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.

Richard Linklater

date
February 03, 2017
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Richard Linklater

He was once the voice of a young generation, but nowadays Richard Linklater is a lot harder to define. Going through his oeuvre can be a somewhat bewildering experience, especially when picking the wrong films (or picking them in the wrong order). That's not to say his oeuvre houses a random collection of styles and genres. Linklater does keep to a somewhat limited set of approaches, it's just that each one is wildly different from the next. It makes him an interesting director to explore, but it also increases the chance you might run into some stinkers along the way.

Linklater started out in the 80s, but very few have seen It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, his very first feature film. People only started to notice Linklater when he directed Slacker and Dazed and Confused, two films that focused on young kids growing up, doing very little of anything at all. Dazed and Confused in particular grew out to become a real cult favorite, though I can't say I found much to like there. The clichés and stereotypes are so thoroughly American that it became impossible for me to relate to Linklater's 70s nostalgia.

In '95 Linklater started the Before trilogy, probably his most broadly appreciated set of films to date. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy take on the parts of two fated lovers, with each film running through different key moments in their relationship. While very dialogue-heavy, there's a certain lifelikeness and spontaneity to the films that makes them quite irresistible. The first two films (Before Sunrise - 1995 - and Before Sunset - 2004) are more romantic in nature, the last one (Before Midnight - 2013) is a bit more dramatic. Watching them in order of appearance is recommended, though not absolutely required.

I lost track of Linklater during the late '90s, but early on in the '00s he gave his career a surprising twist. Waking Life is a daring experiment that delivers 100 minutes of philosophical meanderings in animated form. Linklater made use of early rotoscoping techniques to transform live action footage into animation, effectively turning the whole film into a painfully long trip into uncanny valley. It didn't really help that the philosophical topics were quite weak and were never explored in any meaningful way. Linklater would revisit this setup five years later. A Scanner Darkly would add some more explicit scifi elements (and Keanu Reaves), which ended up only making things worse. A Scanner Darkly is by far the worst film he ever made.

But Linklater also tried his hand at some more commercial projects. School of Rock is a Jack Black comedy aimed at a younger audience, Bad News Bears a sport flicks with a post-Bad Santa Billy Bob Thornton looking to repeat his success and Bernie is another Jack Black comedy, though with a slightly darker edge to it. These film are quite variable in quality, but it's clear that Linklater fares better when he can do more personal projects.

In 2014 Linklater put himself back on the map with Boyhood, a project he worked on intermittently for 12 years. The idea was to follow a family, with the actors aging in real time. While the setup is intriguing and the execution was clearly geared at providing a grand dramatic experience, the mediocre drama and overly long running time stood in the way of Boyhood becoming a great film. I found it rather lifeless and overdone, which is a shame as the idea did appeal to me. The film was received extremely well though, so your mileage may vary.

Linklater's career isn't finished yet. Just last year he directed Everybody Wants Some!!, a more "modern" version of his early films, this time harking back to the 80s. Not quite as successful, but Linklater's entire career is characterized by ups and downs. I'm not the biggest fan, but I do keep an eye on him and I do try to watch his films whenever I get the chance. If you're looking to break into his oeuvre, the Before trilogy is probably the best place to start. If you're a bit more seasoned, films like Boyhood and Walking Life might be more to your liking, but there's just no guarantees with Linklater.

Best film: Before Sunset (4.0*)
Worst film: A Scanner Darkly (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.35 (out of 5)

Zhangke Jia

date
January 10, 2017
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Zhangke Jia

Pre-2000 China didn't have much in the way of arthouse cinema. There were the Zimou Yangs, Kaige Chens and Tian Zhuangzhuangs of course. They all made films that appealed to the arthouse crowd, but those films were mostly poverty porn dramas that followed very similar outlines. Along with the industrialization of China a new generation of film makers rose to the top, both on the commercial and the arthouse side. Nowadays Zhangke Jia is China's biggest arthouse representative, though not quite a personal favorite.

While Jia is no stranger to poverty porn cinema, most of his films have a more contemporary and/or urban feel. No more films about poor people in faraway rural villages being supressed by the government, but films about city youngsters or the older Chinese generations adapting to the industrialization of their towns and cities. It may sounds like a rather small variation on an existing theme, but it does have a strong impact on the overall feel of his films.

