In most Film Studies classes, film history is typically very Euro-centric – you learn about the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism and their impacts on film. Usually those are the only forms of international cinema that you learn about in these entry-level classes.
However, once you get to upper-level or upper-division courses, that’s when you’re able to learn about the wonder and glory of Asian cinema.
In many courses (and I’ll use mine as an example), Asian cinema courses have mostly focused on East Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, since those have the most well-known and recognized directors in the Western, Hollywood-centric industry (there is something to be said about how when talking about Asian cinema, many Southeast Asian countries and their cinematic culture are left out). Each country has had different waves and eras of film, much like Western countries. Asian filmmakers have been critically acclaimed, especially in recent years, and especially when Bong Joon-Ho and his 2019 film Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture in February 2020 – the first time a non-English language film won the award.
Asian cinema and its filmmakers have had as rich of a history as its French and Italian counterparts and the filmmakers should be studied more widely as part of film curriculum.
Japanese cinema has some of the most well-regarded filmmakers in regards to its history. One of the most significant filmmakers in Japanese cinema history would have to be Akira Kurosawa, who was infamously one of George Lucas’ inspirations for the Star Wars saga. Kurosawa made films that dealt with various social issues in order to reflect and interpret the society he lived in; his most famous films incorporated these issues into more historical films (sometimes referred to as Jidaigeiki – Japanese period dramas set during the Edo period until 1868) samurai and the yakuza (gangsters). The films feature many fight scenes and their styles helped to influence Lucas’s scenes in Star Wars. Kurosawa’s films also typically focused on the individual taking responsibility for their actions. When Kurosawa began making films, a new style of film was popularized – the shinkokugeki, a new national drama, first appeared in 1917 and continued into post-World War II films. It featured protagonists, who were typically rebels or drifters, who went against the traditional hero and incorporated more realistic violence and fights. These features lent themselves well to Kurosawa’s samurai, especially was Kurosawa’s characters were typically ronin (a samurai without a master). One of his most acclaimed and well-known films, Yojimbo (1961), uses both a ronin and crime lords to showcase these individual themes and realism. Though both crime lords attempt to hire the ronin as a bodyguard, the ronin acts independently, simply doing what he thinks is right and for the best, with no loyalty towards either crime lord. The ronin in Kurosawa’s film acts like many of the darker superheroes/anti-heroes we see today, like Christopher Nolan’s Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). Both independently attempt to do what is best from their points of view and often use very violent methods.
Another well-regarded, more modern-day Japanese filmmaker is Hirokazu Kore-eda. Much like Kurosawa, Kore-eda’s films are rooted in social issues, most notably class issues, and attempt to use realism in their films. Though Kurosawa often featured lots of gratuitous violence and worked in the distant past, Kore-eda works in more present-day situations. Kore-eda also focuses more on the family and familial relationships in a film, since those are major themes in Japanese cinema, and can work well when discussing class issues. His films are filmed in a slower pace, much like in a documentary style, taking its time to fully develop and explore these relationships. In his film Nobody Knows (2004), the story takes place over the course of a year, using the seasons and their natural imagery as symbols to help tell the story of these four children and to show the children develop as characters. The children in the film are abandoned by both of their parents and Kore-eda tries to tell the film from their points of view, instead of a third party or adult point of view. As the film was based off of a true news story, which was told from this third party adult point of view, Kore-eda using the children’s point of view provides a more unflinching and honest portrayal of the conditions they were exposed to. The slower realistic, honest, and documentarian style of film is heavily popular in American film today, especially in independent films, which aren’t bound to traditional styles.
Much like Japanese cinema, Korean cinema has also had prolific filmmakers, especially in recent years, due to the influx of American remakes of Korean horror films. Many of the Korean filmmakers that we, as a Westernized audience, might know are part of what is considered the New Korean Cinema movement, where filmmakers (often film school graduates) grappled with Korea’s everchanging cultural and national identity. Arguably the two most well-known Korean filmmakers of this time would have to be Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Both are influenced by Hollywood films in their work and, in turn, influence Hollywood films with their groundbreaking works.
With Park Chan-wook, his typically violent, psychological thriller films are some of the most acclaimed. Much like many Japanese films, his films typically focus on social and class issues in order to better clarify Korea’s identity. His two most well-known films, Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016), both feature characters who might not be in the best state of mind, often thought to be unreliable, and leave the audience wondering if scenes actually happened. The doubt of reliability is something that many psychological thrillers, especially in today’s American films, often use. The characters are told things and believe things that may not be true, which is then used against them. Oldboy uses a single shot fight sequence that was praised by Quentin Tarantino when it premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and many action films have tried to use the same tactic. There was even an American remake of Oldboy, first with Steven Spielberg attached and eventually directed and released by Spike Lee in 2013.
I’ll admit, I’m a little biased – Bong Joon-ho is one of my all-time favorite directors and it is hard to not write a full page on just his films. He is influenced by classic Hollywood directors, noting that he looks up to Martin Scorsese. He is able to mix genres in such a way that its themes, though he considers them uniquely Korean, resonate throughout the world. The Host (2006) is a monster film, inspired by a chemical event in 2000, that doubles as political commentary to the United States. Snowpiercer (2013), his first English language film, and Okja (2017) are a science fiction action thriller (in the case of Snowpiercer) and a black comedy (Okja) which are also both commentaries on the obsession over greed and capitalism (Okja is also a commentary on the meat industry). Parasite (2019) is a black comedy that is also a further exploration of capitalism and how it relates to class. The films are so meticulously detailed so that the themes are embedded in every aspect of the film, from the props to the setting to how the film is shot. These films, like Park Chan-wook’s, are incredibly influential on American media as well – Snowpiercer has been adapted for a TV show, The Host is supposedly getting an American remake (currently stuck in development) and Parasite is in development for a series as well.
It is interesting to note the cyclical nature of influence between East Asian cinematic cultures and American film cultures. Both influence each other, encouraging each other to produce the best products. Japanese and Korean filmmakers are inspired by the Hollywood films that were shown on TV while growing up and use those classic techniques to showcase their own culture. In turn, their styles influence American directors, who also end up re-making those films as American films. In order to help inspire and influence even more filmmakers, these Asian cinemas should be studied alongside their Westernized movements.