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[Guest Post] Old Boy: How Korean Cinema has Begun to Influence Hollywood

2014/01/24 | 1945 views | Permalink

Mainstream Hollywood movie making is constantly reinventing itself. With influences ebbing and flowing, certain styles become apparent to the wider attention of the industry before being assimilated into the greater cinematic language of box office film making. Following a fairly familiar pattern, this cycle appears to have moved towards Korean cinema, and a growing influence is starting to become apparent. With Korean films and directors receiving wider distribution deals, being hired to direct American films and having their own films remade for an American audience, the Korean film industry's ability to affect and influence the wider world of cinema is increasing. Perhaps the most interesting manner in which to examine this growing influence is the parallel between the Korean film industry and the Blaxploitation cinema of the 1980s.

The Breakthrough Hit

Director Park Chan-wook is responsible for the most successful Korean film to emerge into the American market. The film, and its prequel and sequel, represent the closest a Korean made film (rather than a film about Korea) has come to entering into the mainstream of American culture. Winning the Grand Prix and being nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes would be a huge success for any film, that the jury was headed by Quentin Tarantino (the mouthpiece of American pop culture cinema) demonstrates an ability to cross over into the mainstream, unheard of for any previous example of Korean cinema. Roger Ebert, famed American film critic, praised the film in the Chicago Sun-Times and helped to popularize the film with a Western audience. "Old Boy", released in 2003, can be seen as the first film to really break through and impose itself on the critical consciousness of Western cinema.

Treading Familiar Ground

Ten years later, the film is geared for an American remake. This manner of appropriation and remodeling of external works is typical of the American mainstream film industry, especially for those films which are in a language other than English. An interesting comparison genre would be the Blaxploitation cinema of the late Twentieth century. Blaxploitation cinema was a niche genre which began to have a growing influence on the wider cultural discourse. Stars such as Pam Greer and Mario Von Peebles became much more widely known, and their works began to influence traditional cinema. Von Peebles most famous film, New Jack City, brought the problems of the crack epidemic to a wider audience, while many of the soundtracks featured musicians breaking into the charts, such as James Brown and many early hip-hop musicians. New Jack City was a success beyond the initially intended audience, receiving wider distribution and greater acclaim than anything the genre had previously come to expect. In a sense, the success of Korean cinema is beginning to have a similar effect on American cinema decades later.

Retelling the Story

Interestingly, the American remake of "Old Boy" is being directed by Spike Lee. The influence of Blaxploitation on Lee's directing style is evident, as is his desire ability to examine themes of race and identity which were a mainstay of the genre. Though cinematically different to earlier Blaxploitation films, the manner in which Lee is able to use language and discourse created and popularized by the genre and apply it to more mainstream and financially successful films shows a great degree of acceptance and understanding on behalf of a mainstream audience. That this is now the man to helm a reworking of one of Korean cinema's most successful films seems apt. The manner in which seminal Korean films are handled and interpreted on behalf of the American film industry could have a huge effect on their future popularity; that one of the most well-known and recognized pieces of Korean cinema is in the hands of Spike Lee will only help Korean films find a wider audience.

A Growing Influence

As successful and as revered as Korean cinema might be, it can be difficult to find a wider audience in the manner in which Hollywood productions are so successful. As such, the growing influence of Korean cinema, and its acceptance into the American cultural consciousness represents a step towards a wider influence on worldwide film production. The most recognizable and well known example of Korean cinema (at least among western cinema goers) is currently the subject of a remake, being helmed by a man whose influence comes from a similar appropriation of an external film market. The similarities between Blaxploitation and Korean cinema may be sparse, but the manner in which they enter into mainstream cinema can be considered analogous. As such, Korea's influence on populist cinema has begun and is in very capable hands. 

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