Film Fund to Boost Asian Cinema in U.S.

The Weinstein Company's $285 million Asian film fund is officially open for business. New York Asian Film Festival director Grady Hendrix talks to Rebecca Roberts about his skepticism about its efficacy in raising U.S. audiences' awareness about Asian cinema.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Movie moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein announced this week that the Weinstein company's $285 million Asian film fund is officially open for business. The Weinstein brothers plan to use Asian filmmakers, actors and production crews, as well as make Asian-themed films with Western actors. The goal, they say, is Asian films that delight movie audiences east and west.

Grady Hendrix is dubious about that proposition. He's the director of the New York Asian Film Festival. And he worries Eastern and Western tastes are just too different.

Mr. GRADY HENDRIX (Director, New York Asian Film Festival): I don't think there is such a thing as an Asian film. I mean, that's, you know - I don't know - that's like Egg Fu Young. It's something in America that makes sense, but it doesn't make sense overseas. There's a Korean film industry, there's several Indian film industries, there's a small Pakistani film industry. There's China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and they don't all think of themselves as just and out Asian. So I'm not quite sure what an Asian film would be except, I guess, a film that's not in English and the actors aren't white. But, you know, more power to them. If anyone can do something like this and pull it off, it's probably the Weinstein's.

But, you know, the other fact of the matter is no one in America really cares about Asian film, to be honest. So…

ROBERTS: Well, what do they think Asian film is? Do most Americans think of martial arts movies, think of Bollywood? What do you think our mental image of an Asian is?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, I think, for the most part, it's what we've been seeing for the last 10 years. It's either a big, posh glamorous marital arts epic where everyone dresses in six miles of billowing silk.

(Soundbite of Asian movie)

Mr. HENDRIX: Or it's a low brow, sort of grotty(ph) horror movie where pissed-off, dead, wet girls with long, black hair crawl out of gutters and sewers and television sets.

(Soundbite of Asian horror movie)

Mr. HENDRIX: So I think that's sort of the basic image of Asian films in America. You've got all kinds of things working against Asian movies being a big success in America.

They've got subtitles that are relegated to the art house circuit, but for the most part, their genre movies, their action movies, their romances, their comedies, which don't really, you know, appeal necessarily to the art house crowd.

You know, it's like these distributors are working with a business model that's 10 or 15 years out of date. In the early '90s, hey, action movies, cool, awesome. Now, I think people are a little tired of them.

You know, I - movies are where you're supposed to go to be blown away and see something new that you haven't seen before. And when you're sitting in a theater with a bunch of people and someone flies across the screen and chops someone's head off, you know, and everyone just yawns, you know a genre might be in trouble.

(Soundbite from Asian movie)

ROBERTS: Which all leads to the question of what are the Weinstein's doing? Why are they investing all this money?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, I think it's actually a really smart thing for them to do. It's a little bit like the same reason Nike makes shoes overseas. All the different Asian film industries are all pretty slick at this point. You've got terrific directors. You've got terrific technicians, and very good actors working everywhere. Right now, a movie from Thailand could probably play a Cineplex in America and no one would bat an eye at the technical or production values. So, technically, Asian movies are on par with - if not, you know, slightly above in some instances - where Hollywood movies are right now. So, I think what the Weinstein's see is a huge talent pool in Asia.

ROBERTS: So this is basically a way to outsource cheap labor?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, yeah. I mean, I hate to say it that way because it's sort of disrespectful to the said cheap labor who are, you know, some of the - I think - some of the best directors and screenwriters and technical people on the planet working right now. But, yeah, I mean, you know, it's much less expensive to produce a movie in Asia. So, it's certainly from a money point of view - a smart thing for them to do.

ROBERTS: Are there different film making regions in Asia that are better at different things? I mean, are - you know, the Japanese good at special effects? Are there things like that?

Mr. HENDRIX: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean - to be honest, I mean, Korea - sort of the national genre is melodrama. And no one can make you cry like a Korean movie. I mean, romantic comedies and romances in Korea are just amazing. In terms of Japan, Japan's very good at doing big budget spectacle very well. You've got Hong Kong, which is getting much more back into action and crime films the way they use to make. You've got Thailand, which is really specializing in action right now. Thai comedy is probably too local to travel, but Thai action - there's a real market for that overseas.

ROBERTS: The fact that this Asian film - at least the news that has leaked from this new Asian Film fund - they're going to start with a Jet Li-Jackie Chan vehicle, a remake of "Seven Samurai," and a live action version of "Mulan." Does that say to you that they're playing it safe with an American audience?

Mr. HENDRIX: If it was 1994, I'd say yes. Are they playing it safe with an American audience now? I don't think anything that's a foreign movie is safe with an American audience now. It's very hit or miss. You know, if an American movie with known actors, you know, with a low budget, in English, can't make any money, then I'm not sure how anyone expects an Asian movie with non-recognizable actors over here, in another language with subtitles, is going to make any money. Every now and then there's an exception. But for the most part, you know, Asian movies just sort of die like a sick dog in the States.

ROBERTS: So, let's take the exception instead of the rule - something like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Mr. HENDRIX: Okay.

ROBERTS: Is that almost a parlor trick? I mean, do you think that Western audiences saw the gorgeous cinematography and the special effects, and thought, hmm, neat movie but then didn't go out and see any more of the genre?

Mr. HENDRIX: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENDRIX: I mean, to be honest, yes. I mean, I don' want to paint this entirely bleak picture. The fact is, sort of people my age, in their early 30s and older, and also into their mid-20s, those are lost generations. There's a small percentage of people in there who are interested in Asian film, who actually go out and buy a ticket.

For the most part, my recommendation to distributors and studio people: write them off. There's a whole generation of kids coming up, who are in middle school and high school right now. Who are into Manga, they're into anime. They, you know, they read their comic books right to left instead of left to right. They want to see subtitles on their cartoons. And these are kids for whom Asian culture is not some weird, far-off, bizarro(ph) thing. They have a whole new set of associations. And once distributors figure that out and stop trying to put a square peg in a round hole, I think someone's going to make a lot of money.

ROBERTS: Grady Hendrix is the director of the New York Asian Film Festival. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much.

Mr. HENDRIX: Yup. My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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