Once you start getting serious about film you can't get around the influence a director has on the final product. Directors can make or break a film and I'm going to use this feature to put some of them into the spotlight. I'm not just going to list my favorite directors though, instead I'm going to single out the directors of whom I've seen at least 10 films, providing a little introduction into their work.

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

March 31, 2015
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri is one of those capable directors who never really managed to escape his own country. Sure enough his film appear on festivals, snatching away an odd prize or two, but his name never lingers. Hardly anybody is ever excited to see the new Kumakiri. Even so, through the years he established a strong oeuvre. And if one of his films fails to truly engage, there's always an interesting angle in there that makes it worth watching anyway.

Kumakiri started his career in 1997 with a false note, though ironically it's probably his most known film to date. Kichiku Dai Enkai is the kind of film you might expect to see from Koji Wakamatsu. It's about a group of leftist radicals who go berserk once their leader dies. It gets pretty gruesome near the end, which is why the film was able to tag along on the Japanese horror wave in vogue at the time, but I always found it severally lacking.

Four years later Kumakiri would reappear with Sora no Ana [Hole in the Sky], a film that dropped the horror influences and started his career for real. Susumu Teraijma and a very young Rinko Kikuchi feature in what is a typical Japanese drama. Non-communicative characters, slow pacing and a plot that is not quite resolved at the end, but fans will recognize this as a treat rather than a shortcoming. Not long after Kumakiri would repeat this success with Antena [Antenna].

After that he started to wander a little. Kihatsusei no Onna [The Volatile Woman] is a Hiroki-like drama, Tadareta Ie - Zoroku no Kibyo Yori [The Ravaged House - Zoroku's Disease] a tepid deformation horror (as part of Hideshi Hino's Theater of Horror series) and Seishun Kinzoku Batto [Green Mind, Metal Bats] a nihilistic urban youth drama. They all have their merits, but none of them reached the heights of Kumakiri's earlier films.

Sticking with the nihilistic vibes, Kumakiri went on to make Furijia [Freesia: Icy Tears], a manga adaptation about a violent, emotionless contract killer. The film was not well received, but it offers a remarkable mix of manga and arthouse elements to create a very uncomfortable yet intriguing experience. After that Kumakiri would return to more classic drama cinema with Kaitanshi Jokei [Sketches of Kaitan City] and Natsu no Owari [The End of Summer]. Good films, but lacking something extra to make them stand out.

Finally he got back on top of his game with Watashi no Otoko [My Man], a film that combines a lot of his earlier themes and qualities. Stark, cold settings, socially inept characters and a dash of surreal horror make this into one of his best movies to date. It's not an easy watch though, so it's probably not the best film to start with when you're planning to work through his oeuvre. Hopefully people pick up on Watashi no Otoko and Kumakiri is launched again, as he's a strong asset to Japanese cinema. The man and his films deserve a loving (international) audience.

Best film: Watashi no Otoko [My Man] (4.5*)
Worst film: Kichiku Dai Enkai [Kichiku] (1.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Watashi no Otoko - Sora no Ana
Average rating: 3.40 (out of 5)

Daniel Lee

March 23, 2015
Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee is one of the best action directors in Hong Kong. He isn't part of the hardcore group that pumps out at least 2 films per year, instead he keeps to a saner pace that allows him to put a little bit more time and effort into his films. That doesn't necessarily result in better films, but the more polished feel of his oeuvre does make it easier for his films to cross the Chinese borders.

Lee got off to a very rough start though. He directed his first film in '94, the year that Hong Kong cinema started its painful decline. Not that '94 Du Bi Dao Zhi Qing [What Price Survival] is a bad film, but it does show the first signs of an industry that is struggling to find a proper way forward. Lee tried again two years later, this time with the help of Jet Li. Hak Hap [Black Mask] is an entertaining romp, but hardly a standout release for neither Li or Lee.

He kept up appearances with Sing Yuet Tung Wa [Moonlight Express], but finally succumbed to the industry's failing standard. A Fu [A Fighter's Blues] and Siu Nin A Fu [The Kumite] are rather poor films far below Lee's own capabilities. He even tried his fortune in America, but Journeyman hardly made an impact and probably remains Lee's most obscure film to date.

