Film is a global business, but each country has a different mode of production. This and (for some) an added language barrier has made the first English-language film a difficult proposition for even the most acclaimed of international filmmakers.
Over the past two years, South Korea’s big three filmmakers – Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon –have found this out the hard way. Of the three, Bong Joon-ho has had the most success in his homeland: The Host set records and his newest film, Snowpiercer, broke them. But his film was made without North American distribution from the get-go, so the movie has taken an additional year to make it to the US.
Snowpiercer is primarily in English (with some Korean). In the future, after an attempt to counter climate change has gone awry and plummeted the world into an ice age, most of the world’s population has died. The survivors are all aboard a long train and, even in unthinkable conditions, survivors are divided by class. A revolt happens in the back of the train: to try to get to the front.
Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris and John Hurt. The film was produced via companies that were based in South Korea, the UK and the US. And it’s based on a French graphic novel. Because the film was a multi-national production, it actually helped in getting it into theaters with the director’s final cut. Well, the Korean box office helped; so did the poorly-tested American version that had 20 minutes cut from the film per request of the American distributor. That’s now been scrapped and the full 126-minute film will be in theaters this Friday as Bong intended.
“All three of us [directors] know each other well,” Bong told the Financial Times. Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) and Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil) made their debuts via the US studio system. Park was at Fox for the Nicole Kidman starring Stoker and Kim at Lionsgate for the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback attempt, The Last Stand. “And when we talk about our experiences on these films … we’re like ‘Oh, I had it the worst.’ But they did have a worse time than me… In the case of Park and Kim, the Hollywood studio has a very strong power. And they didn’t have final say.” Fox cut 20-minutes from Stoker and Lionsgate had final script approval for The Last Stand. And the script was still changing after shooting had already begun.
Bong wrestled with The Weinstein Company over final cut for almost a year, but since The Weinstein Company came aboard after the film was already completed and their shorter print wasn’t testing as well, Bong’s version won out. Succinctly, Bong told CraveOnline, “I’m glad it’s getting released.”
The last big trifecta of foreign-language filmmakers who were making their Hollywood film debuts around the same time were Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess), Guillermo del Toro (Mimic) and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (21 Grams) from Mexico. They too were very close and often produced each other’s films. When Hollywood (and Britain) starts filling their new director seats with foreign directors they’ve often focused on certain film renaissances within other countries specific “waves.” In early Hollywood there was an influx of German talent, filmmakers like F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Fritz Lang (M), who were escaping the rise of the Nazi party when they made their American masterpieces. Similarly the Czech New Wave sought refuge in Hollywood during the Cold War. And arthouse attention to French and Italian directors greatly influenced the direction of 1970s American cinema.
But while not every English-language debut has fulfilled the promise of their native land, we here at CraveOnline generally like to look on the positive side. So, in honor of Snowpiercer (which we enjoyed) let’s look at some of the best English-language debuts.
Now to keep this a little simpler we only chose films that had an English-speaking country involved with the production. The 1970s onward saw many foreign filmmakers use Hollywood actors in films financed and shot in their native country. For example, although Marlon Brando was in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Tango in Paris, it was a French-Italian co-production. Similarly, Dennis Hopper played Tom Ripley in Wim Wender’s German production, The American Friend. So technically speaking, Bertolucci’s first American production was the incestuous mother-son heroin addiction love film Luna (unseen) and Wenders’ was the underwhelming Hammett. Likewise, since Murnau made his debut with a silent film, we nixed it as title cards don’t really keep with the English-language debut theme (even though Sunrise is one of the all-time best films. You really should watch it.). And while Breaking the Waves is a devastatingly amazing (wrecking) film, Lars von Trier began working in the English language in a UK co-production of The Kingdom TVmini-series. And we weren’t sure what to do with him.
That’s just a disclaimer for some possible omissions. We know there’s some very passionate Stoker fans out there. So feel free to use any language in the comment section to let us know what we missed, or where we flubbed (or even if you just appreciate our highlights; like we said, we’re positive here). With those ground rules, please peruse our selections for The Top 12 English-Language Film Debuts (American or UK production). Why 12? One of our favorite scenes in Snowpiercer takes place in a classroom. Grab your pencils.
Brian Formo contributes to CraveOnline's Best Movie Ever, The Big List, and does occasional mop-up duty for film reviews and interviews. He's also at Collider, IGN, and Complex. But if you REALLY want to know his thoughts on movies go to www.brianformo.com/year-ends-project.