September 21, 2005


As I plink away at my keyboard and scan the internet for movies getting releases all over the world that will never see the light of day in the US, I wonder: are we getting left behind? Asia, with the enormous markets of India and China, is obviously where future economic growth lies, and Asian pop culture (from Hello Kitty to Pokemon) rots the minds of millions of American babies every day and manga is the fast-growing sector of publishing in the US. But for some reason we seem to be on an entirely different page than Asian people when it comes to movies. Is it us?

Think on this:
- Hayao Miyazaki is the world's most respected animator, and his movies consistently break box office records in Japan and Hong Kong. Yet not one of his movies has made more than US$10 million at the American box office.
- KAMIKAZE GIRLS was a big hit in Japan and selected by the film magazine KINEMA JUMPO as one of the best movies of 2004. In America, it came and went without a trace and was called "too long", "tiresome" and "implausible".
- SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and OLDBOY have been hailed by critics around the world as important movies, and OLDBOY took home the grand prize at Cannes last year. In the US, OLDBOY (which was a decent hit in Korea) earned rave reviews and made about US$700,000 and SYMPATHY earned a mix of good reviews and pans and went on to make around US$35,000.
- MEMORIES OF MURDER and JSA, both of them hits in Japan and Korea and much loved by critics and fans around the world, were unceremoniously dumped on the US market and vanished without a trace.
- INITIAL D which has been setting the box office on fire all over Asia isn't even getting picked up by an American distributor.

I have a hard time believing that American tastes are this different from the tastes of people in Japan, China, Hong Kong and Korea. Is the cultural divide really this large? What is it about the American market that makes it so resistant to Asian movies, or conversely, what is it about Asian movies that makes them so difficult for the American market to absorb?

I refuse to believe it's biology, it can't be culture because I've seen US audiences go nuts for certain Asian films, so what is it? Exposure? Education? I'm at a loss.

September 21, 2005 at 12:10 PM in News | Permalink


It's not biology. It's the fact that the studios control the means of marketing that would raise any awareness of Asian or non-American movies and pop culture, and their priority is to safeguard their own products rather than other companies' or countries'.

Posted by: ATantimedh | Sep 21, 2005 6:14:06 PM

WHoa. Kamikaze Girls came to America? Nice. The Miyazaki problem I think deals with America's belief animation is for kids (regardless of the fact that Animation can be wonderful cinema all around). The example of Initial D seems skewed mainly because of it was a manga, an animated show before it hit screens...add to the fact the sport of drift racing is a whole lot bigger in Asia than in America. Beyond that, I am not sure why movies like JSA, Sympathy and Oldboy haven't done as well as they did. I had the movies on DVD for some time now, and each one I show to people, they eat up. So, I believe some of the blame is on lack of exposure. Beyond that, who knows.

Posted by: Travon | Sep 21, 2005 6:46:45 PM

I don't think there is one explanation, and a post like this is sort of like owning a singing fish: why bother? But I find it weird that kids in Hong Kong, Japan and Korea know what INITIAL D is and American kids mostly couldn't care less. It's weird - like there's the planet Earth, and then Bizarro Earth, which is mostly America.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 21, 2005 8:19:17 PM

Wow, Grady, I'm shocked you have such a hard time grasping this. We're not "getting left behind" or any such thing. Dude, think about it. Asia and America are worlds away -- in fact, they mind as well be separate worlds, because THEY ARE. The reason Asian kids are so gaga over "Initial D" is because they grew up reading it as manga; they KNOW it. Just like American kids grew up reading comic books; they KNOW the X-Men. As to Oldboy and Park's other movies -- are you kidding me? They may be pretty good, but they are by no means groundbreaking or Earth shattering. "Citizen Kane" was Earth shattering. "Oldboy" was cool but that's it. Stop being so self-hating and open your eyes. Expecting people from two completely different cultures and worlds to share the same taste in movies is just absurd. I've just lost a lot of respect for you, if you can't even grasp such a simple thing. Egads.

Posted by: Sam | Sep 21, 2005 9:21:05 PM

It's frustrating, to no end. As far as mass-market blockbusters go, I think a lot of it lies in the marketing and star appeal- their are countless wu xia films better than Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero, but the fact that people know Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat from their bad American films seems to go a long way into convincing Jane and Joe Midwest that's ok to watch a film with "words on the bottom". The rare US films that are edgy and exciting are generally met with indifference at the box office, and when they're in a foreign language it's only going to make things worse. If there was justice, though, Oldboy would've made $77 million and Dukes of Hazzard would have made $700,000 (well, if there was justice they'd have burned the negative). I've had few experiences more depressing than seeing Oldboy at 10pm on opening night in Denver with four other people.

