Part 1 of this series, featuring prejudicial Asian representations in Hollywood and the rise of the chanbara, kung fu and ‘gun-fu’ genres, can be read here.
Spiriting audiences away
- Akira, the premium cyberpunk anime, today enjoys iconic status worldwide. Video: YouTube
Japan’s TV and film anime (Japanese for “animation”) became established as a format in the 1960s, based on the firm creative foundation of a vast manga (comics) industry that covers everything from science fiction to pornography. Animes rose to global prominence in the 1980s – appropriately enough, the decade in which many Americans feared Japan was threatening the US position as the global number one economy.
In 1988, two very different animes hit global screens. One was Akira, a pacey and violent cyberpunk thriller. The other was Grave of the Fireflies, a haunting tragedy about two orphaned children in wartime Kobe. Both were superb works. Akira is today considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever; Fireflies one of the greatest war films.
- Stand by for the greatest war film you have never heard of – the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies. Video: YouTube
The latter was made by a collective of master animators, founded in 1985. Studio Ghibli would go on producing some of the most iconic anime ever, with its specialty being whimsical fantasies, set in dreamlike landscapes that are difficult to place, either geographically or historically. My Neighbor Totoro (1988), about two little girls’ interactions with Japanese forest spirits was – remarkably – released on the same bill in the US as Fireflies. Its eponymous (friendly) monster became a global icon.
Other standout fantasies from the collective included Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001) – Ghibli’s most financially successful film – and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). These films’ unforced cuteness appealed to children, their exquisite artistic creativity to adults.
They also had a special visual appeal to non-Asians. Many animes feature racially androgynous characters with huge eyes and blond or brown hair. “There was a move in the industry to consider anime and manga not just for domestic consumption but also for overseas appeal,” said Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, an Asia film expert at the University of Hong Kong. “So, in a way, they are whitewashing their own products!”
In a sign of the rising power of Asian cinema, Studio Ghibli jealously guarded creative control, insisting its films be carefully dubbed and not cut in global markets. When Princess Mononoke was being distributed in the US, Ghibli sent Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein a samurai sword with a message: “No cuts!”
- My Neighbor Totoro introduced global audiences to the dreamlike fantasies that would become Studio Ghibli’s trademark. Video: YouTube
From art house to cineplex
Meanwhile, Asian breakout cinema had to encompass mainland China. Mao Zedong himself had been a secret fan of Bruce Lee, but under his rule, Chinese film-making had ossified. After his death, the tribulations of 20th century Chinese history – the fall of the Qing, Japanese invasion, civil war and the Cultural Revolution would become backdrops for a group of directors who would win critical kudos at European film awards and transfix art-house audiences in the US. The two most famed were Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.
- Fear and loathing in a Chinese manse: Raise the Red Lantern. Video: YouTube
Chen’s Yellow Earth (1984) was set in rural China during the war, and was noted for its non-propagandist treatment of Communist troops. Zhang’s Red Sorghum (1988) tells the story of a wartime village, its distillery, and its destruction, and introduced Chinese actress Gong Li to the world. His Raise the Red Lantern (1991), another Li vehicle, was a sumptuously shot tragedy about a warlord’s concubine in the 1920s. Chen’s Farewell my Concubine (1993) told the story of a long-term love affair within a Chinese opera troupe with Li starring yet again.
In 2000 Asian cinema’s breakthrough moment in the US came. And it came via the most quintessentially Asian film possible.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was all-Asian – in cast, setting, theme and aesthetics. Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s movie starred Hong Kong action stalwarts Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh and introduced global filmgoers to Beijing-born actress Zhang Ziyi. It was based on a wuxia novel, a Chinese literary genre combining martial arts and fantastical elements – most especially the wire-work that kung fu film borrowed from it – in a semi-historic setting.
Its perfection in film-making earned critical kudos – including four Oscars. But it also earned big box-office bucks: An Asian film was finally watched by Americans in air-conditioned cineplexes, rather than by cult viewers in specialized cinemas and high-brow audiences in art house theaters.
- Ang Lee’s masterpiece of wuxia theater, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, shifted Asian film from the art house to the cineplex. Video: YouTube
Eastern gifts to Western film
Hollywood, the mightiest soft-culture industry on earth, has drenched the world, including Asia, with its products, people, influences and trends. However, traffic has not been entirely one way.
Asian cinema has given the English language a wealth of new words – kung fu, ninja, wuxia, anime – all representing specific Asian genres. The success of prevalently genre-based Asian films has caused issues for some actors and auteurs.
Type-casting is one. “The West has, until lately, been fixated on Asia costume dramas almost as a type of fetish,” Frances Gateward, an expert on Asia film at California State University told Asia Times. “People remember [Akira] Kurosawa not for his films set in contemporary times, but for his samurai films. Similarly, Zhang’s contemporary films received little to no attention.”
Even Bruce Lee’s creation of a new and powerfully positive image for Asians in Hollywood generated a new cliche. “Bruce represented an important shift in Asian maleness,” said Michael Hurt, Social Science Korea research professor at the Center for Glocal Culture and Social Empathy at the University of Seoul. “But then you get a new stereotype: ‘Every Asian knows kung fu or karate.’”
Regardless, Asian genres have had considerable influence on Hollywood.
Western filmmakers have widely embraced eastern martial arts in both direction and choreography. The common chanbara trope of the hero frozen in a martial pose after terminating a villain – who may stand poised for seconds before collapsing from the death blow – has been widely copied in Hollywood action and superhero films.
