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.

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)?

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

  1. Isn’t it weird the way that works? The vast majority of foreign cinema never makes it big over here? Is it a style issue? Is it lazy audiences and the stigma against subtitles? I don’t know. But if you notice, Hollywood would much rather remake a great foreign film than support a great foreign film over here.

    Take “The Intouchables” for example. It’s an incredible movie that did get a little traction over here but nothing big. Well Harvey Weinstein has bought the rights to it and is supposedly set to produce a remake. The movie doesn’t need a remake! Promote the original! But such are the inner-workings of Hollywood.

    1. Exactly Keith!! I know there are a slew of foreign films being remade nowadays that did little to improve to original, if anything most of them are much worse! It’s too bad that it’s such an elite club in Hollywood, I probably think that’s the major issue, I should’ve mentioned that in my article! 😀

      1. Good point. There’s a lot of camaraderie within the power structure of Hollywood. At least it would seem that way. Anyway, I appreciate your article because it helps expose it.

        1. Indeed there is, I guess there must be one in every industry. That’s why I admire Lee as he seems to be able to thrive without being in the elite club, at least I don’t think he is anyway. He seems *removed* from Hollywood somehow. THANKS for commenting Keith, and for starting the discussion 😀

  2. Fantastic piece Ruth. I think a lot of it is down to cultural differences across all sorts of things, from humour and spirituality to distribution rights and the way the countries are run. I’m sure you know but countries like China are so restrictive as to what they let in and out of the country, so I think it takes a much greater effort for an Asian director to get him or herself known.

    1. Thanks Terry. I think cultural difference is one factor, but I feel that perhaps it’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. The way things are run in Hollywood I think have more of an impact on who could make it and who couldn’t as far as filmmakers go. True, some countries are restrictive but those who have made their way here and even those who live in the US still can’t *get through* so to speak, and we’re talking about filmmakers who have a proven track record in other parts of the world.

      1. Back to Terry now, are we? 😉
        You do make a good point, Hollywood does have a say as to who does what. Some people can make amazing films but never get a look in, whereas you get so much dross churned out in Hollywood. If it ain’t gonna make a big studio some money, there’s a good chance it won’t get made, and studios rarely take a chance on unknown talent unfortunately.

        1. Oh I’m so sorry!! My brain stopped working at the end of the day. I did call you Chris on Twitter, ahah.

          I think what Soderbergh said about one of the reasons he’s retiring is this rigid system, so I can’t imagine how foreign directors feel about that. Yeah, in an industry obsessed about the bottom line, I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. That’s why it’s astounding how someone who’s sort of an ‘outsider’ like Ang Lee could make it. I just hope it’s not just a once-in-a-blue-moon type of a deal.

          1. Haha no worries Ruth.
            Soderbergh has made some big films and has won an Oscar and he still finds it a very restrictive industry. So, like you say, for ‘outsiders’ it must be nigh on impossible. I think it’ll always be saturated by western directors but hopefully there will always be smaller studios who actually care about filmmakers who will support others. It just means you have to look a little harder to source stuff.

  3. It’s funny because I’ve always been an advocate for foreign films and yet Asian cinema was the one I was always skeptical about. I just never really could get myself into it, and then I found that Asian cinema has, over the years, become like Cary Grant to me. Cary Grant was one of those actors I claimed to never ‘get’ and yet I’d see a movie of his and really love him in it and start off discussions about his career with “I just don’t really ‘get’ him but he was great in ‘North by Northwest'” and then it turned into “I just don’t really ‘get’ him but he was great in ‘North by Northwest’ and I loved him in ‘Bringing Up Baby'” and it wasn’t long before I realized that I totally GOT Cary Grant and freaking love him. Same with Asian cinema. Over time I realized that I like almost all that I see.

    With that said: get your hands on everything Wong Kar Wai Right now!

    1. Hi Andrew! Ahah that’s interesting, I feel like I didn’t *get* Cary Grant either but I have seen a lot of his films. I adore An Affair to Remember and NBN. Bringing Up Baby is cute though I was more enamored by the baby leopard 😀

      I’m Asian but I feel like I don’t get some Asian films, ahah. I do want to see Wong Kar Wai’s films, the two I’ve mentioned and Blueberry Nights, too!

  4. Great post Ruth. I too think more room should be made for Asian director’s. Like you say, they’re providing enough quality material for america to remake. Ang Lee is one if the few who has fully established himself though. John Woo had a good run but we rarely see him anymore. I wonder if their creative approach can sometimes get lost in the western style, though. Woo certainly did. He started well but his film’s became progressively poorer.

