After showing The Last Stand, which is surprisingly better than TV commercials indicate, and scooping up the third-ever Busan West Film Festival Icon Award Friday night, director Kim Jee-woon answered his first question at a post-screening Q&A in Korean before the fellow next to him translated for a diverse Chapman University audience in English, a ritual that was repeated throughout the evening. The next question went to the shoot-'em-up movie's legendary star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who dutifully began his delivery in German.
That cracked up the packed audience in the Orange campus' Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, something that happened often at the festival's red-carpet opening thanks to Kim, the Governator, the movie's writer Andrew Knauer (a Chapman alum) and The Last Stand, which, no bullshit, really is more blood-gushingly hilarious than you'd expect from a vehicle that includes Johnny Knoxville mugging. (I can see it now on the DVD box: "Surprisingly better than TV commercials indicate" and "More blood-gushingly hilarious than you'd expect from a vehicle that includes Johnny Knoxville mugging.")
The kidding of Schwarzenegger, a frequent Chapman visitor who even attended the groundbreaking of the very building he was in, also pointed to the overarching theme of Busan West: the global reach of cinema. It was embodied in a panel featuring a director lauded in his native Korea presenting the first of three promised Hollywood movies, an internationally beloved Austrian-American action hero making his triumphant return to the silver screen and a regular-old American still nervously wondering how he wound up on this panel. The Last Stand represents Knauer's first produced credit.
The story, soundtrack and desert locations evoke spaghetti westerns, but this one is set in the modern age. Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) and a ragtag team of deputies must protect their small Arizona border town as this generation's Pablo Escobar has broken free from the FBI in Las Vegas and is heading south in a Corvette ZR1 capable of zooming past and through police cruisers at 200 mph (another reason to blame Obama for saving the American auto industry). Kim breathes new life into a tired genre, proving yet again that South Korea is where it's at when it comes to action, horror and supernatural thrillers these days. And though it still cracks me up to no end that Schwarzenegger gets assigned a name like Ray Owens in popcorn movies, he gets a few well placed one liners as he did in his glory days.
Variety writer and editor Peter Debruge, a Chapman adjunct faculty member, moderated the Q&A, which featured no direct questions from the audience but some submitted beforehand via Twitter and film students. Because everything Kim said and heard required translation, it would have doubled The Last Stand's 107-minute run time to get through it all had the audience been permitted direct contact with panelists. Earlier, during his award acceptance, Kim mentioned, through his amused translator Josh Park, "I'm not sure this translation is correct looking at your response."
A translator and two assistants on The Last Stand set helped Kim, but he said using facial expressions with his actors and performing stunts he wanted them to do himself is what really made the production work. That left the director with many scrapes and bruises, something that still amuses Schwarzenegger, who joked that had never happened with James Cameron or other filmmaker he'd worked with.
What Schwarzenegger said Kim has in common with the greats is "passion." He credited Kim with "really drilling down to analyze the script" and being marvelously inventive in creating action sequences. As for the translation challenges, Schwarzenegger said the looks Kim shot him explained perfectly what was required. "Before the translator translates for you, the actor knows what [Kim] wants," he said. Schwarzenegger later remarked, "He keeps you motivated from morning to night. That is one of the most important things a director can do."
During the Q&A and while receiving the Icon Award, Kim mentioned the "solitary" feeling he experiences in the director's chair. In Korea, that loneliness comes from watching everyone on the set work their hardest but failing to fulfill his artistic vision. In America, the same "agony" came from the studio-imposed ticking clock and the competing visions of the studio, producers and cast members. He credited Schwarzenegger with intervening to allow the director's vision to flourish and said he felt the Icon Award rewarded him for having endured the agony.
You could also see and hear agony in Knauer, who is obviously more comfortable alone with his laptop than he is under bright stage lights. (Welcome to the club, buddy.)
With Schwarzenegger by his side, Knauer told Debruge early on, "I'm as overwhelmed as you could possible be." Some comic relief came when he mentioned his love of Schwarzenegger-style action flicks and desire to write those kinds of scripts despite Hollywood having seemed to have abandoned them. But he did not have Schwarzenegger in mind as the lead because he was still governor at the time the first draft of The Last Stand spec script was written. As Knauer was explaining how he knew an older actor would have to play Ray Owens, he caught a glimpse of Schwarzenegger glaring at him and nervously started sputtering his words. Arnie was just pulling his landjäger, of course.
It was in apparent sincerity that Schwarzenegger said he chose this particular project to represent his screen return because of the "terrific story." He appreciated the vulnerability of the sheriff, who must dig deep to find the action hero he had abandoned when he left a bloody LAPD SWAT career for small town life. The actor noted he's seldom been called upon to evoke that.
Schwarzenegger also seemed to cherish the opportunity to work with Kim, whose career apparently everyone in Hollywood has been following with awe. What those in the know have noticed, the screen legend said, is that Kim jumps from genre to genre, mastering each along the way. (You can witness this tonight when Busan West rolls The Good, The Bad, The Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters, with subtitles, of course.)
Kim said he was drawn to The Last Stand because he saw it as another opportunity to make the kind of film he has never made before. Doing it in America, with mostly Americans, presented another challenge, and that presented yet another theme for the night that should have inspired young filmmakers in the audience: overcoming impossible odds. Knauer delved into the same territory when he advised aspiring writers to "just never quit" even as rejections mount. "The luxury of writing," he said, "is it doesn't cost anything."
Never giving up despite the odds sums up the cinematic yarn that played Friday night and, of course, Schwarzenegger's life. After going down the list of proving wrong naysayers who told him he could never become a champion bodybuilder, a success in America, a Hollywood leading man or the governor of the largest state in the union, he left his adoring crowd with a Nelson Mandela line: "It always seems impossible until it's done."
2013 Busan West Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Dodge Studios. Tickets are generally $10 per screening. Visit BusanWest.com for full details.