Posted by: Dylan | Sep 21, 2005 9:54:50 PM

I'll go back to the first post and leave it at that; promotion, promotion, promotion. Were there tv spots for Oldboy, or anything you mentioned? Maybe, but they don't compare to the deluge of publicity, literally the millions of dollars that goes into something craptacular like...oh, say, Stealth. Partially this has to be due to Hollywood studios/distributors trying to make their money back. I'd say the other half of it is the fact that there just isn't that much invested in any of these Asian films from them. Big Asian Hits just don't happen that much in the States, partially (perhaps) because of the above reasons. Admittedly, this isn't always the case; Hero made almost 55 million, but they promoted the hell out of it, yet paid pocket change to have it made. So obviously it had something going for it though. Still, it was in a LOT of theatres as opposed to say, Spirited Away. Thusly, I think the easiest explanation is that money talks. Cultural difference can only account for so much. The vast majority of people who I show random Korean, HK, etc. films to really, really enjoy it. But there's no access for Joe America. Blame the studio/distribution system if you must (and I do) for locking up screens with their films as well. I could go on, obviously, but ultimately it's a case of poorly considered dispersal and promotion of these films. And nobody has stepped up to the plate yet to do a decent job of this, in my opinion.

Posted by: FiveVenoms | Sep 21, 2005 10:26:19 PM

I'm sure it's probably a combination of many factors - several already mentioned here - but another important one might be the ongoing perception of foreign-language films as only for the arthouse market. Grady's post is expressed in terms of pop culture, but I think distributors are uncomfortable with this notion: they feel on much safer ground releasing, for example, Kore-eda Hirokazu films to the established subtitle-reading artfilm audience than they do trying to find ways to market non-English popular genre movies like 'Initial D' to the masses. From a UK perspective, this is why 'Spring, Summer ...' was a big success (relatively speaking) but 'Shaolin Soccer' was not. (And it's also why a lame movie like Chen Kaige's 'Together' will get quite wide theatrical distribution whereas something like Masuri Fumihiko's terrific 'Ping Pong' generally won't.)

It's understandable that distributors would think like this: most countries make enough of their own low-brow movies - or import so many US ones - that most people on the look out for a relaxing night out don't feel the need to struggle (as they might perceive it) through a Chinese- or Japanese-language one. But there's no reason it should be that way. Grady's post was a bit more sophisticated than Sam makes out since he mentioned all the Asian cultural icons which just as ingrained on the western mindset as Titanic and Britney Spears are ubiquitous in the East. If Asian film fans can be conditioned to want to see Lord of the Rings, then westerners can be taught to covet manga-inspired Japanese craziness too. As I think you'd all agree, the problem is getting people exposed to the films we've mentioned for the first time. Once they've seen a few of these films, most people are instantly hooked -even if our understanding might not be the same as that of an Asian viewer.

In this respect I agree that the issue of stars is a big one. It seems clear to me that Hero did well but HOFD didn't was because one had Jet Li and the other didn't. Similarly, in the UK Infernal Affairs did well (a rare example of a foreign-language genre hit), but the superior IA2 flopped. The only reason for this can be that IA2 didn't feature Tony Leung. Establishing a few Asian stars in the global marketplace is probably the best way to hook people in, but the question of how to develop non-western movie actors as global stars is complicated, takes a lot of effort from distributors, and probably in the end just comes down to luck.

But at the same time the example of IA shows that the audience can cross over. People who know Tony Leung know him from arty Wong Kar-Wai movies, but they still turned out for a Heat-esque thriller. So maybe Andy Lau and Choi Min-Sik will one day follow where Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat have led.

There is still hope, if only distributors can be made to think about the issues properly!

Posted by: Rob | Sep 22, 2005 3:00:40 AM

Why are you doiing this blog, then? I think majority of White America are "culturally redneck."

Posted by: okoku | Sep 22, 2005 6:42:57 AM

The problem with the US is that it's not just protectionist politically, but also culturally. And maybe the US is increasingly aware of Asia's threat to Hollywood in the future?