- Fastest draw in the East? The famous duel in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro gave global cinema the “frozen-in-action” trope that has been endlessly copied. Video:YouTube
When it comes to film fights, the old “sock ‘em on the jaw” is long dead: Both the varied combat techniques of kung fu movies, and their fluid choreography, has been endlessly borrowed. Likewise, Hollywood action has been informed by the “heroic bloodshed” genre of intricately choreographed running gunfights, slow-motion action, doubled-handed gunplay and the tense gun-to-gun face-off.
Some Hollywood films, such as The Matrix series (1999-2003), built their action entirely around Asian stylizations – and indeed, the science fiction genre has borrowed heavily from Asia. The look/production design of cyberpunk animes has been replicated in US films, notably Blade Runner (1982). However, Asian cinema’s greatest influence has been on the biggest science fiction film, and the most successful Hollywood franchise, of all time.
“When you talk about Kurosawa, you have to talk about Star Wars ,” said Hurt. “George Lucas has made no bones about where he got his ideas from Darth Vader has a samurai helmet, the Jedi lightsaber duels are samurai fights and even the robots, C3PO and R2D2, came from a specific Kurosawa movie.”
- Samurai in space? You better believe it! Lightsaber versus lightsaber in Star Wars. Video: YouTube
Beyond genre: The rise of Hallyuwood
The next wuxia to go global after 2000’s Crouching Tiger was Zhang’s Hero (2002), starring mainland kung fu sensation Jet Li. But by then, Asian cinema had moved beyond the genre picture.
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai won international plaudits and multiple European awards for his cinematic wizardry in romantic dramas like Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Japanese film, meanwhile, had won global eyes for horror movies such as The Ring (1998) and The Grudge (2004).
- The Ring showed that Japanese horror could compete with the best of Hollywood. Video: YouTube
Still, the main players behind the Asian non-genre film hailed from a newly emergent cinematic powerhouse.
Japanese film had won US attention in the 1950s, Hong Kong film in the 1970s and mainland Chinese in the late 1980s. At the tail end of the 1990s, it was the turn of South Korea. A confluence of factors drove the trend known – in a term coined by a Chinese reporter – as Hallyu (“The Korean Wave”).
One was democratization. After authoritarian rule ended in 1987, censorship was lifted, expanding artistic horizons. Moreover, Koreans, previously unable to receive passports, were allowed to travel abroad in 1991, enabling would-be auteurs to study film-making overseas. In 1997, the Asian financial crisis collapsed much of the old entertainment industry infrastructure, opening a space for new companies and new talent. And in the late 1990s, cable TV and the Internet came online across the region. These trends created new distribution channels and new demands for content.
Hallyu surfed these waves with K-drama, K-pop, K-gaming and K-film.
The highest-profile were K-drama and K-pop. In their own ways, both are as formulaic as a Shaw Brothers kung fu film. What distinguishes them is their craftsmanship and professionalism.
K-film benefits from the same assets – and is also similarly international. Not only is K-film a non-Asian genre in its subject matter, but it is also global in its technique, thanks to Koreans’ long fascination with foreign film.
“The directors who are influential now, their influences were really international: When they were younger, they watched films from all over the world,” said Darcy Paquet, a Seoul-based academic and film reviewer who subtitled current mega-hit Parasite. “You don’t have a strong local influence on contemporary filmmakers.”
Hallyuwood has generated corking thrillers, such as 1999’s North-South espionage actioner Shiri (widely seen as the first of Korea’s new wave movies), horror films, such as zombie hit Train to Busan (2016), and creative comedies such as My Sassy Girl (2001).
- On track for mayhem: Train to Busan. Video: YouTube
However, unlike the safe and sugary K-pop and K-drama, K-film is often dark, edgy, challenging and difficult to categorize. Three major writer-directors would rise to global prominence: Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho.
- The Isle blends gorgeous film making with difficult-to-forget scenes of brutality. Video: YouTube
Many of Kim’s films, such as The Isle (2000) and Pieta (2013) deal with sadism and misogyny – even his gorgeous-to-look-at Buddhist parable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) centers around a wife-murdering monk. (Life may be imitating art: Kim himself has recently faced allegations of abuse of actresses.)
Park produced the tense North-South thriller JSA (2000) and stylishly shot, uber-violent revenge dramas like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003). The latter, with its brilliant premise of a man being locked up for years by unknown people for unknown reasons, earned endless praise from Quentin Tarantino and introduced the world to one of the most memorable faces in Asian cinema – that of actor Choi Min-sik.
- Vengeance will be mine: Oldboy. Video: YouTube
Though he is a genre-bender whose work is multidimensional and hard to nail down, Bong’s works are arguably the most accessible of the three. His breakthrough film was the unsolved crime drama/social critique Memories of Murder (2003), which he followed with the monster movie/family drama/black comedy, The Host (2006).
Following two Hollywood diversions, Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) Bong returned to home turf and hit the global critical jackpot with the black comedy Parasite (2019).
The film is inhabited by two classes of people: super-rich and super poor. The angst-ridden middle class – once hopeful of getting rich, now fearful of plummeting into poverty – are absent. This makes the film – which also benefits from Bong’s best-of-breed cinematic craftsmanship and talented cast, notably his favorite actor, Song Kang-ho – truly global in theme.
- There is something in the river…and it is not Godzilla. Bong Joon-ho’s masterly monster movie, The Host. Video: YouTube.
Part 3 of this series, covering ongoing issues facing Asian films, actors and auteurs in Hollywood; remakes and whitewashing; the factors of dubbing and subtitling; the rise of digital distribution; and the probability of a better future, can be read here.