Gathering Storm: A 'Typhoon' of Regional Asian Films
By Andrew Lam

When it comes to movie making in East and Southeast Asia these days, producers and directors follow this motto: Think globally, act regionally.
Why? The region has never been as integrated or as wealthy as it is now, two decades after the end of the Cold War. Tastes have grown horizontally as commerce, travel and communications intensify in a region whose cultures previously knew little of one another. Japanese girls love new Vietnamese designs of ao-dai dresses; Koreans love Thai martial arts star Tony Jar; Japanese mangas are popular everywhere; and everyone seems to love traveling to Vietnam, and watching Korean movies and soap operas.
With regional integration comes an international style of movie making. Movies from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and China seem to have blended into one another. Co-produced internationally, the movies' story lines oftentimes respect no borders.
The Bangkok International film festival last February, as if giving a nudge to this understanding, opened with "Invisible Wave," a murder mystery directed by a Thai but with Japanese, Hong Kong and Korean actors. Three languages are spoken in the movie, which was filmed in three countries. The movie made reference to the December 2004 tsunami, which of course affected everyone in the region and beyond.
Budget-wise it makes sense. Casting international stars -- even if they can barely speak each other's language -- ensures greater audience. It also procures a bigger budget with international producers, something that individual, smaller studios hadn't managed to do before.
A big part of this regional movie making formula, no doubt, has to do with the renaissance of South Korea, known now as the Korean Wave. By the look of how movie stars dominate billboards in major cities from Tokyo to Shanghai to Hanoi to Bangkok and beyond, one can see that Korea is the hottest flavor of the day. Any movie that include one of Korea's heartthrobs -- the beautiful Jang Nara, say, or the energetic, sexy actor-cum-singer with one name, Rain -- is a guaranteed international box-office smash.
That's why Ji Jin-Hee, the Korean star of the mega-hit soap opera "Jewel in the Palace," was cast in the Chinese musical "Perhaps Love" opposite multilingual, drop-dead handsome Takeshi Kaneshiro (half Japanese, half Taiwanese), and Jackie Cheung, a Hong Kong star. Produced by Andre Morgan, the dances in the movie were choreographed by Farah Khan, India's most famous choreographer.
Conversely, "Krrish," the new Bollywood superhero movie, stars Hrithik Roshan. Roshan kung-fu fights in Singapore when he's not dancing to seduce his girl in India. The fighting is choreographed by Hong Kong's legendary stunt master Tony Siu-Tung.
Hong Kong film director Stanley Tong followed suit by casting Indian sex symbol Mallika Sherawat and South Korean Kim Hee-Seon as two princesses to star opposite Jackie Chan in "The Myth," an action-adventure film a la Indiana Jones.
In "Fearless," coming to an AMC theatre near you in September, Jet Li will fight for the last time (he is reportedly to retire from the kung fu genre) against an international cast. It's the story of Chinese martial arts master Huo Yuanjia (1869~1910), the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. In the action packed movie, Li fights Australian weight lifter Nathan Jones, kick-boxer Jean-Claude Leuyer, American actor and sword master Anthony de Longis and Kabuki-trained actor Shido Nakamura.
So much action in the Far East has drawn Hollywood's attention. Special overseas divisions or partnerships to produce and distribute films in languages other than English have been created by major studios like Disney, Miramax and Sony pictures. East and Southeast Asia is, after all, the fastest growing regional market -- especially China and India, whose huge populations make them potentially much bigger markets than Europe could ever be. "Within another two decades," according to Christina Klein, writing for Yale Global Online, "Asia could be responsible for as much as 60 percent of Hollywood's box-office revenue... Asia is where the action is, and will be for the foreseeable future."
For years, the East played a subservient role to the West and remained at the receiving end of Hollywood visions. Hong Kong movies, for instance, traditionally copied Hollywood plots shamelessly. But the Asian economic ascendancy, which started three decades ago, has changed all that. Hong Kong began to find itself in the late 1980s, and it was Hollywood's turn to copy. Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino all have expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the martial art genre, and Tarantino has admitted to being "inspired" by Ringo Lam's "City on Fire" when making his film "Reservoir Dogs."
In recent time, Hollywood too has made it a habit to remake Japanese and South Korean blockbusters like "The Ring," "Shall We Dance?" and, the latest, "The Lake House."
Korea, like Hong Kong and China, has been eyeing the growing market in the United States for Asian-style movies. "Typhoon," a Korean movie about international espionage and revenge, was the first to be shown in a major US Cineplex (AMC theatre.)
The synopsis: a North Korean defector, betrayed by the South, aims to destroy both North and South Korea with dirty uranium, with the help of a typhoon blowing over the peninsula. The National Intelligence Service dispatches a secret agent to stop him. What ensues is an international chase that stretches to Thailand, Russia and China. The cast is as international as the plot, whose script is in four languages.
The most expensive production ever made in Korea, "Typhoon" unfortunately did not garner many US viewers. But it is still a sign of what is to come in Asian movie making: Big, bold, hybridized and regionalized visions that will continue to blow as regularly as hurricane season in the Far East. - New America Media News Analysis


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