    1. Thanks Mark. I think foreign auteurs in general are good for Hollywood as they seem to bring more originality. I specifically narrow the focus down to Asian directors just for an argument’s sake. I don’t know if Woo’s downward career is his own doing or because of the limited creativity like what Ted mentioned below in his comment. I want to see his film Red Cliff that wasn’t done in Hollywood. I actually like his style, it may be somewhat cheesy with the doves and what not, but it works! I love Face/Off, one of my fave action flicks! 😀

  5. I didn’t know that about Jackie Chan; I’ll have to start looking for his older films. I’m a little surprised you haven’t watched one Kurosawa film, but first of all, they’re not all samurai films, some of his best ones aren’t, and many of them are remakes of western literature. “High and Low”, for instance, I just watched that one recently is a modern-day film noir that was based on an Ed McBain novel, “Rhapsody in August”, is another one, anybody, I wouldn’t characterize Kurosawa with Samurai films. Yeah, as to Asain filmmakers, yeah, Ang Lee is probably my favorite (Although I think you’re wrong on “Sense and Sensability”), but-eh, I guess to through a name or two out there that you aren’t familiar with, Kim Ki-Duk, from South Korea, makes some bizarre and very intriguing films across all genres. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”, and “3-Iron”, which is one of the most unusual fun movies I’ve ever seen, most silent that film, there’s maybe 300 words of dialogue in that one. I didn’t care for “The Isle”, but a lot of people like that one too. I’ve also been getting into Hiroshi Teshigahara’s films lately, like “Woman in the Dunes”, and “Pitfall”. You didn’t mention Ozu, have you seen his films yet? “Floating Weeds” is my favorite, although most people prefer “Tokyo Story”. A lot of the Asia Extreme directors as well of course.

    1. I think Chan as director is not commonly known. I personally have not seen a single one of his film he directed.

      Yeah, I’m surprised myself that I haven’t seen any Kurosawa film too, as I’m sure my brother probably owned some of the VHS tapes! Well I might check out his non-Samurai films, a modern-day film noir sounds good, David 😀

      Um, what do you mean I’m wrong on Sense & Sensibility?? I only mentioned that it’s a Jane Austen adaptation and it was.

        1. Oh no, I think everyone has a different opinion on what’s Lee’s best work. That film just happens to be my favorite as I like period dramas, of course his direction plays major factor. It’s amazing how he could tackle so many different genres so skillfully.

  6. Really informative post, Ruth. I had no idea about Jackie Chan. The only Asian director I’m remotely familiar with is John Woo, through the movies he did with Chow Yun-Fat, and I think nearly all of those were remade in the U.S…someone else here can probably say for sure. The action sequences they did are amazing…I really don’t know why they haven’t made a ton of movies in Hollywood. Chow did make a couple of movies here that I thought were pretty darn good…THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS and THE CORRUPTOR…and then…?

    1. Yeah, Mr Chan is highly versatile and amazingly talented. He’s also a classically-trained Opera singer! He’s so humble though you’d never know it, but he’s probably a thousand times more talented than a lot of celebs here in the US. Oh I really should watch those Woo films w/ Chow Yun-Fat. I like action flicks and Yun-Fat is a great actor. Good one, Paula!

      1. Wow…that is amazing! I always knew he did his own stunts but, just wow. And yes, very humble. I think you will enjoy them Ruth, they get a little violent but I really liked THE KILLER, HARDBOILED, A BETTER TOMORROW 🙂

    2. Ted S.

      Hey Paula, none of Woo’s older films that starred Yun-Fat have been remake here in the States, well not yet anyway. But a lot of them have been copied by many action films within the last ten years or so. A few years ago there were talks of remaking The Killer with Woo as the director again, I thought that was a bad idea, glad it never happened.

      As for Chow Yun-Fat, Hollywood actually tried to make him into a leading man here, he starred in those two films you mentioned and also the big budget remake of The King and I, Anna and The King. Unfortunately all those films tanked because he has what I call a Gérard Depardieu’s curse. What that means is that he looks too Asian and I assume many western audiences aren’t use to see someone like that on the big screen. Just like Depardieu was too French looking, remember Hollywood tried to make him into a leading man here? He starred in a lot of American films in the early 90s, including Ridley Scott’s big budget Christopher Columbus film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

      1. Thanks for this info, Ted. I agree….remaking THE KILLER is a lousy idea. I guess that explains why it feels like those all were remade…they got ripped off 🙂 While I personally think Chow Yun-Fat is a fine-looking man (more so than Depardieu), I see what you’re saying…the US can be a lot different market as far as who becomes popular & who doesn’t.

