In 1954, French filmmaker and film critic Francois Truffaut presented the possibility of giving film an artistic status by introducing the idea of film authorship, or auteurism. This shined the light at many filmmakers at that time mostly from Hollywood and Europe. Until this day, the term is still widely controversial between critics, and whether filmmakers can each have a unique signature style that can be distinguished remains to be the center of discussion. Film authorship, in my opinion, is what draws the line between mainstream popular cinema and art-house cinema. In fact, art films are one of the main causes of the emergence of cult films and cult followings. East Asian films are widely known earn cult followings, however, many filmmakers began to break through to reach international appeal and even conquer various festivals. This essay will focus specifically on two directors from different parts of the Far East, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano (Japan) and Park Chan-wook (South Korea), comparing and contrasting each of their styles as auteurs in relation to their culture and historical context.
The Art Cinema of Park and Kitano:
Park and Kitano are both internationally regarded as auteurs, and if we take time to dissect their films there are few similarities in their artistic approach that are necessary to address before proceeding with individual detailed accounts. The first similarity can most distinctly found within the exceptional use of soundtrack. In his first film, Violent Cop, Takeshi Kitano used calm piano music in contrast with a violent scene of one of the cops confronting a drug pusher. In a violent torture scene, Park Chan-wook achieves the same effect of juxtaposition using classical orchestral music by Vivaldi in the background. Another important similarity between the two auteurs is the deep exploration of one particular theme. Takeshi Kitano, especially his first three films, Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), and Sonatine (1993), which
‘share an unusual combination of contrasting genre elements’, focus exclusively on ‘the laconic loner tough guy (cop or criminal) and slapstick humor, comedy plus massacre’. Similarly, Park’s Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengenace (2002), Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005)) share the common theme of revenge, morality, and the extremes of human nature.1
Apart from the few similarities that were discussed, as auteurs, Park and Kitano both have their own particular visual and narrative style in filmmaking. Park’s visual style can be traced back to one of his early films JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), and as we begin to compare it to his most recent work – of which his visual style seems to be clear and more distinct – there are various resemblances which should be taken into consideration. In the beginning of JSA, there is a scene that shows a small crowd of American tourists visiting the site of the North and South Korea borders, and within that crowd a woman’s hat flies away as a result of the heavy wind. The hat lands on the North Korean territory and a North Korean man picks up the hat and hands it back to her. That final interaction was an extremely high angle shot, a type of angle that becomes very common in Park’s latter work. We can see the same shot in Oldboy (the scene of the release of Oh Dae-su), Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (when the main character buries his sister near the river), and also Park’s more recent film Thirst (The final scene where the lovers are parked near a cliff).
Both directors experiment with artistic composition within their films. While Park’s composition is more to deal with symmetry, Kitano’s composition tends to be move away from symmetry. Park adopts modernist aesthetics that foreground flat space instead of depth, and there is an overt use of symmetric shot compositions and of unmotivated camera movements.2
Park also utilizes his unique vision of symmetry to aid his action sequences. ‘Although Park is not an action director, he experiments with action scenes.’ To take the highly praised corridor fight sequence in Oldboy, for example, is exactly the opposite of what you would see in a Kitano film. In an interview, Tony Rayns explained that Park’s action sequences are reminiscent of Hong Kong action cinema,
Hong Kong films were among the few things seen in South Korea in the bad old days. The films imported to Korea were only films from Hollywood and Hong Kong; it was hard to see anything else at all. So that would certainly have left some trace on Korean film. Anyway, I think that when Park Chan-wook or somebody is making some ultra-violent revenge thriller, what he has in mind is partly those Hong Kong films he grew up with.3
Moving on to the opposing style of Kitano, we can see that the sequences are much slower-paced, more cold-hearted, and most of the time filled with ‘unpredictable, sadistic patterns of behaviour and storytelling.’4Even when we look at Kitano’s Zatoichi (2003), there are still traces of his comic violence and action sequences to be found there (even though Zatoichi was Kitano’s most commercial work). Regardless of their pace, Kitano’s action sequences are astonishingly stylish, they are almost like a twisted version of the sequences of Seijun Suzuki. Kitano’s style as a whole is mostly focused on playing with the emotions of the viewer in his way of ‘characterizing Japanese behaviour.’ To take Hana-Bi as our main example here, Kitano takes the audiences on a journey of intertwined emotions. Darrel Davis stated in his essay on Kitano’s Hana-Bi:
Sometimes the injuries are as funny as they are agonizing. When Kitano wants to shock, the viewer is unprepared; we never see the brutality coming because of his habit of cutting to the “punchline” before the setup is done. Hana-Bi’s opening scene in a carpark is an example, where the impact of the fist is elided, yet somehow also accentuated.5
Darrel’s statement here describes exactly how Kitano approaches all of his films. Even when it comes to the period film Zatoichi, which is the only non-yakuza film from all his filmography, Kitano still manages to reflect the same style that he has been known for. Kitano’s consistency of his signature style does not get uninteresting as it turns out, he is always prepared to surprise and shock the viewer.
