By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(May 2005) The other
day I was teaching my film class at Rhode Island College
when the discussion turned to the rise of Asian cinema
and its impact on current American work. “The
Grudge” came to mind, which was a recent popular
remake of the Japanese original. What made that film
unique was that the work was remade by its own creator/director.
I then started thinking about the impact of such masters
as Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa and how their influence
affected directors such as George Lucas and Francis
Ford Coppola. Indeed, the whole US film school generation
of the 1970s were influenced and found its way into
their work. Now, a new generation of Asian filmmaker
has surfaced who were influenced by the work of western
directors of Lucas’ generation. The effect is
very much that of a circle, opening and closing; evolving
and building upon itself.
The more I thought about the rise of Asian film, the
more I realized how little I actually knew. So I invited
my friend Matt Stanfield, a consultant to the Rhode
Island International Film Festival, to join me for a
film at the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge
and a discussion afterwards. Matt’s extensive
knowledge of film history has been a great resource
and I find that even the teacher can learn something
new. Besides, Matt has a passion which is rather contagious
and reminds me why I am in this business anyway.
GTM: Tell us what makes Asian cinema so special and
why more film buffs should be attentive.
Stanfield: In my opinion, much of what is coming
out in the US has become quite predictable. Granted,
there are some exceptions, but I feel that Imagination
has left the building, so to speak. I have always loved
to experience film from other countries and have spent
a great deal of time watching and studying films from
Germany, France and the UK.
However, in the mid-90's I began to take note of films
that were making their way to the US from Asia. I should
think it is crucial to note that the American film industry
has been noticing this as well. We have seen a number
of Asian films being remade for American audiences.
The results are interesting if you have an awareness
of the source material, but US filmmakers are usually
taking the most obvious aspects of those films and "dumbing"
them down because "they" feel that this is
what is needed to "sell" the films to us.
Take a look at any of Tarantino's films (particularly
RESERVOIR DOGS or KILL BILL I&II.) John Woo has
been feted to the US to bring his "magic"
to Tom Cruise and John Travolta "projects"
and in the past couple of years we've seen several horror
films be remade for US consumption.
Why waste time with "remakes" or "imitation"?
Go to the source.
I find that Asian filmmakers tend to have a bit more
respect for their audience. These films are challenging
and reflect cultures going through extreme changes both
sociological and political. Even the horror genre takes
on a depth that we seldom see in the US.
All that we need to do is get over our fear of subtitles!
Facing and dealing with that fear will lead you to some
great cinematic discoveries! I have hope. I think people
are becoming more interested in the world outside of
our own. And, Asian cinema has been enjoying a rise
in popularity over the course of the past several years.
GTM: What recent Asian films have really moved you.
Matt Stanfield: Oh, where to start?
I just had the pleasure of watching Masao Takeshita's
JUMP the other night. This 2003 Japanese film has yet
to find a US distributor but can be found on DVD via
the Internet. It’s a beautiful film about the
power of life choices. The film explores the impact
a young woman's decision to run away and start a new
life on the lives of those around her. In the process,
her abandoned boyfriend must re-evaluate the choices
he has made in his life. The film also calls into question
the role of "fate" and "chance"
in our lives. There are no clear answers offered which,
of course, is a major part of the beauty of this film.
I hope it finds its way to a larger audience.
About a year ago I stumbled upon a film by Korean director,
Chan-wook Park called OLDBOY. Quite simply this little
thriller was one of the best films I have ever seen.
And, I was the only person within my circle of friends
who had even heard of it. I have not experienced such
a rush of excitement watching a film unfold since I
was in my first year of college and saw David Lynch's
BLUE VELVET. I do not mean to imply that the two films
are at all connected, but to point out that this is
a significant film of extreme talent and brilliance.
And, I have never seen anything like it before! Choi
Min-Sik gives one of the finest performances I have
seen since Robert De Niro put on the boxing gloves for
RAGING BULL. Now, OLDBOY came out in 2003 and was a
huge hit in Korea --- and, I believe, most of Asia.