  7. They just shouldn’t make the movie to the west I guess, most of them make awesome movies in their home countries. It’s just a loss for people who don’t watch those.

    1. No, I don’t think they should be hired simply to remake their own films for western audiences. I’d rather Hollywood give them a chance to create fresh works as the creativity well has long run dry in Tinseltown 😀

  8. Ted S.

    I thought 13 Assassins would be a descent hit here in the States and it would launch the career of Takashi Miike in Hollywood. But unfortunately the film didn’t do that well here and Miike is still unknown to most movie fans in this side of the world. Now I don’t know if Miike would want to do any Hollywood films though, most of his films were quite intense and I know the Hollywood system won’t let him make that kind of style.

    The politics of Hollywood tends to turn off these foreign directors so I’m not surprised most of them don’t make it here. When John Woo turned in the first cut of his first American film, Hard Target, he didn’t know about the rating system. So the studio folks told him to tone down the violence and cut the film to less than 2 hours. That lack of freedom tends to turn off a lot of filmmakers, especially the ones who are new to Hollywood.

    1. Oh I didn’t realize 13 Assassins was made by a Japanese director. Yeah well, Hollywood might’ve turned him off for good then.

      I think you’ve got a valid point there Ted, the word ‘politics’ fits perfectly here. It’s like office politics, I have no clue about any of that and that’s why I’ll always just be a minion, ahah. So yeah, that’s too bad about Woo, I like him as a director.

  9. I just want to say i did not think you would be seeing Stoker before i did. I am going to try to see it this weekend at my local indie theater of mine,but i’m still a bit jealous 😉

    And i think hollywood just has a hard time giving opportuntiies to non white male fimmakers,whether they are american or foreign. And i imagine hollywoods love affair with remaking foreign fims probably makes it even harder for a foreign director to make a hollywood studio think they are worth backing.

    And i think you should give some of Akiras work a look at some point. They are more focused on the characters than the action

    1. It helps to get press screenings 😀 It’s more of a Mia & Matthew’s film I think, Nicole’s more of a supporting cast member but she was very good. Everyone’s just sooo creepy in this film!

      Yeah, I guess Hollywood is comfortable with ripping off their work but not actually working with the filmmakers, ahah. Yeah, I think I will check out Akira’s work, though I’m more intrigued by Wong Kar Wai’s films.

  10. Interesting point, not sure why but to be honest there isn’t much diversity in Hollywood. Very few women as well. Must be 90% white men as directors in Hollywood. I think it is getting better but slowly 😀

    1. Yep, it’s very true! I mean just look at who made up the Academy members! I do hope it’s getting better, I mean it’s got nowhere to go but up surely.

  11. Wonderful and thoughtful piece, Ruth. And I think you’ve touched upon something that throws more light on a dirty little, but glaring, secret. That Hollywood remains an exclusive club. Oh, sure. They’ll point to a set of minority directors to show how open, how progressive the Hollywood community really is. Ang Lee’s second director’s award being prime. Still, it’s more the exception that proves the rule.

    As others here have pointed out, Asia more and more is where Hollywood has been pulling their ideas from for more than a few years now. And doing remakes from (‘The Departed’, anyone?). Forget promoting the original work, though. Some of that is changing, slowly. Back in the 60s, Japanese directors gathered steam with Hollywood, but it rarely produced any being invited over here to helm one of their productions.

    Great to see the likes of Park making the in-roads this global art demands. Talent shouldn’t be held back.

    1. Thanks Michael! It’s so true isn’t it about the ultra exclusive AND elusive club. You’re right Lee’s second directorial award is still an exception, just like having a person of color as our president is perhaps still not the norm either, not by a long shot.

      Oh yeah, I forgot The Departed was a remake of Infernal Affairs right? There are countless others of course. So I guess we haven’t really come a long way from the 60s, but I’m hoping there’s a steady, albeit very s-l-o-w progress in this regard. Yeah, Park is certainly a very talented filmmaker. I’ll be writing my review of Stoker this weekend 😀

  12. Nice post. You’ve got to see some Akira Kurosawa films, he’s one of my favorite directors. The Hollywood elite tends to be made up of old white men and hopefully one day it will become more diverse.