Apart from style, I believe that what makes Park and Kitano stand out as cult auteurs is the shock element – the excessive use of extreme material that cannot be found in most contemporary films (mainly in the West). Kim Ki-duk, for instance, has long been compared to Park Chan-wook, especially in the use of similar themes and type of violence. Despite the exceptional style of both filmmakers, a problem arises as we notice the ‘loss of history’ in their films. While Kitano is constantly pushing conventions of the cultural and traditional stereotypes of Japanese films, Kim and Park belong to the New Wave of Korean filmmakers that seemed to have focus primarily on aesthetics and global themes. Despite the political themes that were the centre of Kim’s Address Unknown (2001) and Park’s JSA, they – along with many other Korean filmmakers – tend to move away from political and historical plots with the rest of their films. Jinhee Choi, in her book “The South Korean Film Renaissance”, compares Park and Kim closely, mentioning that both filmmakers concentrate mostly on ‘aesthetics of cruelty’ as they slightly abandon historical and political content.
Park’s Oldboy, like the films of Kim Ki-duk, depicts a prevalence of violence and cruelty, along with primal sexual politics, all notable for being devoid of historical specificity concerning Korean society. Dae-su [the main character], either conveniently or inconveniently, is locked up for fifteen years, and thus the period when Korea underwent drastic changes in both its politics and economy is skipped completely.6
Even though one could argue that the global themes and personal aesthetics in Park and Kim’s films can easily communicate with international audiences, the absence of clear ‘historical specificity’, as mentioned by Jinhee Choi, creates a gap between those types of Korean films and the rest of the world.
Kitano’s situation is quite different in this case. While Park Chan-wook is internationally celebrated mainly for his aesthetics in filmmaking, Kitano’s authorial recognition resides in his way of making films that are, what Darrell Davis refers to as ‘unconventional in their reticence’. Davis argues that, especially when observing Hana-Bi (1997), it is important to comprehend that Kitano’s style is most significant in his odd way of constructing films and revisiting cultural and traditional conventions.
Kitano has a strong, cold vision. He makes mostly cop and gangster pictures, but they are unconventional in their reticence. They are quiet films, with static, flat compositions and minimal dialogue. They take a piecemeal approach to narrative, asking viewers to puzzle together seemingly disconnected episodes.7
As we can understand, while aesthetics do play a part in Kitano’s films, his recognition as an international auteur is mainly as a result of his experimentation with narrative, genre, and editing. Since Kitano ‘primarily works in the gangster (yakuza) genre’, the way he approaches it can be difficult for international audiences to swallow. Yakuza films are an established genre in Japan and internationally, so it is not surprising, especially for international audiences, to feel puzzled while watching a Kitano film.
