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Korean Films Set to Invade America in 2006

2005/07/14 | 566 views | Permalink | Source

But will American audiences be satisfied with adaptations?

Jason Hahn (woowhee)

When Bruce Lee first fought on the silver screen in the 1970s, Chinese martial arts movies made their mark on America. They continue to inspire today, with recent films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Hero", and "House of Flying Daggers". Japanese films have made their impression in the U.S. as well, particularly with their horror films that have recently been rapidly remade in Hollywood, such as "The Ring", "The Grudge" and "Dark Water".

All of this seems to point to one major Asian country's absence from the American scene, and leaves us with a big question: why haven't Korean movies made their big splash across the Pacific yet?

If you can't name one Korean movie off the top of your head, you are not alone. But that's about to change, because Korean movies are on the verge of a major breakthrough in America.

Most recently, the Korean War film "Taegukgi" ("The Brotherhood of War") won much acclaim in America and was said to be a contender for an Academy Awards nomination last year for Best Foreign Film. Though this poignant film about two brothers forced into battle and their heartbreaking relationship during the Korean War won critical praise, it was only given a very limited release across the U.S.

One thing that was significant about "Taegukgi"'s release was that it was not remade in Hollywood and was played with subtitles. Though leaving the foreign film unaltered in its American release is a common practice with Chinese martial arts films, for various reasons Hollywood studios are deciding not to follow this pattern and are electing to instead buy the rights to various Korean films and remake them.

There is a growing list of Korean movies that are in the works to be adapted into American versions. Warner Bros. has the rights to "Il Mare" and "Marrying the Mafia", DreamWorks will remake "My Sassy Girl" and "A Tale of Two Sisters", Miramax/Dimension will reproduce "My Wife is a Gangster" and "My Teacher, Mr. Kim", and Universal will adapt the recently lauded "Old Boy". These are among some of the Korean films being brought overseas to America by Hollywood.

But why is Hollywood choosing to transform these films instead of releasing them as they are?

There are two main reasons:

The first is simply that American audiences are notorious for being somewhat "lazy" and do not enjoy watching a film while having to read text at the bottom of the screen.

The second is that Hollywood fears that the cultural idiosyncrasies of the films will alienate American audiences.

This is why such motion pictures as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "A Beautiful Life", and "Amelie" were so surprising. Apparently they had enough buzz and allure to draw audiences in the states that were willing to read a little and experience some unfamiliar culture.

Is it the right move for Hollywood to adapt these films from Korean into English versions? There are valid arguments for both sides of this question.

"Il Mare" is a film about a woman and a man who live in the same house and find a way to communicate through a mailbox that allows them to exchange letters. The twist is that they live two years apart from each other. Eventually the two characters fall in love with each other and find themselves in a dire conflict. Though the plot may sound a bit farfetched, director Lee Hyun-seung and writer Yeo Ji-na make it work seamlessly and end the movie with a breathtaking stroke of ingenuity.

Warner Bros. is making an English version of the film that is slated to premier in 2006 and will star Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as the romantic leads. In the case of "Il Mare", it seems feasible that an adapted version of the film can work just as well as the original Korean version, though the original version would be just as good because of the absence of much Korean culture in the movie. Remaking this into an English version with two big stars will surely draw a bigger audience, which is Hollywood's primary goal.

However, in the case of "My Sassy Girl", the logic is less clear. "My Sassy Girl" is a romantic-comedy about a boy who has a chance meeting with a heartbroken, domineering, and puzzling girl who ends up capturing his heart no matter how hard he tries to tear himself from her. It started as an online journal/story and was eventually picked up by the director and writer of the movie, kwak Jae-Yong.

This film was a major hit in 2001 and has since gathered a small cult following in America. The overwhelming success of this film is mainly attributed to its two stars, the male lead with boyish charm, Cha Tae-hyun, and the incomparably beautiful, talented and energetic Jun Ji-hyun (who also stars in "Il Mare"), who steals the show with her keen ability to effortlessly play a character that wavers on the brink of insanity and charm.

The major concern about this movie being remade is whether or not there are stars in Hollywood that can play their roles as perfectly as Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun did and whether or not the comedy (that sometimes has a slightly Korean flavor, though it does not alienate foreign viewers) in the film will translate well in an English version.

The writers will most likely have to alter some of the jokes and funny scenes to fit better with the English interpretation, which is a bit unsettling because tweaking a successful formula rarely works well. Dreamworks has selected Gurinder Chadha ("Bend It Like Beckham") as the director of the new version, but the actors remain unnamed. Many fans of the original doubt that either of these things will be achieved, but the final results will have to wait until its approximate 2006 release date.

Of course, there can only be one path taken with each film and there is not much use in looking back on decisions already made. Besides, if American audiences are not satisfied with the English adaptations of the Korean films, they can easily rent or buy subtitled versions on their own to see how they were meant to be.

It would be nice to see a daring studio choose one of these Korean movies that it believes could succeed in its original form and market it strongly to Americans. "Old Boy" and "Taegukgi" were given a chance in American theaters (though in very limited capacity, playing at 28 and 34 theaters respectively) but without a strong backing by studios.

Nevertheless, they were met with many positive reviews and buzz. "Old Boy" in particular has already won the favor of many Americans including Quentin Tarantino, and has generated buzz ever since its presence at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix award and has given director Park Chan-wook greater fame outside of Korea. With great risks come great rewards, and it would be wonderful to see at least one studio that would pursue the riskier path of pushing an original Korean film in the U.S. in hopes of matching, if not surpassing, the success that many subtitled Chinese films have had here.

The great advantage of Korean flicks is that they are so varied in their genres, and in fact bend and mix genres, making it difficult to categorize them prematurely as a whole -- like Chinese and Japanese films often are. Though romance is the foundation of a slight majority of Korean cinema, it is usually accompanied by comedy, drama, or even action, and there are plenty of films that do away with romance altogether. It seems that the Korean films most embraced by foreigners so far include a healthy mix of such a variety of styles that the possibility of a hasty branding of Korean cinema as a whole seems slim.

It's inevitable that some of the adapted Korean movies will flourish and that others will flop, but it's good to know that Korean cinema will soon get its share of the spotlight in America, even if they will be in different guises. Here's to hoping that sooner or later a Korean film will make a big impact on American soil in its original form.

Ready or not, the first batch of many Korean motion pictures are set to invade the U.S. in a major way beginning in 2006, and it will be exciting to see the results.

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