Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going International: A Look at ‘Ninja Assassin’ & ‘The Warrior’s Way’

The idea of any Asian actor or actress wanting to break into the international English language market has always been a tough one, perhaps best illustrated by the influx of Hong Kong talent to Hollywood in the lead up to 1997’s handover of the island back to China, when all movies would be subject to the governments board of censors, and suddenly the bad guys could no longer be “those dirty mainlanders”.

Which era is the coolest? 1986....
Although at first it seemed that Hollywood greeted them with open arms, for many who made the move those same arms quickly became a bear hug. Jet Li could do kung-fu, therefore in every movie he will play an Asian cop, Tsui Hark made some memorable action movies, therefore he will only direct moves starring Jean Claude Van Damme, Ringo Lam also made some good action movies, so he was destined to the same fate of directing movies starring Jean Claude Van Damme.  In fact the only director who escaped the curse of directing Jean Claude Van Damme was John Woo, who directed him just once in 1993’s ‘Hard Target’

....or 2010,  you decide!
Even an excellent actor like Chow Yun Fat got roped into essentially playing the same character he was known for in his most famous action movies like ‘A Better Tomorrow’ (recently re-made in Korea) and ‘Hard Boiled’, and soon enough everyone grew weary and headed back home. The only person who stuck it out was Jackie Chan, who after breaking almost every bone in his body during his Hong Kong movies, was probably happy to enjoy the safety of Hollywood in his later years and cash the cheques.

Hollywood got to shape its new Hong Kong talent pool not so much on their acting or directing skills, so much as on whatever roles they had played before which would have the most appeal to what they perceived an English speaking audience would want to see.

What does every Korean
need in Hollywood?
So, in a movie industry like that of Korea, where first and foremost acting is the priority above all else, what kind of opportunities would await beyond the soju guzzling peninsula? For a long time, it was known that Lee Byung-hun was the only Korean actor with a Hollywood agent, and although he was cast yet again in a very stereotypical role for his first, and so far only, Hollywood foray ‘G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra’, he did a good job of almost stealing the show as the white clad ninja ‘Storm Shadow’.

Two swords and a lack of
upper body wear apparently.
But surprisingly the Korean who would get the honor of having their own starring role in a Hollywood production first was K-pop megastar Rain, who after having a brief appearance in the 2008 Wachowski Brothers movie ‘Speed Racer’, jumped to headlining the 2009 slice ‘em and dice ‘em ‘Ninja Assassin’.

A year later in 2010, Korea made a co-production with New Zealand called ‘The Warrior’s Way’, which starred Jang Dong-gun in the lead role in a nod to the cowboy western movies of old, which was helmed by Sngmoo Lee. While a movie which revolves around a ninja hacking and slicing his way through modern day Europe, and a movie about an Asian warrior settling down in a turn of the century ramshackle western town may not sound very similar, interestingly the structure of both movies are remarkably so.

For a start both characters are on the run from their clans, who view them as traitors. Jang Dong-gun’s Sad Flutes clan are after him because he wouldn't kill the last surviving member of a rival clan, who is just a baby, and Rain's Ozunu clan are after him because he refused to kill a fellow clan member who had tried to escape.  In typical western made movie style, it appears neither are actually playing a Korean character, with Dong-gun’s character being hinted at as being Chinese, and Rain’s character is alluded to as being Japanese. 

Rain slicing and dicing in modern day
However the similarities don't stop there, each respective clan's master is played by a legendary icon of action cinema - the master of the Sad Flutes clan is played by Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung (who, in connection to the movie I referenced earlier, is also in the original ‘A Better Tomorrow’), and the master of the Ozunu clan is played by 80's American B-movie ninja icon Sho Kosugi (whose son, Kane Kosugi, was also the star of Jung Doo-hong & Ryoo Seung-wan’s short movie for Motorola phones, ‘Timeless’) - and both play cruel and spiteful characters who will stop at nothing to track down their target. 

....& Jang Dong-gun doing the same
in the wild west.
The style of the action is also very similar. When the action does come, both movies shed liberal amounts of CGI blood (in my opinion a rare case of being done well for both movies), and employ the '300' technique of the stop-start slow-motion/speed-up action scenes.

All in all despite so many similarities, I enjoyed both movies for what they where, light popcorn fodder with an Asian influence, and for me I'll probably watch them both again.  The bigger question of if Korean actors can break out into more diverse roles that don’t involve them brandishing a sword to slice up some form of enemy is yet to be seen, with even 2009’s live action adaptation of the Japanese manga ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’ starring the beautiful Jeon Ji-hyun in the title role, still essentially following exactly the same formula.

As has always been the case, Hollywood and other western movie industries are never quite sure what to do when Asian actors come calling, be it from Korea, China, or Japan. But at least in the case of ‘Ninja Assassin’ and ‘The Warrior’s Way’, the characters that Jang Dong-gun and Rain play are treated with respect, and don’t have to put up with the poor stereotyping that the Hong Kong clan had to deal with a little over a decade ago.

Both characters are strong, silent types, and most refreshing of all is that both are given a western love interest in the form of Kate Bosworth & Naomie Harris respectively, minus any type of racial stereotyping, the ‘Rush Hour’ movies should take note. All in all, while these movies may not be perfect, they’re a step in the right direction, and if nothing more, Rain has probably gained a few more fans to his already huge legion of followers.  

Paul Bramhall


  1. It's kind of disappointing to know that most Western audiences will only know Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow from G.I. Joe and not for his other performances back home. :(

    1. Hi Hieu...agreed. He did also have an English speaking role in the Korea / Japan / Hong Kong / Vietnam / Hollywood collaboration 'I Come With the Rain', however the movie is a muddled mess and I'd almost go so far as to say that 'G.I.Joe' actually better serves as an introduction to his talents. No matter how much of a cliched action movie it is, at least it does what it sets out to do well enough.

  2. Hey Paul, thanks for another well-written, thoughtful article.

    Though I haven't watched WARRIOR'S WAY yet, despite everything stacked against me enjoying NINJA ASSASSIN (lots of CGI, a US filmmaker's crazy-edit action choreography, a pop singer in the lead, et.)... I loved it. Somehow all of these elements worked quite well together and NINJA ASSASSIN is great, dark fun. I was already very psyched to see WARRIOR'S WAY, but now it has moved much closer to the top of my to-watch pile.