One last issue that affects Takeshi Kitano greatly in Japan is his TV personality. Takeshi Kitano is a host of many shows and TV programs in Japan (mostly comic), which is why the Japanese audience had a different perception of him when he first began his career as a filmmaker. This is also because, according to Kitano himself, ‘in Japan, the person regarded most highly is the person who concentrates on one thing’. Even though the Japanese audience began to take Kitano more seriously, there is a vast difference compared to the audience outside of Japan who only recognise Kitano as a filmmaker-actor. When Kitano was asked about his reaction about his films being ‘more enthusiastically received abroad’, he answered,
I expected that Japanese people who grew up in the modernized philosophy after World War II might regard Nishi as a totally selfish fool. But I had feared that Nishi [the protagonist in Hana-bi] might be misunderstood as a kind of kamikaze by Western audiences. His behaviour is deeply rooted in a very old-fashioned way of thinking.8
Kitano himself understands the consequences of the controversy in his films, but he keeps pushing the boundaries. I believe that Kitano’s habit of experimentation and controversy exists within his personality as a comedian. Kitano has ‘been a stand-up comic and a poet, an actor and a director’, and I think that his humorous spirit is what keeps him going.9
The last note on transnational appeal that should be taken into consideration is the availability of festivals. International festivals are becoming more and more interested in art house cinema, of which many cult auteurs – prior to Park and Kitano – did not have the luxury of being involved in. Those festivals are what draw a line between national and international appeal. Park Chan-wook’s JSA, for example, is one of the director’s lesser known works internationally, because of the sheer difference of the latter work that he presented to international audiences through festivals. Darrell Davis describes Takeshi Kitano’s first experience as an actor in a feature film saying,
[Kitano] describes the humbling experience of attending a screening of Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Kitano’s big-screen acting debut, and hearing the audience bursting into laughter at the sight of Beat Takeshi playing a sadistic POW camp guard.10
Most international audiences are not familiar with the ‘Beat Takeshi’ (a comic stage name of which the filmmaker is known by in Japan) side of Kitano. In fact, only when Takeshi Kitano began to gain international recognition, ‘the Japanese responded more respectfully’.
Adapting to Modern Audiences:
Both Takeshi Kitano and Park Chan-wook are focused on their personal artistic visions. What is interesting to note here is that they retain the same level of artistry no matter what kind of project they approach. Since Kitano and Park are mostly known within festivals and cult followers, both filmmakers began to reach out to a broader audience. For this, there are two films that each director has clearly made as an attempt to reach out to a different audience: Kitano’s Zatoichi and Brother (2000), and Park’s Thirst (2009) and Stoker (2013).
Zatoichi has long been a popular film series in Japan running from 1962 until 1973. Kitano did not simply remake or make a sequel of Zatoichi, but he thought to himself that he ‘had to make something different’ using the same concept.11 We can observe Zatoichi as Kitano’s idea of making something more ‘commercial’ or more ‘pop’. There are of course many elements that have Kitano’s signature printed on them, such as the sadistic humour, the action sequences and the excessive violence. There is however one element in this film that Kitano never experimented before, in which that it is a period film. This film also marks his experimentation with special effects; all the violent scenes with blood and dismemberment were done through CGI. Brother, on the other hand, maintains all Kitano’s traits with a minor difference to Kitano’s other films because it involves a ‘culture clash’. The film was co-produced by a British production company and was filmed in the United States. Not to say that Zatoichi and Brother were Kitano’s attempt to take a step forward into contemporary/commercial filmmaking, on the contrary. This should be viewed as Kitano’s way of trying to attract a broader, international audience to his own style.