In 2005 Lee started to work on his Hong Kong comeback. Maang Lung [Dragon Squad] was his near-perfect return to high octane action cinema, featuring an abundance of amazing gun fights. A less than stellar cast failed to gel everything together, but Lee was clearly done producing mediocre filler. Saam Gwok Dzi Gin Lung Se Gap [Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon] confirmed Lee's return to form, a slick, stylish historical war flick featuring Maggie Q and Andy Lau catapulted him back into the spotlight.

For his next film, Lee assembled an all-star cast (Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, Sammo Hung) and set out to revive the glory days of '93, a year he failed to experience to the fullest when he just started out. Jin Yi Wei [14 Blades] is a joy for martial arts fans, with elaborate sets, excellent fight choreography and a high level of visual detail. In a surprise move, Lee's next film kept the setting but dropped the action. Hong Men Yan Chuan Qi [White Vengeance] is a tactical historical warfare film, focusing on an intellectual battle between two counsellors. Great stuff, just don't expect any big sword fights or dashing martial arts sequences.

Lee's latest films have enjoyed plenty of international attention, which put him in the top spot to direct Tian Jiang Xiong Shi [Dragon Blade], one of China's most recent attempts to bridge the gap between Hollywood and its local output. Rather than send its directors to Hollywood, China is now importing Hollywood stars to try and sell their films oversees. By the looks of Tian Jiang Xiong Shi though, they still have a long way to go. The film is a flawed attempt to mix Eastern and Western cinema, leaving it stranded somewhere in the middle. Hopefully this was just a one off for Lee, as his talents fare better when he can simply focus on making kick-ass action films instead of working on trying to unite two different film markets.

Best film: Jin Yi Wei [14 Blades] (4.5*)
Worst film: Siu Nin A Fu [Star Runner] (2.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Hong Men Yan Chuan Qi - Jin Yi Wei
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Johnnie To

February 23, 2015
Johnnie To

Like Hark Tsui and Jing Wong, Johnnie To started his career at the crossroads of the '70s and the '80s. It was a period of great change for the HK film industry, with the Shaw Bros slowly losing grip and a new generation of directors eagerly waiting to carve their own niche. Unlike his peers though, To didn't really take a flying start.

While To wasn't exactly shy for work, his 80s films lack the distinctive qualities that would bring To international fame further down his career. Some of his 80s work is still quite pleasant though. Films like Ji Xing Gong Zhao [The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon] and Bi Shui Han Shan Duo Ming Jin [The Enigmatic Case] are decent enough films. But then he also made Qi Nian Zhi Yang [Seven Years Itch] and Cheng Shi Te Jing [The Big Heat], real stinkers having little appeal beyond hardcore genre fans and/or To completists.

To rode the waves of the 90s like most other Hong Kong directors. Sam Sei Goon [Justice, My Foot] and Chai Gong [The Mad Monk] are two fun Stephen Chow comedies made during the early 90s. Then there's a noticeable dip during the mid 90s, with Shi Wan Huo Ji [Fireline] as a disappointing low and of course the reboot of the Hong Kong industry nearing the turn of the millennium. With To on the front row, readying himself to rise as one of the stars of Hong Kong crime cinema. Films like Am Zin [Running Out of Time] and Cheung Fo [The Mission] foreshadowed To's true awakening.

He kind of split himself in two after that. On the one hand he kept on making his crime films, with Chuen Jik Sat Sau [Fulltime Killer], PTU and Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong [Throw Down] as notable highlights. On the other hand he teamed up with Ka-Fai Wai for more light-weight and quirky output. A profitable collaboration that yielded some good films. Watch Daai Zek Lou [Running on Karma] and Heung Joh Chow Heung Yau Chow [Turn Left Turn Right] are proof of that.