Foreign language films may be stereotyped as arthouse but thenagain as pop culture goes, foreign films are hardly going to get picked up by your local multiplex, because at least among my friends in the UK, people simply don't like the effort of reading subtitles (I find it a burden too sometimes, but with the current films coming out of Asia at the moment, I know it is worth it)(and others will not)

Posted by: Tom | Sep 22, 2005 6:48:14 AM

why import great asian movies when you can remake them?
case in point: Inferanal Affairs. another box office sensation
in asia, only to be reappropriated. Ringu/The Ring and
Ju-On/The Grudge also come to mind... so asian movies
do make it here eventually, in a watered down form... or,
you have people like the Weinsteins & Miramaxe who edit and
dub movies as they see fit, usually blaspheming the directors
originally intended message. shameful, i tell you.
thank god for Netflix, NicheFlix and my local Oriental Trading retail store,
which is the saving grace for those wishing to see Asian Cinema
in it's pure form such as myself... also, thanks to websites and message
boards like Kaijushakedown, monkeypeaches, kfccinema and kungfucinema
that enlighten us to such films in the first place.
thanks to whoever runs this site, less engrish and more humour!

Posted by: J. J. Marley | Sep 22, 2005 10:19:35 AM

Well, it's depressing to have to invoke the director of Girl, Interrupted, but James Mangold, promoting Walk the Line at the Toronto fest, said something along the lines of, "Studios aren't interested in movies you can get away with." And while he was talking about production, I think the same can be said with acquisition. What these guys want is the easy homer, a foreign pic (usually French or German) that'll get decent arthouse cred, but which is feel-good enough that it'll turn some coin (it's interesting to note that A Very Long Engagement, in putting Amelie's whimsy against a WWI backdrop, failed to connect in any way). But the distributors that DO take risks manage to bungle the job intolerably. Tartan's promotion of Oldboy, a Saturday night TNT highlight clip collection, wouldn't have convinced me to see the damn thing. And the superior Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance? In what universe does a marketing exec look at this supremely disturbing, heart-crushing film and decide on the tagline: "Revenge was never this sweet"? And who the blazes put that mystery woman on the cover of the Infernal Affairs DVD?! Studios that acquire these films ask themselves, in a moment of true condescension, how they can make them appeal to Chip and Betty in Idaho, and wind up either editing the soul out of them, sending them straight to DVD, or burying them in poorly financed theatrical runs. Most people never get to make up their own minds. I took several friends to the NYAFF, a few of whom had told me they had "no interest in Asian movies," several of whom were not from New York but middle America, and all of them have since come over to investigate and thieve from my DVD collection. The conclusion is obvious: the only people confused about Asian films are the studios. You know what? Asskicking is an international language, and so is tragedy. Dick and fart jokes are the same in Cantonese or Korean or English, and great acting shines past the "subtitle problem". I don't think Americans are generally "culturally redneck"; I don't subscribe to the idea that somehow, between the coasts, they just don't "get it". It's that elitism that has kept these films from audiences that would devour them. It's just about taking the leap on something you have to get away with. The rewards are obvious, if not easy. But hot damn, would I love to head down to a local theater for the opening night of a new Ryu Seung-wan picture. As long as we don't get Canto-pop on VH1.

Posted by: Abe Goldfarb | Sep 22, 2005 11:33:10 AM

I think folks are right that exposure has a lot to do with it, and that's one of the issues my original post was about: why don't Asian pop movies take off in the US?

But the other half of my post was: is the US getting left behind. With manga cleaning up the comics industry (and I don't want to start comics vs. manga chat here, but manga is growing faster and reaching more outlets than American comics for a lot of different reasons), and anime getting a strangle-hold on kiddie culture (the Kids WB is almost all anime these days, and so is most of the cartoon network: either genuine anime or anime-styled) it looks like Japanese pop culture is hot again. And, living in New York where a lot of trends come from, I've been noticing that the Japanese kids here are calling a lot of the shots: a lot of new restaurants and stores that open are Japanese-owned or cater to Japanese tastes, and a lot of street style is feeding off the Japanese street styles.

I'm not self-hating (oh, wait, I am!) but I see a lot more vitality on the Pacific Rim than I do in the US. I see huge economic growth, I see markets that are opening up wide and saying "ah!" and I see a pop culture that's finally got what looks like a permanent hold on the American psyche.

It's an unanswerable question (or, if you can answer it then you can see the future and that's pretty scary) but as Western pop culture becomes globally toxic is Asian pop culture filling the gap?

