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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO


(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.

Matt 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 on.

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 is rare.

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 script.

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 film making.

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!

GTM: Amen.



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 at <flicksart@aol.com>