My favorite To period spans the second half of the 00's, where he combines the quirkiness of his Ka-Fai collaborations with his favored crime setting. Stylish cinematography, off-kilter soundtracks and some general weirdness come together to materialize into some of the best films the Hong Kong film industry has ever seen. My personal favorite is Man Jeuk [Sparrow], but films like Sun Taam [Mad Detective], Fuk Sau [Vengeance] and Fong Juk [Exiled] are also quite dear to me.

The past few years To has been alternating between more commercial crowd pleasers (Daan Gyun Naam Yu [Don't Go Breaking my Heart] and Gao Hai Ba Zhi Lian II [High Altitude of Love II]) and films with larger international appeal (Du Zhan [Drug War] and Man Tam [Blind Detective]). And with three new films in the works, there's no sign of To slowing down any time soon. You certainly don't hear me complaining as To's output has been consistently high the past 10 years. He's become one of the biggest and brightest directors working in Hong Kong and his reputation is more than deserved. He worked long and hard to get where he is today and he has quite the oeuvre to show for it.

Best film: Man Jeuk [Sparrow] (4.5*)
Worst film: Qi Nian Zhi Yang [Seven Year Itch] (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Man Tam - Du Zhan - Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong - Fuk Sau - Heung Joh Chow Heung Yau Chow - Sun Taam - PTU
Average rating: 3.11 (out of 5)

Ryuichi Hiroki

December 30, 2014
Ryuichi Hiroki

By now, Ryuichi Hiroki shouldn't be a stranger to you. If you've been following this blog you probably bumped into his name before. He may not be the most famous of Japanese directors, but he scored a few minor successes in the early 2000s and found a supporter in me ever since. Like most people Vibrator introduced me to Hiroki's oeuvre, since then I've seen 20 of his films in total.

Hiroki started out in the 80s as a pinku director. Pinku is pretty much synonymous with soft-erotica, apart from the fact that directors get full creative freedom as long as they show enough nudity/sex scenes per film. It's a weird deal, but some directors actually use this freedom tot hone their craft. In Japan it's considered a bona fide way to earn yourself some directorial credits. Big names like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sion Sono also started out this way.

Hiroki directed roughly 40 films in 20 years time, most of them completely unavailable to us people in the West. The "real" start of his career is probably the release of Futei no Kisetsu [I Am an S+M Writer] and Tokyo Gomi Onna [Tokyo Garbage Girl] in 2000, two films that showcased Hiroki's knack for human drama.

When he released Vibrator three years later, things started looking up for Hiroki. With the help of Shinobu Terajima (the lead) and Nao Omori, he delivered his first fully-fledged drama. These early Hiroki films still carry quite a few pinky influences, but rather than arouse Hiroki's familiarity with nudity and femininity gave his films a very natural, realistic atmosphere while handling risqué subjects. He's one of the few male directors who can make a believable drama sporting a strong, female lead.

The following five years (2003-2008) Hiroki would release about two films per year. Apart from Bakushi (haven't seen that one yet so I can't vouch for it) and his entry in anthology film Fimeiru these films are all worth watching. The one that touched me the most was Yawarakai Seikatsu [It's Only Talk], a film about a manic depressive woman (Shinobu Terajima again) who learns to deal with her illness. But films like Girlfriend: Someone Please Stop the World, Koi Suru Nichiyobi [Love on Sunday 1 and 2], New Type: Tada Ai no Tame Ni [New Type: Just For Your Love] and M are definitely worth a shot too.

In 2009 Hiroki directed Yomei 1-Kagetsu no Hanayome [April Bride] and Raiou [The Lightning Tree], two films centered more around plot and story instead of characters. It marked the start of a new period in his already lengthy career, in which he would alternate between more commercial and indie work at regular intervals. These story-driven films fail to match the quality of his character-driven work (though they're fine in their own right), luckily he never quite stopped making those. If you're looking for more recent Hiroki films to enjoy, there's always Keibetsu [The Egoists] and Kiiroi Zo [Yellow Elephant]. The rest isn't bad, just not up to Hiroki's usual standard.