Despite everything, no US or UK distributor was willing
to touch it. It finally found its way to UK distribution
via DVD last month and will be opening in the US shortly.
Please note that the US and UK felt that approx 6 minutes
had to be cut. Still, this is a film that any true film
lover should not miss! By the way, get ready --- Taiwanese-American
film director, Justin Lin, is about to begin production
on the US remake for a 2006 release. I have to say that
I find Chan-Wook, along with Takashi Miike, to be the
most interesting of Asian film directors working. Chan-Wook's
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE is not to be missed. Yes,
it too can also be found on DVD.
A wonderful example of Korean satire was brought to
life by Kim Sang-Jin in ATTACK THE GAS STATION. A film
which, sadly, only received showings at a few film festivals
in the US and UK. However, it can be found on DVD and
is a must see! And, for a taste of excellent Korean
escapist humor, check out Jae-young Kwak's MY SASSY
GIRL. It is a real shame that this film didn't receive
a US release!
GTM: There seems a trend here with DVD release
rather than wide-release.
Matt Stanfield: Yes, funny isn’t it,
and rather telling.
The same is true for Pen-ek Ratanaruang's LAST LIFE
IN THE UNIVERSE. This is a film not quite like any other
you are likely to see and was just released to DVD in
the US by Palm. Highly recommend it! There is a lot
going on in this little film!
Then there is the incredibly gifted and challenging
Korean film director, Ki-duk Kim, who has made so many
interesting films in the past 5 years. In my opinion
the best being BAD GUY --- which I would describe as
a realistic version of what the horrible PRETTY WOMAN
should have been. A brutal film which explores the dark
underbelly of prostitution and the relationship between
a prostitute and a pimp. Later this season, American
will finally have a chance to see his most recent film,
3 IRON, which really defies description. All I can say
is that this is a sensual film. I believe Ki-duk Kim
is best known in the US for his 2003 movie, SPRING,
SUMMER, FALL, WINTER ...AND SPRING. Interestingly, I
find this to be his weakest film.
Although, he may turn out to be a "one hit wonder"
--- Jong-chan Yun directed one of the more arresting
psychological horror films I have ever seen. It is called
SORUM and can be found on DVD if one looks hard enough!
It was released in Korea and Asia in 2001, but didn't
find its way to us via DVD until 2004.
And, I guess one of the first two Asian films that knocked
my socks off were Kar Wai Wong's IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
(by the way be sure to seek out his pseudo sequel, 2046,
which won raves at Cannes this past year but has yet
to lock distribution for US) and Takashi Miike's AUDITION.
Two films from two very different countries, but both
are brilliant and one of a kind. Kar Wai Wong presented
one of the most painfully romantic films I have ever
seen and Takashi Miike (who always offers up interesting
films, though a bit extreme for some tastes) presented
a horrific view of love gone horribly wrong while commenting
on the erosion of Japanese culture. I guess I would
cite these two films as the first to really turn me
on to Asian cinema.
GTM: Calling these films "Asian" may
not be exactly fair. What countries do you think are
cutting edge in this film explosion?
Matt Stanfield: That is true. As of late, I
have been finding more interesting work coming out of
Korea and Thailand. However, I have to say that Japan
produces some very interesting and challenging films
that really push the envelope in a number of ways. And,
by that I mean to state that I am not just referring
to sex, violence and gore. Many of the Japanese artists
are exploring ideas in cinema that very few have touched
Now, this is not to say that all films coming out of
Japan, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian
countries are cutting edge/brilliant. Just as in the
US -- there is a good deal of silly/fluff work. Certainly,
that is true of any country.
We all want to just sit back and laugh sometimes. However,
I have to say that I am surprised at the number of films
being created which really require the audience to think
about what they are seeing.
