While Tinseltown has a history of plundering Asian cinema for inspiration, few Asian filmmakers have managed a successful long-term crossover to the U.S. mainstream. Will Park Chan-wook make the Hollywood leap?
It was a decade ago that South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook first grabbed international cinephiles by the eyeballs with the brutal, brilliant Oldboy—a serpentine revenge fable in which a businessman, mysteriously held captive for 15 years, sets out, hammer in hand, on a bloody quest to discover why (and by whom) he was imprisoned. So there was a lot of excitement at Sundance last month when Park finally unveiled his long-promised English-language debut. His new film, Stoker, starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode, opens this Friday. It’s another mind-bending thriller that has wowed a lot of critics and may finally give Park a wider Western audience.
But if Park, already huge in his homeland, is able to parlay that into a Hollywood career, he’ll be a rarity. The fact remains that, while Tinseltown has a history of plundering Asian cinema for inspiration—an Oldboy remake, directed by Spike Lee, is due later this year—few Asian filmmakers have managed a successful long-term crossover to the U.S. mainstream. The outstanding exception, of course, is Taiwan-born Ang Lee, whose Life of Pi won him his second directing Oscar at last Sunday’s Academy Awards. But others, such as Chinese action maestro John Woo, have made the leap only to falter.
Park might find it useful to consider the contrasting experiences of Lee and Woo. Both men broke into Hollywood in the 1990s. At that time, Woo was the more established artist, a major Hong Kong director who had also built a cult following in the West with a string of seminal action films, distinguished by their balletic slo-mo gunplay and disarming flights of lyricism. Still, he had to prove himself to the L.A. studios, beginning with a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick (Hard Target), before he was entrusted with a big budget and major stars. It wasn’t until his third U.S. picture, 1997’s Face/Off, that he finally achieved a satisfying marriage of his Hong Kong style with a high-concept Hollywood script. An over-the-top thriller starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage as an FBI agent and a terrorist who literally trade faces, the movie’s silly/clever premise proved the perfect vehicle for his operatic excesses. It turned out to be the high point of Woo’s American period. Frustrated by lack of creative control and Hollywood’s infamous “development hell,” he returned home after a couple of expensive flops (Windtalkers and Paycheck) to make his acclaimed Chinese historical epic Red Cliff (2008).
Woo’s problem may have been typecasting. As a vaunted Asian action director, he was expected to work the same magic in his American vehicles, and every one was compared (usually unfavourably) to his earlier movies in Hong Kong. Lee, on the other hand, has been able to thrive in Hollywood through his impressive diversity. His calling card from Taiwan was a trio of superb family comedy-dramas—Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman—but as soon as he arrived he showed a remarkable ability to direct whatever was thrown at him. A Jane Austen romance (Sense and Sensibility)? Not a problem. A Watergate-era morality tale (The Ice Storm)? Got it. A superhero blockbuster (Hulk) and a tender gay love story (Brokeback Mountain)? No sweat. In between, he also paid homage to his Chinese roots by making one of the biggest-ever Asian crossover films: the martial-arts fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
“I was afraid that if I stayed in one place doing [the] same type of movies, I’d be pigeonholed,” Lee admitted in a National Public Radio interview last fall, “and I would have a very limited career.” While Woo had to go to China for creative freedom, Lee now has it in Hollywood. Just look at Life of Pi, where he was able to command a superhero-movie budget to adapt a Canadian literary novel into a hallucinogenic spectacle.
If Park wants to make it big in the West, he should study Lee’s strategy. Right now, thanks to Oldboy and the other films in his “Vengeance Trilogy,” he’s typecast as a director of cerebral thrillers, but in his lesser-known work—like 2006’s quirky rom-com, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK—he’s shown he can be just as original in other genres. That’s the kind of flexibility he needs to bring to Hollywood. As Lee proved last Sunday, it can not only be the path to career longevity but also to multiple Oscar glory.