If you like drama films, especially the more impenetrable Japanese kind, featuring strong female leads and somewhat risqué setups, then Ryichi Hiroki's oeuvre is an almost inexhaustible source of quality films. They can be quite hard to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort once you get a hold of them.

Best film: Yawarakai Seikatsu [It's Only Talk] (4.5*)
Worst film: Raiou [The Lightning Tree] (3.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Kiiroi Zo - Yawarakai Seikatsu - Kikansha Sensei - Keibetsu - M - Koi Suru Nichiyobi Watashi. Koishita - Kimi no Tomodachi - New Type: Tada Ai no Tame Ni - Girlfriend: Someone Please Stop the World
Average rating: 3.72 (out of 5)

Marco Mak

December 22, 2014
Marco Mak

Directing ten films is no simple feat. It's not actually unheard of either of course (otherwise I wouldn't even have this feature), but not every director reaches this magical number. In Hong Kong they do things a little differently though. Marco Mak directed 18 films so far, but that's just in between his job as editor.

Mak's work as a director may not be very well-known in the West, his work as an editor didn't go by quite as unnoticed. Amongst his most famous editor credits are the Once Upon a Time in China series, the Young and Dangerous series, Iron Monkey and a handful of other high-profile 90s flicks. After 25 years of stitching together the films for other directors, Mak finally saw his chance to switch to the director's seat.

He quickly found out that being a director comes with its own set of challenges. His first two films (Ji Fat Faan Fat [Cop on a Mission] and Yat Goh Laan Diy Dik Chuen Suet [A Gambler's Story]) are typical Hong Kong affairs, somewhat hastily produced films with very limited international appeal. With people like Daniel Wu, Francis Ng, Lam Suet and Eric Tsang on board though, Mak had at least enough star power to draw in the crowds.

Things picked up for Mak when he joined hands with Jing Wong (off all people). Hak Bak Sam Lam [Colour of the Truth] is a stylish, slick and fun police flick, nothing too exceptional or memorable, but awesome filler fleshed out by an all-star cast. This collaboration with Jing Wong was just a one-off though, after that Mak returned to directing utterly forgettable and average genre fodder.

Until he teamed up for a second time, this time with actor Francis Ng. Their first collaboration was Sing See [Dancing Lion], a rather poor comedy that didn't really do it for me, but two years later they would have their revenge with Zhui Ying [Tracing Shadow], a fun throwback to the nineties. Stylized martial arts and self-aware comedy make for an entertaining action film.

Mak's latest film is Naked Soldier, the third instalment in the "Naked" series (Naked Killer, Naked Soldier). While light and fun and sporting some flashy action sequences, the film was a critical and commercial flop. Even though Mak hasn't done anything since (Naked Soldier was released more than 2 years ago), he could resurface with a new project any day. That's part of the beauty of Hong Kong cinema. You can fail pretty hard, but there will always be opportunities to get back into the game.

Marco Mak is a very typical Hong Kong director. The quality of his work varies, but pretty much his entire oeuvre is aimed at a local market that doesn't have a large fanbase outside of Hong Kong. Unless you're already quite versed in Hong Kong cinema, there's really no reason to seek out Mak's films. If you are still interested though, start with Mak's collaborations as they are the highlights of his oeuvre.

Best film: Zhui Ying [Tracing Shadow] (4.0*)
Worst film: Sing See [Dancing Lion] (2.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Zhui Ying
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

Jean-Luc Godard

December 09, 2014
Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard ... if you're getting serious about cinema there's really no escaping this man. And yet, he may be more famous for his influence on cinema than for his actual films. As one of the spiritual fathers or the Nouvelle Vague he played a big part in 60s (French) cinema and even though the movement's influence can still be felt to this very day, Godard's films aren't exactly the most accessible films around.

It takes a special mindset to enjoy Godard's work. His willingness and eagerness to break with conventions make his films rather experimental in nature. But what sets Godard's films really apart from other experimental/arthouse directors is the way he deliberately seeks out ways to mess with his audience. Not that his films are all one big farce (that would be closer to Takashi Miike's territory), but Godard clearly loves to take advantage of people's expectations.