As an example, a recent film from Thailand called SHUTTER
follows the story of a young photographer who begins
to see what appears to be the ghost of a woman in his
photographs. Gradually, he and his girlfriend discover
that this is ghost that is out to get them. I have simplified
the plot and left out a great deal in the hope that
someone out there will decide to seek this scary little
gem out before Hollywood hires Wes Craven to demolish
it with some WB hottie of the week! However, this horror
film will creep you out, but in a very different way
and reason that a Hollywood film might scare you.
When you watch a ghost story filmed in one of the Asian
countries you are likely to discover that the horror
lies not in the fact that there should be a ghost, but
comes from what that ghost might be trying to do. Now
that is basic fundamental difference from what we produce
in our ghost horror stories. In our culture we are afraid
of the idea of a ghost. However, there are many people
in Thailand who believe that ghosts are always with
us. The idea of the ghost is not so disturbing to them.
This is the case in SHUTTER. The characters are really
not all that "surprised" to discover a ghost
in their lives, but they are disturbed by what this
ghost starts to do. That is a shift in the primary approach
of the genre.
The attitudinal differences in these cultures makes
for interesting viewing, but not disassociative. We
are all human no matter what culture we come from. So
the human experience is shared; but to view it thru
the eyes of a changing culture is so very interesting.
I do not think we get the pleasure of seeing that done
much in our own country. Sometimes, perhaps, but it
For me, the most interesting US release of 2004 was
THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Interestingly,
this film was directed by French video-clip maker, Michel
Gondry. I can't help but wonder how an American director,
say Dean Parisot, would have approached Charlie Kauffman's
GTM: What first got you interested in this genre?
Matt Stanfield: I guess I think of it more
as a region producing a number of different film genres.
As you know, movies have always played a crucial role
in my life. I have been spending hours in cinemas since
I was a small child in Texas. I have always been drawn
to films that show truth and ask questions of the viewer.
At 8, I was more interested in Robert Altman's NASHVILLE
than JAWS. So, as an adult that interest has only continued.
I love to see perspectives from other countries. My
younger brother developed a real interest in comics
from Japan; many of which I found quite disturbing and
misogynistic. I think I wanted to learn more about Japan
to see if I could understand why some of these counter-culture
comics were so very popular there. I think that is what
initially got me interested in Asian cinema.
GTM: Tell us a bit about yourself and how your interest
in film developed.
Matt Stanfield: I have no connection to the
film industry. I avoided that because I was worried
that the business side of it would ruin the "magic"
of it all. I am sure everyone has heard of the TV set
as being a baby sitter for us adults who were born in
the late 60's. My baby sitter seemed to have been the
movie theaters. My father loved to go to the movies
and took me with him all of the time starting at a very
young age. I should note that he was not very good at
determining what was age appropriate. I can remember
the poor lady at the ticket counter arguing with him
about letting me see LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, CRUISING,
CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL or EYES OF LAURA MARS -- but
those were just a few of the movies my dad took me to
see. He was a bit of a horror, blood and guts fan!
I would not have made those choices for my own child,
but I can't say it hurt me. In fact, I think it opened
up a world of thought and ideas that might have been
a bit confusing, but certainly provided me with a more
in-depth world view than most kids growing up in Beaumont,
Texas. And to my parent’s credit - no subject
was ever taboo in our home so I was able to ask plenty
of questions about what I had seen.
My mother would often drop me off at the Gaylin Twin
Cinema at Noon on a Saturday and not pick me up till
8pm that evening. I would usually watch both movies
twice each. In the summer, A friend and I would end
up at the Parkdale Cinema which had 3 screens and we
would see every film until my mother or father picked
us up. The ushers all knew me! Soon enough, they all
gave up trying to enforce the rating codes on me. I
would just get my jumbo popcorn and settle in for a
viewing of TAXI DRIVER. I didn't understand a lot about
that movie at the time!
Once again, I do not think that this is advisable or
positive for children but this was how I was introduced
to film. ...And, of course,I was hooked. As I got older
I kept the tradition alive for myself by seeing 2 to
3 movies a week. After I graduated college and moved
to Boston I discovered a whole new world of cinema!