Jia started in the mid-90s, though his first film never made much of a splash. Xiaoshan Huijia [Xiaoshan Going Home] is very much a student film. It shows traces of Jia's trademark style, but it's also severely lacking in execution. It's little more than a badly preserved personal experiment that will only appeal to the very biggest of Jia fans. In the following years Jia would hone his skills, with films like Xiao Wo [Artisan Pickpocket] and Ren Xiao Yao [Unknown Pleasures] showing clear improvements upon is first effort.

Zhantai [Platform] was Jia's first internationally acclaimed film, but I couldn't stand it. It's just too ugly, too obvious and impossibly slow. Its most defining scene is the one where a car drives down a dusty hill, just to find out the road is closed, reversing its way up the hill again. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes and all Jia does is register the event in real time. Your mileage may very though, seeing as many people ended up liking Zhantai, but this just isn't my kind of cinema.

The first Jia film I did like was Shijie [The World]. The battle between rich and poor/old and new is still very much present, but this time it's happening in an urban environment rather than a rural one. For a Chinese film, it was an overdue variation on an overused theme. For the next couple of years Jia would remain pretty consistent, with films like Sanxia Haoren [Still Life] and Hai Shang Chuan Qi [I Wish I Knew] doing pretty well at film fests around the world. In 2008 he made Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City], a fake doc that felt more honest and real than most other documentaries out there and ended up becoming my favorite Jia film so far.

In recent years Jia has been branching out a little. The themes and characteristics of his films haven't really changed, but he's been trying out different genres. Tian Zhu Ding [A Touch of Sin] contains crime and action elements, whereas Shan He Gu Ren [Mountains May Depart] plays with slight sci-fi influences. These genre elements do little to change his films though, if anything it highlights that Jia is still telling the same story and is still making the same point as he did 20 years ago.

Even though things were looking up in the mid-00's, it's clear that Jia and I will probably never agree on what makes a great film. As he's the sole (consistent) representative of the Chinese arthouse scene I'll probably keep an eye on his future work, but my expectations are rather low. If you're into poverty-indulgent cinema and films reminiscing about a nicer past then Zhangke Jia might be worth checking out. The man has a pretty decent arthouse following and is regarded highly by the festival crowds, so there's definitely some appeal there. Start with his mid 00s work though, his later films don't really benefit from the added genre influences and his earlier films are crude and clunky.

Best film: Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhantai [Platform] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.45 (out of 5)

Darren Lynn Bousman

date
December 15, 2016
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Darren Lynn Bousman

The '00s saw a very large uptake in horror films, but unlike the directors of the '80s (or their Asian counterparts) very few Western directors stuck with the genre. Most of them saw it as a springboard to enter the film business and either failed or went on to do work in other genres. Not Darren Lynn Bousman. Even though he started out by taking over an existing horror franchise, he's been releasing his own work on a regular basis for the past 10 years. Not everything is great, some of it is extremely cult and niche, but at least Bousman shows heart for a genre that many other left to die.

The world got to know Bousman when he took Saw out of James Wan's hands. A hefty assignment as the very first Saw was quite the runaway hit. Bousman would direct episode 2 to 4 and it's due to his outstanding work the series managed to run as long as it did. Episode 3 in particular managed to match the quality of the first, with 2 and 4 trailing slightly behind. Before his Saw adventure Bousman directed Identity Lost, but much like Wan's first film (Stygian) it is considered (or made to be considered) "lost". 

When Bousman left the Saw franchise he turned his back on mainstream horror for a while and dove headfirst into a quite peculiar niche. I'm not even sure there are enough rock opera horrors to call it a niche, but if you're a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show then Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil's Carnival are two films worth checking out. Bousman even has a sequel to The Devil's Carnival planned called, though I can't say I'm looking forward to it. Rock opera horrors really aren't my thing, that said Repo! is goofy enough to warrant some interest for people with a more general interest in splatter horror.

He also tried his hand at remakes. Mother's Day is a reimagining of Troma's 1980 film. It's darker in tone and really more of a companion piece to Funny Games. People expecting a remake true to the original are bound to be disappointed. It's not a bad film though, but it lacks any defining qualities. In that respect Abattoir is a much better adaptation (adapted from a graphic novel this time). Quite dark and atmospheric but also a little freakier and weirder, in a way that it leaves you guessing where it is going for most of the first hour. That is, if you haven't read the graphic novel of course.

