This year marks the English language debut of three exciting, distinctly different South Korean filmmakers: Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil).
Kim's debut The Last Stand has already come and gone, fizzling at the box office despite the pumped up return of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last action hero. For me, The Last Stand was a fantastic action film that didn't find an audience (although programmers probably thought that the audience wouldn't need to be found, as this was Schwarzenegger's first top-lined film since 2003's Terminator: Rise of the Machines).
Although primarily known primarily for A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil if you'd seen Kim's 2005 film, A Bittersweet Life, the machine gun American blasts of The Last Stand would make the film even more enjoyable; A Bittersweet Life is a comedic, violent revenge tale. It's comedic, at least to Western audiences, because most of the film concerns the protagonist's repeated attempts to find a handgun (which are outlawed in South Korea) to enact his revenge. For his English language debut Kim has machine guns, explosions, a disgraced former LAPD officer who's now a sleepy small town sheriff (Schwarzenegger) and Johnny Knoxville's shed of weapons, because, y'know, he's an American.
If more of us watched foreign films that weren't nominated for an Oscar, Kim's Last Stand might've already been elevated to a deserved status as a satire of America's need to awaken and honor their inner-manhood; much like Paul Verhoeven's American films of the '80s and '90s, an outsider's love of our film genres adds to the social critique -- it isn't mean-spirited, it's just bigger.
Park is known for brutal revenge films. Hell, he made a trilogy of revenge, with his most acclaimed, Oldboy, preceding Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
For his first Western film, Park has ditched the underground crime world in favor of a dark dollhouse tale. Going into the film, certain write-ups about the script (by Wentworth Miller, the lead actor of the TV series Prison Break) made me think that the third act reveal would be that the mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) was actually a vampire (this leap in assumption was perhaps aided by the ominous logline, current vampire en-voguness and, ahem, the name Bram Stoker). While it is nefarious and is structured and shot like some sort of ghost story, Stoker really is a girl's coming of age tale -- coming of age through witnessing violence.
As I originally thought that the plot was headed somewhere else, I won't reveal the major story points other than that India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of Nicole Kidman (restrained, but sexual), whose father has just died in an accident, and an uncle (Goode) that she and her mother never knew existed, shows up at the funeral and stays with them for far too long.
Wasikowska previously starred in the period pieces Jane Eyre, Lawless, Albert Nobbs and the fantasy Alice in Wonderland. In Stoker she dresses in Victorian attire, and is sucked into a dirtier rabbit hole, this one closer to Jan Svankmajer's Alice than Tim Burton's Wonderland; although she's mourning in the first half of the film, witnessing her mother's attraction to her uncle awakens a dormant defiance.
Like Kim did with The Last Stand, Park is taking a standard set-up (here a young woman's coming of age) and hyper-stylizing it and flipping it on its ear. Narration at the beginning sets this up with Wasikowska proclaiming, "to become an adult is to become free"; generally the coming of age film will show childhood as the only time of freedom, in Stoker adulthood is achieved through violently leaving behind childhood.
Stoker hits the coming of age tropes that we're used to: a proper virginal girl, who plays piano, who isn't understood at school, who gazes into her reflection and dresses differently than her peers, is disturbed by her mother's sexuality and potentially her own; but Park uses ornate decorations, dresses, draperies and music to seemingly place the family inside no time that we're living in, no place that we're living in and no world that we know.
There are certain absurdities that you either welcome as part of this world or you don't, such as a well-to-do family having family members buried in their massive estate underneath closely placed boulders representing either testicles or the balls of dung (indeed we do see beetles roll up perfectly constructed dung in one shot). I happily chuckled at the leaps in narrative, as they are applied without explanation, that's just the way it is and I appreciated the audacity; it's simple while still being outlandish, and it's mainstream while still being bizarre. For all its grand strokes (and this is very showy), Stoker is made better by the prolonged moments (such as when India spins around on a merry-go-round in the woods attempting to instigate a sexual encounter with a boy from school and she turns her head each time the wheel passes him to continue to speak to him, and thus looking like a flip-flopping wacko who doesn't know what she wants).
There are a lot of tricks that Park uses, and just when it seems to be too much, there's a scene in which it works beautifully. For instance, India tells us from the start of the film that she hears things much more distinctly than others; this seems to be an excuse for a sound installation for the rest of the film, as every secret discussion overheard is heightened, every blade of grass hums and egg shells crack like thunder. But when India hears Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood's duet, "Summer Wine," she tries to find which room they're in, and as the volume changes with each open and closed door, we know she'll discover a sight she doesn't want to see; the volume of the song dropping in and out works beautifully and although not in the forefront, the lyrics subversively tell the story: a new man comes into town, he thinks he's got a plan, but he's outdone by a woman. Pay close attention and you'll notice that Park-chan mostly just uses Hazelwood's verses in the duet when the doors open. Sinatra, the woman, is muted in the foreground -- until she acts.
Films like The Last Stand, and Stoker are a litmus test of international filmmakers; they are their first American films, and they use standard genre stories: the disgraced sheriff in a big time standoff in a small town, and a young woman who comes of age amongst grownup sexuality and brutality. Each filmmaker has taken their opportunity to pump up the story with invigorating camerawork and subversive deconstructions of popular genres. In Stoker the local bar in town is called Rockets, the bad boy rides a motorcycle, the good girl wears puritan clothes and the only hotel in town that isn't the Biltmore has one level and an operating phone booth. If it these things feel too archaic and familiar, then you don't believe that American pie is better when nuked.
The final South Korean filmmaker of 2013's hat trick is the one I am most looking forward to, Snowpiercer by Joon-ho Bong, a filmmaker who has already tackled a different genre with each of his movies: the procedural (Memories of Murder), the monster movie (The Host) and the family drama (Mother). Snowpiercer is a post-apocalyptic train ride with the only survivors on Earth. Snowpiercer is Bong's English language debut. If the third film is just as delectable as the first two from 2013, all three English language debuts from these South Korean filmmakers could be jockeying for end of the year notices.