I had only ever seen a few foreign films so coming to
Boston was such fun as a film buff!
GTM: Are there any comparisons between many
of the new breed of Asian directors and say a Fassbinder
or others of that cutting-edge era?
Matt Stanfield: As you know, I am a major fan
of Fassbinder's work. I am not sure that I have discovered
a director who really reminds me of Fassbinder on an
individual basis. However, I do think one can draw some
comparisons to that new wave of German cinema which
Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders and a few others ushered
into world view in the late 60's/70's to Asian cinema
of the past decade. Certainly the face of Asian cinema
has really become more of a mirror to the cultural shifts
happening there -- however, the criticisms of these
shifts tend to blended more into allegory of plot than
the outright disdain we can see in that era of German
Of course, the history of Germany is so unique in my
opinion. Of course, I guess we could say that about
all countries. However, Fassbinder and his fellow filmmakers
were born at the very end of WWII in country devastated
by what it had allowed to happen within its borders.
Those horrors had been broadcasted to the world and
somehow they had to find away to live with that and
overcome that shame and horror. I am not sure one can
draw a comparable line to any other instance exactly
quite like that.
GTM: What films coming out should we be looking for
or directors of note?
Matt Stanfield: I have mentoned several film
directors whose work should not ever be missed! I would
certainly add The Pang Brothers, Hirokazu Koreeda, Kinji
Fukasaku, Andrew Lau, Stephen Chow, Jong-hyuk Lee, Yimou
Zhang, Ekachai Uekrongtham, and Banjong Pisanthanakun
to the list of the current Asian filmmakers of note.
I am very excited that OLDBOY and 3 IRON are finally
being screened in US cinemas. I am particularly thrilled
to see the comedy, KUNG FU HUSTLE receive such a major
push at mainstream theaters across the US. I hope folks
will give all 3 of these films a chance!
I should also suggest the recent DVD release of joint
effort from Japan, China and Korea entitled 3 EXTREMES.
This is film made up of three short horror films --
all of which contain some fairly potent political/sociological
comments along with the terror. Both Takashi Miike and
Chan-wook Park contribute, but I have to say that it
is Fruit Chan's contribution, DUMPLINGS, which is the
finer and most interesting of the three films. In fact,
it is so good that Fruit Chan has been able to release
his full version vision to DVD. However, be warned ---
this one is not for the faint of heart.
GTM: What's a perfect film experience for you?
Matt Stanfield: Alone with my popcorn and soda
in a dark cinema watching a film that entertains, but
also presents ideas that challenge and make me think.
GTM: What do you think local filmmakers and
even students studying film in school, can learn by
studying the work of foreign directors?
Matt Stanfield: Well, to a large extent I feel
an artist is born with the desire, passion and talent.
However, education is always of value.
GTM: Thank you…
Matt Stanfield: Within any field of work I
think it is important to be aware of the history of
your occupation and the work being done by your colleagues.
However, I think this is true for accountants, lawyers,
doctors… anyone actually.
GTM: Do you think that American films have become
too pat, too formula? What could or should be done to
make them more unique?
Matt Stanfield: Yes, I do. If we care about
seeing films that go against the grain of the Hollywood
formula --- we need to only support the films that do
so. The power of the buck at the box office will be
heard. That is the only way.
Even still, you have to be careful or you might miss
something. I almost skipped Mike Nichols recent film
because it featured Julia Roberts and Jude Law --- that
would have been a big loss for me as a film viewer as
I was blown away by CLOSER. However, I would have never
known that based on the marketing and cast. It was the
luck of a rainy day that led me to that one!
GTM: Anything you'd like to add for our readers?
Matt Stanfield: Challenge yourself and take
a chance on films from other cultures. We are fast becoming
a truly global culture -- film can be a fun way to peek
into the cultures of other worlds outside your own!
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film
Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director.
He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College
and speech communications and documentary film at Roger
Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer
of commercials and industrials for numerous business
clients in the region and is currently completing the
multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting
American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached