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A new Asian flowering

Get set for a rush of intriguing films from the East -- so interesting that Hollywood is rushing to tap their sensibility.

August 22, 2004|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

Takashi Shimizu barely speaks a word of English, and Sarah Michelle Gellar is hardly fluent in Japanese. So whenever Shimizu directed his star on the Tokyo set of "The Grudge," the conversations between the Japanese filmmaker and the American actress were conducted through an interpreter.

But whatever obstacle Shimizu may face in moviemaking communication is surpassed by his mastery of a more important Hollywood vocabulary: the ability to make scary movies. In the wake of "The Matrix" and "The Ring," American audiences are about to be exposed to a new flood of Asian-influenced cinema, highlighted by the region's signature terrifying frights and elaborately choreographed action scenes. Convinced that Eastern filmmakers offer one of the most attractive storytelling salvations since comic books, studio executives are falling over themselves to re-create Chinese and Japanese cinema on these shores.

In October, Columbia Pictures will present "The Grudge" starring Gellar in an American remake of Shimizu's horror film "Ju-On." Two more adaptations of Japanese fright franchises are due for release next spring -- DreamWorks' "Ring 2" starring Naomi Watts (and made by original "Ringu" director Hideo Nakata) and Disney's "Dark Water," featuring Jennifer Connelly.

The pipeline is packed with similar remake efforts, with more than a dozen spawns in development, some involving heavyweight talent. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are attached to a Boston-inflected version of Hong Kong's police thriller hit "Infernal Affairs" renamed "The Departed," with no less than Martin Scorsese at the helm. Yet another remake is under Tom Cruise's production banner, a U.S. take on the Thai horror story "The Eye."

All this activity comes in addition to the openings of at least 10 films from Asia here in the next four months, movies that are not American remakes but the original deal. These releases reflect the continent's tradition-laden past, including elaborate martial arts movies from China and breathtaking, contemporary thrillers from Hong Kong and South Korea.

Yet trends die almost as fast as they travel, and American film audiences haven't been broadly excited by international films in a long time. Even if there are no guarantees the new Asian flowering will survive, this heightened cultural exchange is nonetheless striking.

"I think what we're experiencing is something like what happened with French, Italian and European cinema of the '60s and '70s," says Roger Garcia, programmer of Asian films for the San Francisco International Film Festival and sometime film producer. "There were waves of quality filmmaking from Europe -- directors like Antonioni, Truffaut and Godard who made interesting and well-made films. We're experiencing something similar in Asian cinema right now -- not just chopsocky, straight-to-video stuff, but really well-made, well-shot and well-acted films."

This year's Cannes Film Festival was a prescient cultural barometer of this new Asian cinema. While veteran filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai (with his new film "2046"), Zhang Yimou ("House of Flying Daggers") and Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence") were there, the newcomers ended up reaping most of the critical acclaim. Korea's Park Chan-wook and his breathtakingly cinematic thriller "Old Boy" won the second prize, the Grand Jury Prize, and word was that he would have cinched the Palme d'Or had pervasive anti-Iraq-war sentiments not tipped the jury in favor of "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Japanese child actor Yuya Yagira picked up best actor for his role in "Nobody Knows," and Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung nabbed best actress for a Canadian European co-production, "Clean." The Jury Prize, a kind of special mention, went to Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul for "Tropical Malady," an art film par excellence.

The sources of this new wave are varied. Production values have soared -- boasting crisp and daring cinematography, lighting, sound and editing. Computer-generated effects are deftly deployed, since investors are increasingly willing to put money into films they can see going international, with the bigger box office that promises. Effects are used for the sake of high aesthetics in the ultra-slo-mo duel-in-the-rain that highlights Zhang's "Hero," opening Friday, as well as for the sake of sheer scare in Japanese horror films.

Conveniently, special effects houses can be found in the vicinity -- Hong Kong has them, Australia and New Zealand have them (Zhang went to Australia for his film), and Singapore is aching to set itself up as the high-tech hub of Asia. This year the Singapore government announced initiatives to attract film business to the island nation -- promoting itself as a shooting location and as a future center of post-production facilities and digital distribution. And George Lucas recently announced plans to build an animation facility there.

Growing sophistication

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