Park Chan-wook’s diversity is not as puzzling as Kitano’s. His recognition started off with a political drama (JSA), and continued to become recognised internationally with The Vengeance Trilogy. It was, however, surprising after he worked on a romantic comedy, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), a romance/comedy/thriller called Thirst. Both films were made after he became known for his Vengeance Trilogy outside of Korea, which makes the international audience more mystified. Thirst is an interesting diversion from what Park achieved in his earlier revenge-driven films, because – recalling what Kitano tried to achieve with his experimentation – Park tries to communicate with a wider audience as well. Even though Thirst is quite a transition from the kinds of films that he is known for internationally, it still manages to sustain his signature style of filmmaking. In an interview for Film School Rejects, Park expressed his thoughts on meeting the audiences’ expectations saying,
Something that I am always striving to do is [figure out] where to position myself between following the audience’s expectations and living up to it or betraying the audience’s expectations. Of the two, the aspect of my films which has attributed to following the audience’s expectations is the genre nature of my work. If a film has genre nature about it builds a certain audience expectation about it in that it is in a certain genre and this is going to pan out this or that way, but I am not a filmmaker that completely destroys genre or is completely outside of genre. In the bigger framework I follow the genre’s structure, and following the conventions within that structure is a very boring thing, a very predictable thing. That is why it is important to betray genre conventions at every turn even while staying with a genre’s structure.12
Park is basically stating that while he uses the idea of genre to follow the expectations the audience, he incorporates his own style within that genre. This is absolutely visible within all his work, no matter how different the genre is, Park has a way of using genre to his own advantage. Stoker, Park’s latest film (and English-language film), can be approached similarly. Park’s attempt to apply his ‘Hitchcockian’ influences in Stoker resulted in positive reception outside of Korea as he intended. Many other Korean filmmakers are following the footsteps of Park in expanding their targeted audience. Bong Joon-ho’s latest film Snowpiercer (2013), for instance, is an English-language film that is co-produced by a Czech and South Korean production companies.
East Asian filmmakers have long been praised for authorship and stylish filmmaking. It is true that Park Chan-wook and Takeshi Kitano both come from completely different backgrounds and circumstances, but their contribution to the art of filmmaking is almost identical; both filmmakers always surprise. The fact that Park and Kitano are attempting to break the constraints between art cinema and commercial cinema should be highly respected. Many auteurs before them were restricted to their own national cinemas, so it is interesting to analyse how Kitano and Park carry out the artistic influences of their predecessors into the modern age of cinema.
- Bob Davis. (2003). Takeshi Kitano. Available: http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/kitano/. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Jinhee Choi (2010). The South Korean Film Renaissance. USA: Wesleyan University Press. 117.
- Tony Rayns. (2007). An Interview With Tony Rayns. Available: http://www.offscreen.com/index.php/phile/essays/tony_rayns/P1/. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Darrell William Davis . (2001). Reigniting Japanese Cinema with Hana-Bi.Cinema Journal. 40 (4), 70.
- Darrell William Davis . (2001). Reigniting Japanese Cinema with Hana-Bi.Cinema Journal. 40 (4), 69.
- Jinhee Choi (2010). The South Korean Film Renaissance. USA: Wesleyan University Press. 176.
- im Hoberman . (1998). The Ultimate Renaissance Man . Available: http://www.kitanotakeshi.com/index.php?content=resources&id=41. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Sean Clarke. (2003). You can’t tell what I’m going to do next. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/may/29/features.seanclarke. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Sato Yuu. (2004). The Kitano Talkshow. Available: http://www.kitanotakeshi.com/index.php?content=resources&id=54. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Darrell William Davis . (2001). Reigniting Japanese Cinema with Hana-Bi.Cinema Journal. 40 (4), 74.
- Tony Rayns. (1997). Flowers and Fire . Available: http://www.kitanotakeshi.com/index.php?content=resources&id=38. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Jack Giroux. (2013). ‘Stoker’ Director Park Chan-Wook Plays in the Castle of Genre – See more at: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/stoker-director-park-chan-wook-plays-in-the-castle-of-genre.php#sthash.Df4cgp1L.d. Available: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/stoker-director-park-chan-wook-plays-in-the-castle-of-genre.php. Last accessed 3rd January 2014.
- Oldboy, 2003. [DVD] Park Chan-wook, South Korea: Tartan Video.
- Hana-Bi, 1997. [DVD] Takeshi Kitano , Japan : Momentum Pictures.
- Sonatine , 1993. [DVD] Takeshi Kitano , Japan : Momentum Pictures.
- Violent Cop, 1989. [DVD] Takeshi Kitano , Japan : Momentum Pictures.
- Zatoichi , 2003. [DVD] Takeshi Kitano , Japan : Artificial Eye.
- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002. [DVD] Park Chan-wook, South Korea: Artificial Eye.
- Lady Vengeance, 2005. [DVD] Park Chan-wook, South Korea: Artificial Eye.
- Thirst, 2009. [DVD] Park Chan-wook, South Korea: Metrodome Distribution.