With 'Stoker' on the way, 10 great English-language debuts by foreign directors

Posted by · 8:49 am · February 27th, 2013

To call any foreign auteur attempting his first English-language feature a “fish out of water” doesn’t give him (or her) a great deal of credit: a fish out of water is a pretty dead fish, after all, and it’s hardly a novel observation that many artists are positively inspired by unfamiliar climes. But film history littered with enough unsuccessful crossover attempts to make us nervous whenever an esteemed world-cinema name decides to shed the subtitles (well, for us, at least).

Recently, Wong Kar-wai came badly (albeit prettily) unstuck when hitting the American highway in “My Blueberry Nights.” Three years after accepting an Oscar for “The Lives of Others,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck received only critical catcalls for his calamitous “The Tourist.” And while it was no train wreck, the indifferent response to “Things We Lost in the Fire” was enough to send Susanne Bier scuttling back to Denmark, whereupon she found she could make a middlebrow, Oscar-winning morality tale from the comfort of her own homeland.

So hopes, fears and, above all, curiosity were all running high when wild South Korean genre stylist Park Chan-wook unveiled his first American production, “Stoker,” at the Sundance Film Festival last month. As the closing credits rolled on this nasty, beautiful, Gothic-modernist fairytale, however, I could breathe a sigh of relief: Park had breezed through passport control with considerable panache, and without sacrificing one iota of his trademark creepy-kinky weirdness. You can read my full thoughts on “Stoker” in my Variety review, but  don’t mind adding that it’s my favorite new American film of 2013 so far. (There are those, and will be many more, who wildly disagree, but this is not a film looking to unite opinion with its narrative and stylistic extremities.) 

As well as extending Nicole Kidman’s fascinating record of collaborations with international auteurs (joining Lars von Trier in the “yes” column, stepping over the hunched figure of Oliver Hirschbiegel), Park joins a long list of successfully globe-trotting directors that is very nearly as old as cinema itself. From Jean Renoir to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, from Ernst Lubitsch to Louis Malle, from John Woo to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, film has been richer for the expanded perspective of directors who have either relocated permanently from one filmmaking culture (and language) to another — as a flood of invaluable European immigrants, including Oscar winners Billy Wilder and Michael Curtiz, did in Hollywood’s golden age — or professionally vacationed in a variety of spots.

Only two days ago, the Academy handed a second a Best Director Oscar to one of its greatest international sons: Ang Lee, who began his career with two Taiwanese features nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and has since worked with equal ease in British, independent American and Hollywood environs, twice returning to his home continent in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Lust, Caution.”

Lee’s Oscar triumph, combined with the release of “Stoker” this week, is a gratifying reminder that great filmmakers aren’t — or shouldn’t be — restricted by geographic or cultural borders.

With that in mind, this week’s list focuses on 10 directors, previously known exclusively for foreign fare, who aced their first English-language assignment. It’s a broad brief, and the list is by no means comprehensive, so I’ve arranged it chronologically rather than in preferential order. Think of it chiefly as a conversation starter: which directors are you gladdest made the transition to English-language fare, and which got it right first time? Click through the gallery below for my picks, and be sure to add yours in the comments.  

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