Described by critics as a “literary, gothic fairy tale,” Chan-wook Park‘s provocative thriller Stoker is the Korean director’s first English-language film. The dark drama about an enigmatic man who moves in with two women he claims are family opens in limited release today. Cult audiences are familiar with the filmmaker’s intense, violent revenge epics like Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it’s interesting to see how the director is being embraced by American critics for his stylish storytelling — this time featuring Hollywood talents Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode. Not every foreign filmmaker has seen similar praise when it came to their North American offerings. We explored this by examining the works of ten well-known, international directors and ranked their English-language debuts from best to worst.
The first chapter in Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” introduced a 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve to American audiences and paved the way to Hollywood for the Polish director. The claustrophobic, atmospheric tale of a woman’s descent into madness also established a longtime collaboration with Polanski’s screenwriting partner, Gérard Brach. Few filmmakers can transform physical space into psychological interiors where desire and emotional disgust creep far too close to one another. Polanski’s intense aural and visual portrait of feminine trauma draws us to the edge. Dickens termed this type of pull “the attraction of repulsion,” and we are forever in the thrall of Polanski’s nightmarish world.
With Metropolis, and M recently behind him, Austrian filmmaker Fritz Lang made waves with the Nazi party when The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was released in 1933. Concerned the film’s hypnotic story about a nefarious leader keeping an entire city in his grip would reflect poorly on the German regime, the movie was banned. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels admired Lang’s vision and offered him a position as head of German film studio UFA, hoping the auteur would make movies for the Nazis. Lang immediately fled the country, and thus began his American movie career. Lang started a new chapter in filmmaking with a meditation on mob mentality, Fury, starring Spencer Tracy as a man accused of a terrible crime. Lang’s Hollywood output was prolific and helped establish the darkly dramatic framework of the film noir genre.
Dogme 95 filmmaker Lars von Trier put an on-screen innocent to the test in the challenging drama Breaking the Waves. Emily Watson, in her first film role, was cast as a woman estranged from her paralyzed husband — at his urging. Seeing this as a testament of her faith and devotion, she seeks sexual partnerships with strangers, then shares the details with him, but things spiral out of control. Watson’s Oscar-nominated performance won Von Trier the art house attention he was seeking abroad and allowed him to share his emotionally devastating films with wider audiences.
Studio MGM challenged censors with their mod masterpiece, about a photographer who captures what he believes is a brutal murder on film, by creating a dummy company called Premiere Productions. The newly invented studio wasn’t required to adhere to the same rules, which allowed MGM to release Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language movie with full frontal nudity and explicit scenes. The film’s success helped crush the Production Code, but introduced the MPAA. That anarchic spirit runs throughout the film, set in swinging London and starring music icons like Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.
François Truffaut’s claims to English-language fame can be counted on one hand: his role as scientist Claude Lacombe in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his Hollywood adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The French New Wave pioneer hasn’t returned to American cinema since, but in 1966 he eagerly began filming his book-burning, dystopian saga, well before mastering the English language. He struggled through production (this was also his first film shot in color), but Truffaut’s troubles resulted in a masterful sci-fi adaptation that preceded subversive tales like A Clockwork Orange.
Ang Lee was recently awarded an Oscar for Best Director for his mystical drama Life of Pi, further cementing his successful crossover from Taiwan cinema to Hollywood. Lee’s first American movie explored familiar territory the filmmaker had tackled in works like Eat Drink Man Woman: complex relationships, social mores, and family drama. Lee described his reaction after being approached with Emma Thompson’s screenplay: “I thought they were crazy: I was brought up in Taiwan, what do I know about 19th-century England? About halfway through the script it started to make sense why they chose me. In my films I’ve been trying to mix social satire and family drama. I realized that all along I had been trying to do Jane Austen without knowing it. Jane Austen was my destiny. I just had to overcome the cultural barrier.” The director elaborated: “In some ways I probably know that nineteenth-century world better than English people today, because I grew up with one foot still in that feudal society. Of course, the dry sense of humor, the sense of decorum, the social code is different. But the essence of social repression against free will — I grew up with that.” Lee’s versatility and passion for universal, human stories helped propel him to even bigger projects.
Wim Wenders’ 1977 film The American Friend was loosely adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel. Dennis Hopper — fresh from filming his role in Apocalypse Now — starred as the amoral Tom Ripley. The volatile actor made a memorable antihero in Wenders atmospheric ode to film noir and American cinema — a trend that would continue throughout Wenders’ career. The film also joined the director with frequent collaborator, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz.
If we didn’t know that the incredible Wong Kar-wai directed 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, we might have mistaken IMDb’s plot synopsis for a terrible Eat Pray Love-esque movie: “A young woman takes a soul-searching journey across America to resolve her questions about love while encountering a series of offbeat characters along the way.” That isn’t to say we’re enamored with the Chinese filmmaker’s first English effort, but at least it carries moments of his trademark cinematography and beautiful visuals. The casting of singer Norah Jones turned out to be infinitely more exciting in theory, and the film’s emotional center lacked depth. Still, Wong Kar-wai continues to draw us to his sophisticated storytelling.
Don’t let the low ranking of John Woo’s Hard Target fool you. We’re geeks for the film and consider fellow Hong Kong filmmakers Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam’s English-language debuts less successful. Woo is a legend in his home country, and the story behind his American actioner is a fascinating cautionary tale for moviemakers. The director’s history of violence in Hong Kong cinema is well documented, which totally spooked Universal Pictures. Director Sam Raimi was tasked with unnecessarily babysitting Woo during the filming of Hard Target — a play on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story, The Most Dangerous Game. The MPAA added insult to injury when they demanded numerous changes to the director’s initial cut. With too many cooks in the kitchen Hard Target suffered, but the film contains a fantastic performance from a villainous Lance Henriksen, a fearsome Arnold Vosloo, and there are plenty of unintentional laughs. Note: this is the only movie you will ever see in which 1990’s action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme sucker punches a snake and surfs a speeding motorcycle like an acid-washed, mullet-coiffed god.
He’s known as the director and super producer who never sleeps, with a revolving, endless list of projects in the works. In 1997, Guillermo del Toro was making his second movie and elevating a familiar monster story — this time about bugs — with slasher elements and his creepy, unforgettable visuals. There is a plethora of man vs. nature tales throughout the sci-fi and horror genres, but what Del Toro lacked in originality he made up for with mood and impeccable craftsmanship. When speaking about the difference between his American and Spanish films, Del Toro had this insightful comment to offer:
“People say, you know, ‘I like your Spanish movies more than I like your English-language movies because they are not as personal,’ and I go ‘F**k, you’re wrong!’ Hellboy is as personal to me as Pan’s Labyrinth. They’re tonally different, and yes, of course you can like one more than the other — the other one may seem banal or whatever it is that you don’t like. But it really is part of the same movie. You make one movie. Hitchcock did one movie, all his life.”