The 60s were Godard's most productive years. He made a total of 24 films in a mere 10 years time, including his most famous ones. It all started with films like À, Bout de Souffle, Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux, Le Mépris and Bande à Part. And while things started off mildly normal, it didn't take long before the weirdness took over. If you're planning to dig into Godard's oeuvre, this is probably the best place to start.

While his first few films were still driven along by plot and characters, the films he made during the second part of the 60s are more random and strongly dependent on themes and ideas. Films like Alphaville, Week-end, Pierror le Fou and 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d'Elle see Godard playing around with politics, art, dialogue, music ... classic film structures were torn down with minute precision, in return Godard constructed films that were near impossible to predict and packed surprises around every corner.

I haven't seen anything from Godard's 70s, 80s and 90s period and from his recent films I've only seen his entry in the Ten Minutes Older: The Cello anthology and Notre Musique, a more tradition feature film. While interesting in their own right, it seems that Godard did lose some of his playfulness along the way. Where a director like Seijun Suzuki never lost his knack to surprise, Godard is edging closer and closer to more traditional arthouse territory.

There's only one other 60s director I can name that comes close to Godard's free-spirited approach to cinema (and that's Koji Wakamatsu, though he lacks Godard's gleeful playfulness. The 60s is clearly where it's at if you're interested to get familiar with Godard's films. Even though his older work has aged visibly, it still has a remarkable air of freshness and wonder.

Best film: Le Mépris (3.5*)
Worst film: Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Woody Allen

December 01, 2014
Woody Allen

With a little perseverance and dedication, it's not all that difficult to find 10 Woody Allen films to watch. The man has a broad and varied oeuvre spanning as much as six consecutive decades and even though he's about to hit 80, he shows no signs of slowing down. So unless you're completely averse to Allen's persona, there is something here for everyone .

I'm usually in two minds about Allen's work. There are definitely some parts I enjoy, like the the manic dialogues, Allen the actor, the atypical plot structures and the somewhat cynical musings that make up most of his films. But there are also elements that prevent me from truly enjoying his work, like his somewhat lacking stylistic skills, the fact that he likes to wear his adoration of the classic arts on his sleeve and his choice of cast.

So far I've been focusing on the post-2000 films Allen made, simply because that's where my main focus lies anyway. I did see Allen's two biggest classics though (Manhattan and Annie Hall), both worthwhile films but sporting the typical Allen caveats. Husbands and Wives is the third pre-2000 film I watched and I must say I liked that one better. It's still very frantic and lacking stylistically, but I truly enjoyed the cynical tone in that one.

In the early 2000s Allen was still working in America. Anything Else and Melinda & Melinda signalled the end of that period and are both pretty good films. Anything Else is surprisingly light-hearted and jolly, Melinda & Melinda is a bit grimmer but sporting Will Ferrell in the lead. Allen/Ferrell is a rather weird combination for sure, but somehow they made it work.

In 2004 Allen left America to swerve through Europe. He started off with a trio of films in the UK (Match Point, Scoop and Cassandra's Dream), travelling further to Spain and France with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I can't say I'm a big fan of Allen's European tour as most of these films seem to be stuck in some kind of romantic vision of Europe which doesn't really mix well with Allen's cynical New York attitude. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is probably the best of these films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona undoubtedly the worst.

While I like Allen's cynical self, I always end up liking his light-hearted and frivolous films the best. He's far from my favorite director, but his films are always a fun diversion, even when they turn out to be a bit mediocre. I'm sure I'll be wandering through the rest of Allen's oeuvre, though at my own leisure.

Best film: Anything Else (3.5*)
Worst film: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.70 (out of 5)

David Fincher

October 21, 2014
David Fincher

David Fincher, man of the 90s. With just four films (of which the first one bombed fiercely upon launch) he managed to rise as one of the most respected directors of the decade. After the turn of the millennium he's been busy trying to uphold that image, though I can't say I really appreciate the controlled and calculated direction his career has taken since then.

