Risk isn’t a word that generally crosses the mind of most blockbuster filmmakers. Years of movie making, flops, busts, and sneaky successes have paved a pretty clear cut road on how to make a successful – monetarily successful – flick. My guess is that the checklist for profit goes something like this:
- Do we have a massive marketing team? Check.
- Will our trailers make the movie look enticing? Check.
- Do we have Dwayne the Rock Johnson? Check out those pecs!
All Rock jokes aside, a gneiss plot with a sprinkling of A-list talent will sum up much of the summer screen time filling your local movie theater. Mission Impossible 5 and The Fast and the Furious 386 are going to bring in millions worldwide. Average American films aren’t broadening horizons, pushing the boundaries of cinematography, or making the common movie-goer question themselves.
Asian filmmakers have been doing this for years.
While Michael Bay has been busy sharpening the keyboard stands for his CGI technicians, our neighbors to the East have been crafting disturbing plot twists, visceral images, and forcing audiences to face their own morality. Each time I am recommended a South Korean, Japanese, or Chinese movie, I excitedly flip my subtitles on and try to guess how my mind will be attacked. Yes, attacked. These films aren’t holding anything back. American movies feel like they’ve been covered in bubble wrap. I know the entirety of the plot after the first act, I never think Ultron will actually win.
Take the 2003 South Korean brain incinerator “Oldboy” (directed by Park Chan-wook) for example. After forcing my Dad to watch this movie with me, he said “What the fuck is wrong with you.” He does have a point. Oldboy dives into the deep end of unordinary from the get-go. After being enthralled by a man’s illegal imprisonment for 15 years, you watch Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) eat a live octopus. The scene is burned into my mind. I can remember every detail, as the octopus spirals around his mouth, tentacles latching onto his face for dear life as he rips through the wriggling sea creature like it’s his first real meal in a decade (oh, right). Nothing can prepare you for seeing a person devour a living creature, so obviously intent on not being someone’s lunch. I can only think of how hard it must have been for viewers to watch Charlie Sheen drink the blood – excuse me, red dyed corn-syrup – of that deer in “Red Dawn.”
Park Chan-wook’s infamous plot twist is where audiences were truly writhing in their seats. The thought of a father being tricked and hypnotized into falling in love with his estranged daughter is bad enough. However, the final scene of the movie causes you to examine yourself and question if you could have made the same decision. Dae-su willingly chooses to have the memory of his daughter removed, and be left with only his thoughts of her as his lover.
That, is gross.
Undoubtedly 99% of people would choose to walk away and chalk it up to a bad case of being imprisoned for 15 years if stared down with the same decision. But that’s what makes this film great. That’s what makes me eager to watch this film over and over again. Even when I know that Oh Dae-su’s journey is a tragedy by any Shakesperian standard, I’m drawn in so that I can have myself try to understand the revolting reality of the hero’s decision.
The closest example of an American film that truly makes my stomach churn quite like this is Richard Fleischer’s “Soylent Green.” Even with the reality of 40 million people being fed human remains, it doesn’t pack the same punch as Oldboy. The moment of disgust is there, and then it’s gone. No main or even secondary character was forced to make the decision to feed the population their fallen brethren, it’s a decision by the “bad guy” that seems par for the evil course. I’ll never think about how the decision could possibly be made, because that’s what bad guys do. They’re bad.
Countless Asian films have these moments and scenes where I can spend hours deciphering, contemplating, and shaking my head in disbelief. “Battle Royale” (Kinji Fukasaku) and “Infernal Affairs” (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) each have American counterparts that lack the gristle these movies contain. “Hunger Games” (Gary Ross) doesn’t need me to spend time on why it’s very “meh”, and while “The Departed” (Martin Scorsese) is a fantastic movie in its own right, Infernal Affairs has key moments of betrayal that it really nails.
What is stopping these American films from succeeding in the unconventional? Is it overly-protective production companies? Or perhaps directors and screenwriters have become lazy, and are content to sit in their piles of cash without the threat of the Joker burning them down.
My best guess? I don’t believe it’s a lack of cinematic skill, but a lack of confidence Hollywood has in the American public to digest a few mind bending (and maybe a little gross) scenes here and there without crucifying the filmmaker on twitter.
Who knows, maybe I just like reading subtitles.