Korean Directors in Hollywood

Korean Directors - Film Posters

With late 2012 and 2013 seeing Hollywood releases by three of South Korea’s biggest directors, does this mark a certain turning point for Korean film makers? Can Korean directors work well within the Hollywood film industry and will these moves into Hollywood encourage international audiences to discover more Korean cinema? Will the overall success of Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand and Bong Joon-ho’s still to be released  Snowpiercer be the deciding factor for Korean directors considering crossing over to Hollywood?

For some years now Hollywood has been remaking original Korean films. The Uninvited (Kim Jee-woon’s The Tale of Two Sisters), Mirrors (Kim Seong-ho’s Into the Mirrors) and The Lake House (Lee Hyun-seung’s Il Mare) are some examples of remakes which the general public may not have known were based on original Korean films. With Spike Lee set to put his spin on the much loved Oldboy (remember all those terrifying Colin Firth as Lee Woo-jin rumours?), Hollywood obviously loves a good Korean film….but is it only when it’s been re-done by themselves? This year marks the moment when Korean directors call on Hollywood first hand and Hollywood stops the remakes for a while.

Back in July, when we had the pleasure of taking part in a group interview with film Director Lee Hyeon-seung at the Korean Cultural Centre, he remarked that at the time his film Il Mare was remade as The Lake House, Korean film was starting to get more internationally recognised. An interest in Korean cinema from the West was simmering and Hollywood started approaching Korean directors. However, Director Lee Hyeon-seung recounts that at that time “there were things that we didn’t know and weren’t familiar with – the actors, the culture, the foreign industry and the landscape – and so there was a period when we were extremely hesitant about taking these offers. When we were studying film, there were many European directors invited to work in Hollywood and one way to put it is to say they failed. These were examples that we studied and they caused some of our hesitancy” (Source – Hangul Celluloid). However, with Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-ho leading the way, could this be the start of a new trend for Korean directors crossing over to Hollywood? It seems as though Hollywood has had their sights on directors Park, Bong and Kim for some time now as these three were described as “heroes of the international festival circuit who have all received career retrospectives at New York film societies and art houses” (Source), and now with their Hollywood attempts being released, will they be the trailblazers?

Park Chan wook

Park Chan-wook on set of Stoker – image from NY times article

From the ‘Year of the 12 Director’ programme’s director interviews, the directors often talked about how in the Korean film industry, there is room for lots of creativity and compromise. If the script or a scene needs to be changed, no problem, or if a shoot runs over the allotted time, the camera will keep on rolling. With many Korean directors being used to making their films within an established and familiar system, what is it like for first time Korean directors in a very commercialised and corporate Hollywood?

The struggles that Korean directors can face was highlighted by none other than Director Kim Jee-woon himself in a recent interview after making The Last Stand. It seems Director Kim felt constrained by the bureaucratic nature of Hollywood film making and that the creative processes of a director are curbed in favour of rigid guidelines and pre-planned timetables which didn’t allow for sudden bursts of inspiration. “I tend to get a lot of good ideas while shooting the scenes on the set, but it was very difficult to apply any of these ideas to the movie, or try something new spontaneously, because you are required to get the crew’s approval if you want to make changes to the already finalized shooting schedule. Every single detail is pre-arranged. Even when you feel like you are really going to get the scene you want after one or two more tries, you’d have to stop when your given time is over. Everyone just stops immediately when it’s lunch time” (Source). Hollywood sounds almost like a military operation, and an obvious change from what Korean directors may be used to.

Director Kim also found people’s roles and titles didn’t necessarily match up with their counterparts in Korea. For instance, Director Kim spoke about the dynamics between him and his assistant directors – “In Korea, their job is to understand the director’s vision for the movie and do everything it takes to make it a reality. In Hollywood, their job is to manage the shooting schedule and logistics of the production, and make sure everything gets done on time” (Source). So did Director Kim feel his creative freedom as a director was somewhat being held back and unsupported in the Hollywood System? Along with all the pre-planned scheduling, it feels that more importance were put on finishing on time and keeping actors happy than to perfect the film envisioned by the directors.

It appears that Park Chan-wook may have felt some similar constraints while making Stoker. In recent interviews he mentioned making a film in Hollywood was “a novel and stimulating experience, but it was also a very awkward one, having to work with a new system and language” (Source). He also mentioned how he would have liked many more days of shooting “although people did tell him that, in America, for a story this size, it’s about the right number of shoot days. Of course, back in Korea, he would have many more days to shoot with” (Source). Again highlighting all the rules and regulations of Hollywood, with even shooting durations pre-prescribed. Director Park said because he had less time to shoot, he had “to shoot twice the speed as [he] shot in Korea; as [he] had only 40 days and there wasn’t enough time for additional shooting” (Source). This rigid shooting schedule seemed to have also affected his collaborations with the actors, “I was struck by how fast the production moved; there were a lot of shooting to be done every day, and I was a little sad that I didn’t have time to discuss things more with the actors” (Source).  It’s interesting to wonder how the resulting films would have differed outside of Hollywood and shot in the methods the directors were accustomed to in Korea – would the films be improved or not?