Fincher's name first popped up in 1992, when he directed the third film in the Alien franchise. The third instalment featuring Giger's majestic creature wasn't exactly bad, but compared to the first two films it just couldn't evoke the same kind of emotions. Add some production woes and critical scorn and you have a horrible beginning of a career. Fincher completely turned things around with his next film. I'm not a big fan myself, but it's hard to deny the impact Se7en made on the general public. Still cited as one of the best films of the 90s and firmly lodged in the top 25 of the IMDb top 250, it's one of Fincher's biggest successes to date.

A few years later Fincher would lash out again, screwing his audience backwards and sideways with The Game, probably the most in-your-face mindfuck he directed. It's a fun flick and a testament to Fincher's skills, but it wouldn't be until is next project that Fincher's name would take on truly epic proportions. Fight Club is one of those rare movies that managed to become a cult favorite, a critical success and a commercial hit. It's a freaky, edgy and wildly unique film that is regarded as one of the defining movies of the 90s.

Sadly, Fincher started to slump a little after that. Panic Room was an average thriller at best and Zodiac wasn't that much better. Gone were the edgy touches that made his previous films worthwhile, only to be replaced by slow pacing, stylistic mediocrity and a stone-cold focus on plot. With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Fincher tried to break away from his comfort zone, but by then it was painfully clear that he had somehow lost his youthful edge along the way.

The Social Network was a commendable attempt to relive his previous success, but with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a lifeless remake of Män Som Hatar Kvinnor) and the recently released Gone Girl Fincher is slowly but surely digging his own grave. Not that these film are without merit, but there is a lack of energy and passion that is reminiscent of a man who knows he is past his prime. I still hope Fincher will resurface with a film that blows everybody away, but chances are slim. If you're looking for a decent thriller you can't go far wrong with Fincher, just don't look for anything more when trying out his post -2000 work.

Best film: Fight Club (4.0*)
Worst film: Gone Girl (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.65 (out of 5)

Tony Scott

October 15, 2014
Tony Scott

It's not completely unseen to have two brothers working as directors in Hollywood. There are the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Pangs and the Farrelly brothers, what's unique about Ridley and Tony Scott is that they each went to find their own path. They never co-directed a feature film, they never formed a team. They are both A-list blockbuster directors, but where Ridley Scott has a somewhat more diverse oeuvre, Tony Scott is the king of fast-paced, high octane action cinema.

I haven't seen too many of Scott's older films. I'm pretty sure I must've watched classics like Top Gun and Days of Thunder when I was a kid, but I remember little to nothing of them. The oldest Scott film I do remember watching is Beverly Hills Cops II, the not so good sequel/remix of Brest's buddy cop film. Still, these films were all the rage back then, so Scott went on to make The Last Boy Scout. The formula is always the same, only the lead actors change. I can't say I'm a very big fan.

While these film brought Scott mainstream success, he had to wait until 1993 before the critics started giving him some credit. True Romance is a fan favorite, mostly due to Quentin Tarantino's involvement with the script. I never really saw the appeal though. It's not a terribly film, but it feels lacking to other films in the genre. It's also one of the few Scott films that isn't straight up action, but ventures into more crime and thriller oriented territory.

With Enemy of the State and Spy Game Scott would test the water with different variations of the action genre, but it wasn't until 2004 that things would really get interesting. Man on Fire is one of the big milestones in Scott's career. It would be his first time working with Denzel Washington in the lead, but it also meant a complete change in style for Scott. He would adopt a very young, fresh and hyperactive style of film making that was pretty much unheard of in Hollywood. His film had always been slick and flashy, but this was clearly something else.

With Domino (my favorite Scott film) he would take it even one step further, sadly alienating his audience just a little too much. The film is a real blast though. Fun, daring, entertaining, extravagant ... everything most Hollywood actions films lack. But money talks and after Domino Scott would once more team up with Washington to try and relive the success of Man on Fire. Even though it brought forth some fun films (Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable), Scott would never rise to those heights again.

It's a shame Scott decided to end his life prematurely as he was a unique voice in Hollywood. He was a bit too flashy and in your face for most people, but he made good, simple action flicks and left an oeuvre that harbors a lot a fun. That is, if you can stand the Hollywood nonsense embedded in their roots.