Box office around the world is down, but more local films in Asia are making more money than ever before (especially in Thailand and Korea). The US is engaged in a globally uncool war, so how cool can we be as arbiters of style and fashion these days? I think a lot of other countries see the US as kind of square these days, and are looking elsewhere for fashion tips. Or at least that's my impression.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 22, 2005 12:21:03 PM

It may be to do with the fact that in America, there is a yawning gap between the "kid" movies (which, without notable exception, either recoup or bust blocks) and "adult" entertainment, being prestige pics or violent blockbusters. For all the criticism that Hollywood churns out fare for teenagers, there is little that tickles the adolescent pleasure centers like a good Tsui Hark picture. Asian pop culture has innumerable outlets for the adolescent (and make no mistake, the utterly enjoyable Initial D is intended for no one below 12 or above 17, whatever its level of success) while America asks them to make do. Hollywood panders, while Asian cinema actually gratifies.

Aah, hell, it's just a thought.

Posted by: Abe Goldfarb | Sep 23, 2005 1:04:16 AM

I am really glad, Grady, that you pointed this out. I am from Japan and live in the US, but each time I go back to Japan, I feel that they have "more choices" of movies over there than the US. Not only Japanese domestic films, but European films and other Asian films (Korean and Chinese) are also treated side by side with Hollywood movies, not "segregated" as "foreign (=arthouse or martial arts) movies" like in the US. I believe it really comes from the "non-tariff barrier" (=distribution and marketing) that has been supported by Hollywood studios. Yes, kids there grow up with mangas, but they also go nuts about "Star Wars". It is not the cultural "difference". They simply have more choices, thanks to the relative weakness of Japanese movie industry that does not have power to do the same thing as Hollywood. I feel it is frustrating as a US resident, and that is why I have started my site about Japanese movies.

Posted by: Michi | Sep 23, 2005 9:58:33 AM

Maybe it has something to do with the (relatively) prolific nature of a lot of these film industries, or the very least, that it's more accessible overseas? By which I mean, look at the bloated financial mass that is a Hollywood movie. Then consider that its visual/production value equivalent in "Asia" is pennies on the dollar, which I sincerely don't think is just attributable to lowered cost-of-living, wages, etc. It says something that if Wong Jing can make anywhere from 3 to 20 (okay, it was the '90s, but still) movies a year with the same talent and stars as the most Cannes-award laden film in HK for some ridiculously low sum like 400,000$US to 1 million, whereas even a good independent American film with no stars will probably clock in conservatively at about 15 million+(hey! That's about how much Casshern cost!). I'll admit to not being terribly tuned in to Japan's "star economy", but I constantly see the same names pop up in Korean and Thai films no matter what the budget. I'll concur that some of these film industries aren't as prolific as Hollywood, which one has to admit, releases a LOT of expensive crap, but I think the lowered cost allows for a lot of innovation by experienced film makers, who can afford name-brand star recognition, which in turn makes for more entertaining movies, more often than not. But hey, if you really want to watch The Dukes of Hazzard instead of Kung Fu Hustle, I won't hold it against you.

Well yeah, I will, but I'm a jerk so don't pay it much attention.

Posted by: FiveVenoms | Sep 23, 2005 10:53:51 AM

i have to say that a big reason that much of the cinema from asia is better is based on artistic merit. oh ya, - right... things like composition of the frame, color and form... but, these basic tenets are sorely lacking in american film at the moment. except maybe scorsese and a few others; its out the window - and i will not mention the bs that comes out of "film schools" like nyu. much of american cinema is based on some wierd insecurities that result in the films produced having an assaultive quality - as if to say: "look at me! look at me!" while asian cinema tends to be seductive. i don't know about you, but i'd rather be seduced than assaulted. a good example for me latey: takeshi miike's "rainy dog". man, what a visually beautiful film. check it out.

Posted by: tim t. | Sep 23, 2005 3:39:19 PM

One reason why you're seeing more anime on TV is because its costly for companies to pay for old school animators to draw for shows that won't garner any profit. There are too many kid shows on TV for companies to think they can make any profit on merchandising.

Easier (and cheaper) to hire some out of work actor to put some dopey voice over and destroy what may have been a good anime series.

Initial D is hot cuz 1. manga was hot to begin with 2. Andrew Lau post- Infernal Affairs flick filmed in Japan where where in Asia, "hipness level" is through the roof.

Posted by: fishcado | Sep 26, 2005 2:44:18 PM

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