Even so, could some of the limitations that the Hollywood system imposed have actually helped Director Park with Stoker? “Having to capture the scenes so quickly made it difficult to use the long elaborate camera movements I am known for. But this may have a better effect on the film. When such shots are used only in the most memorable way, it increases the tension” (Source). So although there are obvious differences in the way Korea and Hollywood industries are set up, there’s always room to learn and working in new situations means new challenges which can ultimately benefit a director and help them find ways to adapt to the unknown. Park went on to further say that “I guess I’ve been accustomed to working with almost always the same cast and crew in Korea for such a long time” (Source). So perhaps working with a different film making system will force Korean directors, who are used to their familiar methods and crew, to break out of their comfort zone and try something new. These directors will undoubtedly have learned many valuable things from their Hollywood experiences and have all been given an amazing chance to expand and develop themselves as directors. And by bringing in film directors from different film cultures and industries, Hollywood could also learn a thing or two from these Korean Directors. But with that being said, it wasn’t completely alien as Park emphasises that, regardless of the country of origin, “all actors are similar, especially excellent ones who are intelligent. It’s not because they are from good colleges or anything, they are very bright in their thinking, they think a lot about human emotion” (Source), so there are some fundamental similarities which can cross established systems.

Director Park then went on to say “I made ‘Stoker’ much in the same way as I made my films in Korea. Of course there are the obvious differences, language, a non-Korean cast, a story set in the Western world.  But I would say there probably isn’t that much difference, and that is what the reaction has been among the people involved in the film and people who have seen it. What they say is, whether they like it or not, they all agree it very much looks and feels like a Park Chan-wook film” (Source). So film-making is film-making at the end of the day, no matter what the industry. But the personality of these pioneer Hollywood cross-over directors can be a important factor in the future of other Korean directors making it in Hollywood. If a director can easily adapt to changes, making their experience and collaboration easier and smoother, this in turn can lead to more Korean directors being encouraged to come to Hollywood. As a man who’s used to the Korean way of directing, it will be interesting to see what Director Bong says about his experiences directing Snowpiercer and how he found directing in Hollywood.

Obviously, an important factor in the future of Korean directors in Hollywood boils down to the actual success of the resulting films. Will The Last Stand, Stoker and Snowpiercer be the films which open up Hollywood to Korean directors and pursued other Korean Directors to follow suit? The Last Stand didn’t do too well at the UK box office, with one BBC story headlining an article with the rather subtle title of ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Stand bombs in the UK‘ as well as other similar headlines in the US, for example ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger risks termination at the box office‘. An interesting point is that in most articles, The Last Stand is referred to as ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest film’ and Director Kim doesn’t get much of a headline mention, or even a mention at all in some cases.

Jamie Bell Snowpiercer Korean Film

British actor Jamie bell in Snowpiercer

Director Park’s Stoker is a very different film and it’s reception has been mixed so far (with most criticisms aimed at the script, not Park’s direction). However, Stoker did receive good reviews even before its release in the UK (i.e The Guardian) with some saying it’s still got Director Park’s distinctive style to it, showing there’s room for familiar Korean director film traits to carry into Hollywood. Even in trailers and posters it states “From the Director of Oldboy” with the channel Film4 dedicating a few film nights to Park’s earlier works, emphasising the fact that Stoker was being sold as a Park Chan-wook film, unlike Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand, which was always ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new film’. Once The Last Stand, Stoker and, when it’s released, Snowpiercer‘s commercial successes have all been totted up, this might be the time when other Korean directors decide on whether venturing into directing in Hollywood is something to be desired. Director Lee Hyeon-seung said, about Director Kim and Park’s films, “Kim Jee-woon’s film is very commercial whereas Park Chan-wook’s has more of an Indie nature and depending on how these films are received, I think we’ll see many more directors accepting offers from Hollywood” (Source). So other Korean directors will surely be watching the success of these films closely, to decide on their next career move.

One big thing Korean film fans anticipate is will the directors be able to live up to their past repertoire? Were they allowed to freely direct and produce their true visions or were they restricted by Hollywood production houses. Although it seems like directors Park and Kim did experience some constraints, there seem to be some positive experiences too. Hopefully they will talk about the good times and give fellow Korean directors tips for working successfully within the Hollywood system. Of course, as we’re writing from the UK, we’d love Korean directors to come over to our shores too. Director Jeon Gye-soo did mention in his KCC UK group interview that “I would love working in another country with a different cultural background. Especially after my experiences of living and working in Japan, I would love to make a film there and likewise I would be interested in working in Western cultures – England, Europe, and the US” (Source – Hangul Celluloid). Yes, come over here Director Jeon! I’m sure we can whip up some armpit hair if that’s your thing. It would be interesting to see how Korean directors find working in the UK industry compares to Korea too. Either way, we would love to see Korean directors and Korean cinema get the wider and international audiences they thoroughly deserve!

Stoker is in cinemas now all over the UK, so don’t miss out on your chance to see  Park Chan-wook’s Hollywood directorial debut!


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