-known work to-date, Oldboy is often regarded as the flagship of the New Korean Wave, which was already well underway by the time Park’s film won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. Its kinetic blend of noirish cool and bloody revenge proved a massive international success, and singled Park out as the nation’s most famous director on the world stage. In his homeland, Park was already well-known after his 2000 film JSA: Joint Security Area became the highest-grossing domestic hit at the Korean box office. An investigative thriller, centring on a shooting at the North/South Korean border, JSA made stars of its three principle actors: Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-hun and Shin Ha-kyun and remains Park’s most mainstream and humanistic film to-date.
Using the freedom earned from the success of JSA, Park followed it up with the incredibly bleak Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which follows a distraught father (Song again) on a murderous journey of revenge, after his young daughter dies in a botched kidnapping. Unflinchingly brutal and almost entirely devoid of levity or humour, SFMV proved too harsh for local audiences and it was a box office flop. However, Park’s stock remained high enough to get Oldboy, a loose adaptation of a Japanese manga, into production. It is here that Park first collaborated with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, and began developing the rich and vibrant aesthetic that would come to define his work ever since.
The Korean film industry was in the midst of a booming renaissance, in part due to a quota system that kept homegrown films in cinemas longer, effectively protecting them against foreign imports. With a plethora of polished romantic weepies, military actioners, chilling horror films and tough crime dramas regularly beating Hollywood blockbusters, Oldboy’s festival win threw an international spotlight onto an already strong pool of talent. The studios swooped in, desperate to continue riding the wave of interest in Asian Cinema reignited by Hideo Nakata’s The Ring and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, buying up distribution and also remake rights to many of South Korea’s biggest hits.
Unsurprisingly, the reimagined versions of hits like feminist rom-com My Sassy Girl or terrifying ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters failed to recreate the success of the originals, while Korean language films including Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi monster movie The Host and Kim Ji-woon’s uber-cool revenge thriller A Bittersweet Life continued to delight Asian Cinema fans around the world. Inevitably, both Bong and Kim received the call from Hollywood along with Park, who had enjoyed continued success, particularly with the third and final part of his loosely connected “Vengeance Trilogy”, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, as well as quasi-religious vampire drama, Thirst. Coincidentally, the debut projects from each of these high-profile directors, hit screens in 2013.
First out of the gate was Kim, who chose to collaborate with Arnold Schwarzenegger, helping The Governator return to leading man status after a decade in politics. The Last Stand, essentially a retooling of Fred Zinnermann’s High Noon with fewer Quakers and more sports cars, seemed ideal for a director who had already declared his love for the Wild West with his oddball Sergio Leone homage, The Good, The Bad, The Weird. But audiences proved reluctant to embrace Arnie as the new Clint Eastwood, and his commendable turn as a grizzled, small-town sheriff on the brink of retirement enticed nobody to cinemas. Kim Ji-woon, for his part, delivered plenty of shimmering, breathless action, but there was a clear disconnect between style and substance that rang hollow, leaving a gaping void not even Schwarzenegger could fill.
Bong Joon-ho, considered by many to be the most able of the three directors, is generating feverish levels of excitement for his English language debut, Snowpiercer. Based on French comic book Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, the film is expected to premiere at Cannes in May. Allegedly, Bong discovered the comic at a book shop in Seoul and was so enraptured by the story, depicting a post-apocalyptic future in which the sole human survivors live aboard a single train, that he read it cover to cover right there in the store. Snowpiercer stars Song Kang-ho alongside Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris and charts the emerging class divides and civil unrest that evolve aboard the last vehicle on Earth.
With The Host, Bong proved that he can juggle high concept sci-fi with real character-based drama, and is far and away the most ambitious of the three Korean-helmed productions to emerge this year. While the smart money is on Bong delivering an intelligent and entertaining thriller that will likely outperform both Stoker and The Last Stand, there remains some cause for concern. The undeniable truth is that, historically, Asian directors have not fared well in Hollywood, and very few survive more than one or two projects before retreating home to salvage their careers.
Hong Kong has been most prolific in seeing its filmmakers try their hand in Tinseltown. John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam all headed West in the mid-nineties, lauded as visionaries of the action genre. All debuted with Jean Claude Van Damme vehicles, none of which managed to replicate the unique energy or operatics of their earlier Chinese hits, and all three have since returned to Hong Kong. Woo stuck it out the longest, with 1997’s Face/Off proving the high-point in a decade-long parade of frustratingly sub-par genre films, after which he promptly delivered the epic two-part Red Cliff with Tony Leung. Even arthouse darling Wong Kar Wai lost his nerve after the lacklustre reception to his English language effort, My Blueberry Nights.
Japanese directors like Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Shimizu, haven’t managed any better, with Brother and The Grudge proving rarely-mentioned blips in otherwise strong Japan-based filmographies. In fact, the only Asian filmmaker to have achieved any kind of lasting success in Hollywood is Taiwan’s Ang Lee, who just last month collected a second Best Director Oscar, for the surprise blockbuster Life of Pi. Lee headed West in the mid-nineties, around the same time as John Woo and Tsui Hark were trying their luck Stateside. But while Hong Kong’s action auteurs struggled to translate their signature styles to meet broader American tastes, Lee scored a series of critical successes on the arthouse circuit, both in English (Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain), and Mandarin (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Lust, Caution).
Not all Lee’s films have ignited the box office; epic western Ride With The Devil and flower power comedy Taking Woodstock both bombed spectacularly, and even the $300 million he banked for Universal with cerebral superhero flick Hulk was deemed a disappointment. But Lee’s chameleonic ability to embrace different genres, together with an acute understanding of historical settings and cultures, was enough to convince Fox to spend $120 million on Life of Pi, which has to-date raked in close to $600 million. Ironically this adaptability might suggest Lee is more craftsman than auteur, and yet it is he who has been embraced by the industry, while Woo and Tsui were only ever given action films to direct, and sent packing when their artistic visions proved alienating rather than inclusive.
So, where do we go from here? In the short-term, Park’s star will continue to rise. While Stoker is unlikely to prove much of a financial success, the film has been warmly received by Western critics on both sides of the pond – the film was released in the UK and the US on 1st March – and should see him book a second English language gig (there has been talk of a Western). Later this year also sees Spike Lee’s American remake of Oldboy, which at the very least, will revive conversation and praise for Park’s original, bringing its existence to the attention of a much wider audience.
Lest we forget, the demand for Korean Cinema outside of its homeland is still very much a niche market. While certain corners of the critical sphere no doubt regard Park’s back catalogue as required viewing (along with those of Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho), for most multiplex audiences they remain one of the many impenetrable mysteries of the Far East. Successful English-language projects for these directors should only help shed light on the work of more Asian filmmakers, and if Hollywood continues to look to Korea, directors like Na Hong-jin (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea), Ryu Seung-wan (Crying Fist, The Unjust) and Kim Ki-duk (3-Iron, Pieta) shouldn’t be too far behind them. Until that happens, however, their existing bodies of work are well worth savouring.
A version of this article first appeared in Vérité Film Magazine March 2013