Musings on Asian directors… why so few of them thrive in Hollywood?

StokerPosterI had just seen STOKER on Tuesday night, which inspires me to write about this post. Now, a lot of you know I was born in South East Asia but I moved to the US to go to college and has been staying here since. I feel like I need to preface this article by saying that I am actually guilty of not being familiar with Asian cinema even though my brother was into Kung Fu movies at the time (particularly the Sin Tiaw Hiap Lu series). I personally am not a fan of martial arts nor samurai movies, which explains why I have not seen any of Akira Kurosawa films.

Even today, there are only a handful of Asian directors I could name whose work I’m familiar with. I’m focusing primarily on Asian actors born outside of US soil. One of the most successful one is the Taiwanese-born Ang Lee, who’s got two Best Director Oscars under his belt by now. Sense & Sensibility is one of my favorite films of ALL TIME, whilst Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi are two of Lee’s films I’ll remember fondly. I’ve become quite familiar with Chinese-born John Woo (Face/Off) and Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), Japanese Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), South Korean Jee-woon Kim (The Last Stand) and most recently, fellow Seoul-born Chan-Wook Park with Stoker. I still haven’t got around to seeing Wong Kar Wai‘s work, especially In the Mood for Love and Chung King Express.

JackieChanThis article from Film Junk has asked a similar question back in 2009, focusing specifically on Jackie Chan. I bet many of you were surprised by that, and so did I, but apparently one of Chinese’s most famous action hero has directed 18 films since 1979! The article even mentioned that “…there are action scenes in Chan’s Police Story aka Police Force that have been duplicated in Hollywood films…” citing Tango & Cash and Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II as examples. Yet the writer argued that Chan could only find work in Hollywood as an actor.

I discussed a few of these articles with my pal Ted (who’s also a South East Asian native) who’s perhaps more familiar with Hong Kong action films/thrillers. He agreed that “…it’s hard for these established directors to come over here and be successful. Most studio executives wants them to make the same kind of films but with Western actors. Then a lot of audiences here aren’t used to their kind of film-making so their films won’t make any money.” Of course this issue isn’t just limited to Asian actors, apparently it’s also tough for most European directors too, unless they’re Brits. Most well-known French or German directors have failed to make it in Hollywood.

Now, since Stoker is still fresh in my mind, let’s talk about Chan-Wook Park for a bit. I know Park is quite popular to Western audiences thanks to his vengeance trilogy, particularly Oldboy. He’s done about a dozen feature films in his native South Korea, so Stoker is his first English-language film and his first time working under the Hollywood system.

I found this Wall Street Journal blog interview with Park, and asked about his Hollywood debut, he replied that he…” felt there was a slight barrier and the humor that was found in my Korean films [did] not always travel well…” Now, the cultural barrier certainly could play a part in whether a non-American directors could make it in Tinseltown, though having seen Stoker, I don’t think that was an issue for Park. Even fellow Korean Jee-woon Kim did very well with the action-comedy The Last Stand despite the language barrier with the actors (I mentioned in my review that he barely speaks any English).

So perhaps it’s something else that might’ve been a hindrance for them to making it big. This article from The Grid points out that perhaps the key that a foreign director could thrive in Hollywood is versatility. It stated that “…[John] 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.” The writer Martin Morrow astutely compared Woo’s career to Ang Lee’s impeccable versatility.

AngLeeJohnWoo
Ang Lee and John Woo

I saw Lee’s Taiwanese film The Wedding Banquet before I saw the Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility, and he’s been genre-jumping ever since with The Ice Storm, Marvel superhero Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and going back to his roots in creating the martial-arts fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the highly risque NC-17 sexual thriller Lust, Caution. The article quoted an interview with NPR where he said, “I was afraid that if I stayed in one place doing [the] same type of movies, I’d be pigeonholed.. and I would have a very limited career.” Of course the road to success did not come easy for Lee either, as veteran Chinese-born actress Lisa Lu — who knew Lee from his days as a film student in NYU in early 1980s — revealed in this Voice of America article, “He asked me to see his thesis film, and when I looked at the film, I knew he was very talented,” Lu said. “So from there on, we became very good friends, and I tried to introduce him to everybody, but the timing was too early. At that time nobody wanted anything Chinese.”

Going back to Park, currently he seems to be associated with cerebral, violent thrillers, even though he did a Korean sci-fi rom-com I’m A Cyborg but that’s OK, but I don’t know how many western audiences are familiar with that one. Ted gave me a script review of an ultra-violent Western that supposedly Park was attached to direct, I’ll post that later this month, but that gives you a hint that Park might also be capable at genre-jumping. I’m curious whether Park could make the leap the way Ang Lee did and perhaps even make it to the awards circle.

I certainly would like to see more foreign directors not just make it but thrive in Hollywood. I mean, since Hollywood is notorious for ripping off Asian and European cinema anyway, why not make room for their filmmakers to do well here?


So what do you think? Curious to hear your thoughts on this one, folks. While you’re at it, who’s your favorite Asian director(s)?