  13. I didn’t realize that Sense & Sensibility is Ang Lee’s work. I think you’ve just making me want to see more of Ang Lee’s work. I haven’t seen Akira Kurosawa’s work but I’ve been meaning to. I love Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love. Shocking about Jackie Chan! I didn’t realize he’s directed 18 films!
    I think there’s something odd though with Ang Lee’s not winning Best Picture in this year’s Oscar, since he’s won Best Director. But I don’t follow Oscar’s tendencies too much, perhaps Argo is a better fit.
    Nice topic, Ruth. This is a question that I have in mind too after knowing Ang Lee didn’t won Best Picture for Brokeback Mountain.

    1. Oh yeah indeed it was Andina. Emma Thompson wrote the Oscar-winning script so no wonder it was such a masterpiece. I really need to see In The Mood for Love, I’ve been hearing tons of great things about it. I didn’t mind Life of Pi winning but I was rooting for ARGO. Yeah, he won Best Director but Brokeback didn’t win either.

  14. Now that I think about it, you are right – not many of them work in Hollywood. I think it’s the matter of the stuff they do – most of those revered directors do small movies, quite uncompromising too. They come to American to have their debut in different market and it’s usually a box office flop – I haven’t checked the numbers for Stoker but I’m sure it’s not killing.

    Shame, but on the other hand I think Park is fine where he is – he has respect and enough freedom to show what he wants to show in his movies there. Lee is a bit of a different director – he does a lot of different stuff, he is a skilled creator but unlike Park he doesn’t have such vivid identity in his films.

    1. Yeah, most foreign filmmakers barely have even half of what most Hollywood people spend, but yet their films are much more compelling. Here they seem to be pressured to perform well financially. I think Stoker had a budget of $12 mil which is ginormous compared to Park’s other films. I do hope it makes up the amount so Park continues to get work here.

      It’s true about the vivid identity of Lee’s films, similar to William Wyler, the classic director who did Ben-Hur and Roman Holiday, and a bunch of other genres. I don’t think that should be a *fault* though, I mean that proves they’re very versatile.

      1. Oh no that’s not a fault at all, in fact I think it makes easier for Lee to get so many projects, Park kinda has his very own niche.

  15. I would argue that someone like Justin Lin (Fast Five) is doing pretty good for himself. But you are right, Hollywood is pretty obsessed with remaking successful foreign movies and yet, very few foreign directors (of all origins really except English-speaking countries) are able to make the move here. I think the language barrier is pretty huge, just think of you moving right now to Russia or China, it would very hard to work any job there. And also more or less of a cultural barrier, as stated in your post, comedy doesn’t translate well across cultures or even across countries.

    1. The language barrier is certainly a factor, but that doesn’t explain why those that can perfectly speak English well still don’t make it here. I’d there many of them have no problem with the English language, but it’s still hard for them to even get work here.

  16. Maybe the third time will be the charm! My post keeps getting deleted. Hate when that happens.

    I have been thinking about this topic for a minute since I had first read your piece a few days ago.

    From my perspective I definitely think the sensibilities that are associated with the differing cultures has a key role to play in what you are discussing. While I am not an expert on the whole array of Asian films, I suspect that ideas similar to what I am about to mention hold true. I just have not had a deep enough convo on films from Korea, China and the like.

    My primary focus is on the horror genre and how successful Japanese films such as The Grudge, The Ring and Dark Water have been translated through a Hollywood lens. A friend of the family whose mom is Japanese explained something that I found quite enlightening – while these original films are able to evoke visceral responses (screams and jumps) that are familiar to (chiefly) American audiences, they also operate on a metaphysical (I hope that is the right word) level that incorporates a level of spiritually (rooted in the Shinto faith), something that we are not overly familiar with. So in order to have a fully-fleshed out response to these films a better understanding of the thought behind it would help greatly.

  17. I’ve no idea why there isn’t more diversity in Hollywood. It’s not like foreign directors need to necessarily make big budget films. They can always go the indie route, but that wouldn’t be adequate for every filmmaker.

    Akira Kurosawa would probably be my favorite Asian director, but I need to see more of his work.

    1. That’s exactly it, Josh. I mean there are so many variety of projects they could be a part of. In fact, smaller films are perhaps more suitable for them anyway, as there’d be less studio meddling.

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