Western film used to give just an occasional nod to the east. Now Hollywood is in thrall to Korean horror, Japanese experiment and Chinese pyrotechnics. India's industry is the largest, but it is in Buddhist and Taoist Asia that a real aesthetic alternative has emerged to change the face of world cinemaby Mark Cousins / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
At the end of August, a Chinese film, Hero, topped the US box office chart for the first time, despite already being available on DVD. A lush kung fu film in the manner of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was directed by former cinematographer Zhang Yimou. Screen International called it “one of the most eagerly awaited films in Asian film history.” It also went to number one in France and cut a swathe through the box office in many Asian countries. This is unheard of, yet Zhang’s follow-up, the even more beautiful House of Flying Daggers, looks set to follow Hero’s extraordinary breakthrough. Shot partly in the rust-red forests of Ukraine, it has already broken box office records in China itself.
Something remarkable is happening in Asian cinema, and Hollywood has cottoned on. “Check out the latest US movie production slate and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hollywood is turning Japanese,” commented the Guardian in July. “And Korean. With a dash of Thai and Hong Kong thrown in.” No fewer than seven new versions of box office hits from Asia are preparing to go before western cameras. Tom Cruise is developing a remake of the Hong Kong/Thai horror picture, The Eye; Martin Scorsese is in pre-production with a new version of Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong policier; a Japanese thriller, Dark Water, is being reworked for Jennifer Connelly; British director Gurinder Chadha is remaking the Korean feminist crime comedy, My Wife is a Gangster.
This is not the first time that Hollywood’s imitation of Asian cinema has seemed like flattery. Star Wars borrowed from Kurosawa; the Matrix films used Hong Kong fight techniques. But western film industries have never banked on the east to this degree before. Virtually every Hollywood studio has optioned an Asian project. Their interest in the continent’s movies has become a groundswell. Part of this is the usual Tinseltown faddiness, but that is not all. Dark Water, The Eye and The Ring films – also being updated in the US – unnerved Hollywood because they beat it at its own game. They found new, subtle, inventive ways of doing what producers in southern California have spent a century perfecting: jangling audiences’ nervous systems. From Frankenstein to Jaws and The Blair Witch Project, western cinema has prided itself on being able to electrify filmgoers with novel terrors. All of a sudden, Japan and Korea have stolen its thunder. Directors from these countries are using the power of suggestion, and turning the screw of tension to scare audiences profoundly. They build up tension more slowly, hint at unseen horrors, use sound more evocatively. The American studio system is constantly in search of fresh material and ideas. In the last few years, Asia has been western cinema’s new source.