Best film: Domino (4.0*)
Worst film: Beverly Hills Cop II (2.0*)
Average rating: 3.00 (out of 5)

Kim Ki-duk

September 11, 2014
Kim Ki-duk

Kim Ki-duk is the enfant terrible of South-Korean (arthouse) cinema. Even though South-Korean cinema is known to push the boundaries (often of good taste, but that's my personal opinion), Ki-duk is always struggling to get his films through the censors. And no matter how well-respected he may be internationally, even after 20+ films he still needs to work real hard to get the necessary funds for a new film.

Ki-duk started off mid 90s. His earliest films were diamonds in the rough, almost completely void of stylistic qualities and relying solemnly on unique characters and rugged settings. Ki-duk's main characters are always enigmatic, hard to predict and ultimately self-destructive, but they help to set his films apart from the rest. Ag-o (Crocodile), Yasaeng Dongmul Bohoguyeog (Wild Animals), Paran Daemun (Birdcage Inn) and Shilje Sanghwang (Real Fiction) are all worth watching, but they are clearly the works of someone still figuring out his place.

Seom (The Isle) marks the start of Ki-duk's international conquest. It's also the first film in his oeuvre with clear poetic qualities. The crazy characters are still present, there are still plenty of scenes that can be described as twisted and/or shocking, but there's a softer side that makes for a unique tension. In the following years Ki-duk would hone his skills with films like Suchwiin Bulmyeong (Address Unknown), Nabbeun Namja (Bad Guy) and Hae Anseon (Coast Guard), all working up to his first big "hit".

2003 saw the release of Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring), one of Ki-duk's most revered films. It's the start of a golden period for Ki-duk, including releases of Bin-jip (3-Iron), Samaria (Samaritan Girl) and Hwal (The Bow), all personal favorites that fine-tuned Ki-duk's trademark style. These aren't quite my all-time favorite Ki-duk films, but the quality is consistently high nonetheless.

Shi Gan was a small setback. While the plot was interesting and challenging, there was a remarkable amount of dialogue and the characters just didn't gel. Luckily he quickly scrambled back to his feet and released Soom (Breath) and Bi-mong (Dream), my two favorite Ki-duk films. Things weren't all well though. A near-fatal accident on the set of Bi-mong led to a dire and dark period in Ki-duk's life.

He suffered a depression and retreated to live a secluded life. How do we know? Well, he documented the whole thing in Arirang, a (semi-staged?) documentary by Ki-duk, about Ki-duk, shot as he was recovering from his depression. A strange piece of film that offers a rare view in the director's personal life. In combination with Arirang there's also Amen, a film that wasn't intended for public display but ultimately found its way to the masses. An interesting project, if only because it was meant as a stepping stone back into the world of commercial cinema.

Ki-duk recovered but some darkness clearly remained. Pieta and Moi-bi-woo-seu (Moebius) see the director return to form, but there's a harsher, meaner undercurrent compared to his more popular films. They're every bit as good though, as long as you can handle Ki-duk's darker side. Finally there's Ki-duk's entry in the Venice 70 anthology, a project centered around the future of cinema. Sadly it's a piece of throwaway garbage that has little or nothing to do with with the theme of the anthology (to be fair, many other shorts had the same problem, the project failed in its entirety).

Kim Ki-duk is a unique director, a man with typical traits (mysterious, impenetrable characters, minimal dialogue, harsh violence covered by a layer of poetic beauty, rich symbolism) who struggled with his own ups and down and wasn't afraid to involve his audience to pull himself back together. It's probably best to start with one of his softer films (Bin-jip, Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom ) and start from there, but apart from his entry in Venice 70 Ki-duk hasn't made a bad film yet.

Best film: Soom (Breath) (4.5*)
Worst film: Venice 70: Future Reloaded (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Moi-bi-woo-seu - Bin-jip - Hwal - Soom - Pieta - Bi-mong
Average rating: 3.80 (out of 5)