No actor is more revered in Korea than Choi Min-Sik. Shooting to fame for his performance as a North Korean terrorist in Shiri, the first blockbuster of the new Korean cinema, Choi Min-Sik went on to capture the attention of international audiences with his crazed, dazed, hammer-wielding performance as Oh Dal-Su in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy. In 2006, he quit the film industry to protest American pressure on the Korean film industry, but he made a triumphant return a few years ago with Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw the Devil. Presented in association with the Korean Cultural Service New York, we’re serving up a fistful of new and classic Choi Min-Sik performances to honor the man himself.
Set in the 80’s, Choi Min-Sik is a corrupt customs inspector whose knowledge of how to leverage personal connections and family relationships turns him into a criminal on the rise. But he’s not really a gangster, just a smart hick with a gift of the gab, turning savvy, shark-like, scared, and saggy all at the drop of a hat. And when the government begins instituting reforms the world he lives in turns into a cage of crazed predators, eating one another alive.
Unjustly neglected, this film from Ryoo Seung-Wan (The Unjust, City of Violence) is one of the most poignant, inspiring boxing movies ever made. Choi Min-Sik plays a down-on-his luck, middle-aged boxer reduced to renting himself out as a human punching bag for frustrated salarymen. The director’s brother, Ryoo Seung-Beom, is a punk with a self-destructive streak a mile wide who discovers the power of boxing in juvie lock-up. An amateur prize fight with a fat purse offers a chance to start over for both of them, but there can be only one winner, and both of them need redemption. It’s a rare movie where no matter who wins, everyone loses.
What can be said about this Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival that might just be the most iconic movie of the New Korean Cinema. Choi Min-Sik is at his hammer-wiedling best, director Park Chan-Wook (Thirst) is firing on all cylinders, and that poor octopus who gets eaten alive will live on in motion picture history.
Choi Min-Sik is teamed up with Hong Kong’s superstar, Cecilia Cheung, in another movie (a la Crying Fist) where the lead actors never meet. He’s a third-rate gangster who’ll do anything for a buck. She’s a Chinese immigrant who needs a marriage for business reasons. Mutual need draws them together, but fate keeps them apart. Choi Min-Sik himself insisted that we screen this, so you know it’s going to be good.
When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, its film industry was already in a tailspin from the first stirrings of the Asian Economic Crisis. A few years later, the industry, once the biggest film producer in Asia, was struggling. But reports of its gradual demise have been greatly exagerrated. Presented with the support of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office New York of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, “Return of the King” is our update on the health of the Hong Kong film industry 15 years after the handover, and as far as we’re concerned, it has retaken the crown as one of the top film producers in Asia.
For the past few years, ultra-local Hong Kong movies like Ann Hui’s A Simple Life and Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in the Buff have been winning awards and fans around the world, while Hong Kong-Chinese co-productions like Wu Xia, The Lost Bladesman, and Detective Dee, usually helmed by Hong Kong directors and stars, are turning into international box office hits that are hoovering up the box office loot. To celebrate the return of Hong Kong to its rightful place on the throne, we’ve invited two men who represent both of these new trends in Hong Kong cinema.
Director Pang Ho-cheung’s films are so grounded in hyper-specific local detail that you can’t imagine they’d ever play outside of the neighborhoods in which they were shot. His movies revolve around things like the 2007 Revised Public Health Ordinance that banned indoor smoking in Hong Kong, and the specifics of Category III film production. Yet they’ve travelled to international festivals, gotten bought for Hollywood remakes, and proved that local is the new global.
On the other hand, no one represents the international Hong Kong blockbuster the way Donnie Yen does. A star and action choreographer, he has long traveled between Hong Kong, Japan, Hollywood, and China for his movies, and so it was no surprise that as Hong Kong films became more global, he would take the change in stride. His two Ip Man movies, both of them Hong Kong-China coproductions, have become massive hits across Asia, and his films like Killzone (aka SPL: Sha Po Lang), Wu Xia, and The Lost Bladesman have played to enthusiastic crowds from Cannes and Canada, to Hong Kong and Beijing. The way that Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat used to be hired onto a film as guarantees that a Hong Kong film would have global appeal, Donnie Yen now takes on that role. His face is familiar all across Asia and, increasingly, around the world.
And so 15 years after the handover, where are Hong Kong films? They’re different, no doubt. The local films have become more local than ever, with no more need to appeal to the once all-important Taiwanese and Malaysian audiences. But Hong Kong actors, directors, action choreographers, stuntmen, composers, cinematographers, and editors are still some of the best in Asia, and they now work in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand, exporting Hong Kong’s distinctive style wherever they go. If you blow hard enough on a dandelion, you destroy the dandelion but you send its seeds sailing out across the world. Hong Kong is different now, but Hong Kong survives. And it grows. And now, it’s safe to say, that it is back. 15 years after the Handover, the King has returned.
Taiwanese films are back, but you may not have realized they were gone in the first place. Presented with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, this is a story about the comeback of the Taiwanese film industry. Taiwan has always been a motion picture powerhouse, but in the late 80’s their domestic film production entered a death spiral. Local productions slowed but theater owners needed to fill their screens and so they turned to Hollywood instead. Import restrictions were lifted on American movies, and suddenly Taiwan was facing a strange situation. While their arthouse directors like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Ang Lee were becoming global names, their local film industry was on life support. In some years, they produced as few as 10 domestic movies, and for almost a decade local films accounted for around 2% of the annual box office.
That all changed in 2008 when a broke director named Wei Te-Sheng, who had worked various odd jobs in the film business, directed Cape No. 7. A romantic comedy about a failed musician who moved from Taipei back to his tiny hometown, it became a word of mouth sensation and is now the highest-grossing Taiwanese movie ever made. Newly invigorated, Taiwanese filmmakers grabbed their passion projects and raced for the big screen, powered by money contributed by suddenly confident investors. Monga, an adrenalized, punch-drunk street gang film opened in 2010, holding the number one spot at the box office against James Cameron’s Avatar.
In 2011, things got even better. That year, You Are the Apple of My Eye, from first time director Giddens Ko, became a box office hit as well as the highest-grossing Mandarin-language movie ever released in Hong Kong (beating Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle), and became the most successful Taiwanese movie ever released in China, as well as having its theme song become one of the most ubiquitous ringtones across Asia. Time and again, young directors have held it up as an example of how to make a fresh romance that manages to pull the heartstrings without being cheap or sentimental. Starry Starry Night became a critical success in 2011, awing audiences and racking up award nominations for its lush visuals, and Jump Ashin, based on the true story of a hard working gymnast who fights the odds to compete, became another local hit.
Even bigger was Wei Te-Sheng’s project Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, which was released as two massive movies and became a mammoth hit that revived interest in Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, and has shot new life into the tourism industry (as did Cape No. 7). And now, in 2012, Din Tao: Leader of the Parade, a low budget ultra-local movie that came from nowhere, has beaten everything at the box office, from international co-productions to Hollywood hits, and even more importantly it’s renewed interest in Din Tao, Taiwan’s local performance folkart.
Today, Taiwan not only boasts some of the world’s finest arthouse directors, but it also has a thriving domestic film industry to match. It’s not back to where it was in the 1970’s – yet – but investors are willing to take a chance on local subjects, technical crews are sharpening their skills, and producers are finding that there’s an overseas audience for local subjects. Taiwanese cinema is back, no longer just ruling the arthouse, but also ruling the box office, and the world is all the richer for it.