East Meets West in the Cinema

A perfect fusion of cinematic flavours or a canny pitch to Western taste buds?

Asian cinema is doing well at Western box offices. Whether it be the lure of something a bit more exotic or the promise of a more high brow form of popcorn entertainment, audiences in the West are buying into all things Asia. You only need to take a look at what’s getting those on film’s front line all a flutter to see the evidence of this.

English language remakes of Asian revenge flicks with cult following aside (a reference, of course, to the eagerly awaited release later this year of Spike Lee’s Oldboy starring chiseled Hollywood heavyweight Josh Brolin) it would seem that Asian directors are making themselves increasingly comfortable letting loose those typically Eastern flavours, not on home turf but with Western casts in settings that range from peaceful American suburbia (Chan-wook Park’s Stoker, 2013) to post apocalyptic snowy wilderness (Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, 2013).

Before we go getting too excited about the cool foreign exchange students in town it’s probably best to remember that the likes of Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai have long enjoyed critical acclaim in both Western and Eastern media.

The difference you ask?

It would be all too easy to dive straight in with the dissecting kit on this in an attempt to reason the hell out of it. Does this distinctively Asian brand of quirky directorial flair give us audiences in the West a little bit more food for thought?

Or perhaps relative newcomers to Western led productions, Park and Bong, have caught on to a style that marries Eastern ingenuity with mainstream Western expectations in such a way that makes the committed cinephile and casual cinema goer alike part with their cash?

On the other hand – the easy answer to all the hype surrounding these releases – that creative talent transfers well regardless of cultural background or language barrier. After all, to put a film’s potential success down solely to the draw of the director would perhaps be pushing it.

Another explanation may be that South Korean cinema, in particular, tends to be a bit on the weird side. The Housemaid (2010) and The Host (2006) being perfect examples solidifying South Korea’s status as the kooky uncle of Asian cinema. Either way, this latest trend should come as no surprise.

The hugely popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) showed us that when served up with enough aplomb, Western audiences were more than willing to tackle the tricky task of coordinating a lap full of cinema snacks in parallel to reading subtitles.

Strangely enough, and despite its success at the Oscars, Hidden Dragon didn’t even manage to scrape its way into the top five at the Hong Kong box office on its release, many in China and further afield in Asia blaming this on director Ang Lee having catered exclusively to Western tastes. Truth be told, Asian audiences didn’t much appreciate watching people dancing about on wires and having a good moan for two hours. But in the West, we were transfixed. It was all so delicate, so composed – unlike the usual rowdy fisticuffs we were used to having shoved down our throats.

And so comes more of the same this year with the latest kung fu import, The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar Wai. Devoid of any of the blood, sweat and protruding bone you would normally expect to see as a result of someone getting beaten into a bloody pulp, like Hidden Dragon before it, The Grandmaster looks to be setting its sights on equally well-to-do circles.

And with everyone railing against the vivid portrayal of violence in the cinema nowadays, who can criticise the Western media for jumping on board; when it’s not how much you can make the audience wince that counts but how cool, calm and collected the characters look in a fight to the death. It’s won the genre many the high profile fan.

Even Tarantino regular, Samuel L. Jackson has waded into the fray recently, apparently enamoured with the craftsmanship of The Grandmaster’s fight scenes. Highly choreographed martial arts – not something readily associated with Mr. Jackson but in a way telling of how mainstream Hollywood is chomping at the bit to be associated with what appears on the face of it to be quintessentially Asian.

Opening the Berlin Film Festival this year, The Grandmaster is one of many Asian led films opting to flout its street cred on the film festival circuits. With Hollywood royalty on its side, this is one crush that will without a doubt trickle down to the punters.

And as with royalty, so too does the film industry need new blood once in a while lest a two-headed baby of a movie rear its ugly head.

Warm reception in the West to the stylistic and undeniably verbose charms of films like Hidden Dragon and Hero (2002) have undoubtedly paved the way for the more anarchic styles of Park and Bong to get a foothold in Western cinema. The gateway drug, if you like, to an altogether more uninhibited corner of Asian cinema.

There’s certainly a lot to embrace. Let’s hope it’s an affair where after the fickle loved-up feelings begin to fizzle out, the West chooses to commit.

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