It's not just all sequels, remakes and niche cult though, Bousman also has a few more mainstream horror films fleshing out his oeuvre. 11-11-11 is a nice mystery, a more horrific version of The Number 23 if you wish. The Saw-like ending wasn't quite necessary, but apart from that it's a fun little genre film. There's also The Barrens, which is probably his best film outside of his work on the Saw franchise. What starts out as a pretty common 'lost in the woods' horror becomes a pretty tense and claustrophobic affair. Nothing too unique and out of the ordinary, just very solid genre fun.

Add to that a good short in the Tales of Halloween anthology and you get a director who lives and breathes horror. He may not be a stand-out director or a name that draws flocks of people to the movie theater, but at least he's true to a genre and keeps on investing time in money in what he loves. He's more Stuart Gordon than he is John Carpenter, but in a time when there's a clear lack of dedicated horror directors that is more than good enough.

Best film: Saw III (4.0*)
Worst film: The Devil's Carnival (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.15 (out of 5)

Hsiao-Hsien Hou

date
November 30, 2016
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Hsiao-Hsien Hou

It is no exaggeration when people say Hsia-Hsien Hou is one of the most important directors of Taiwanese cinema. Together with Ming-liang Tsai (and to a lesser extent, Edward Yang) he revolutionized Taiwanese film, yanking it free from Hong Kong's standards while earning it international recognition at some of the most prestigious film festivals around the world. As these things go, Hou's and Tsai's domination became stifling over time and recently a fresh bunch of young Taiwanese film makers uprooted their reign, but that doesn't change the fact that without them Taiwanese cinema wouldn't be where it is today.

The first three films Hou directed didn't deviate much from the norm, though on hindsight there are various little indications that would foreshadow Hou's trademark style. Zai Na He Pan Qing Cao Qing [The Green, Green Grass of Home] in particular is an interesting film that exists somewhere in between the old and the new. Hou's fourth, Feng gui Lai de Ren [The Boys from Fengkuei] is generally considered to be the start of his actual career. An historically important film no doubt, but personally I wasn't all that convinced of Hou's direction. While the ideas were good, the execution still needed a lot of refining.

The first film to do justice to Hou's newly found approach was Tong Nien Wang Shi [A Time to Live and a Time to Die]. It still lacks the stylistic finish of his later films, but the focus on rural family drama combined with the subtle pacing make for a pleasant film nonetheless. Between '85 and '95 Hou would work on polishing his style, with varying results. Films like Ni Luo He Nu Er [Daughter of the Nile] and Bei Qing Cheng Shi [City of Sadness] would struggle with balance, Haonan Haonu [Good Men, Good Women] on the other hand was another clear step in the right direction.

Nanguo Zaijan, Nanguo [Goodbye South, Goodbye] marks the start of Hou's best period. It's the first film where his trademark style comes to full fruition. Long scenes, subtle pacing, atmosphere over plot, moody train rides, it's all here. But it wasn't until 2001, when Hou would finally team up with Shu Qi, that it would all fall into place. Qianxi Manbo [Millennium Mambo] is a real stunner, though its strong focus on modern urban life is somewhat atypical for Hou. In 2005 they'd come together for a second time, resulting in Zui Hao De Shi Guang [Three Times], by far my favorite Hsiao-Hsien Hou film.

In between Hou made another interesting film as a tribute to Yasujiro Osu. Kohi Jiko is set in Japan, stars Tadanobu Asano and has more trains than you can shake a stick at. It's the ultimate power-down film. A warm, subtle and poetic drama that casts a nice bridge between both directors. Sadly that about covers Hou's prime period, from there things started going downhill again.

In 2007 he directed a somewhat forgettable short for the Chacun Son CInéma anthology, something he would repeat a couple of years later with his contribution to 10+10, an anthology dedicated to Taiwan's 100th birthday. In between there was a decent adaptation of Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge, though the film was let down by Binoche's excessively loud presence. And finally there's Nie Yin Niang [The Assassin], Hou's unique take on the wuxia genre, a failed experiment that not even Qi was able save.

While Hou remains an arthouse favorite, his reign as king of Taiwanese cinema is pretty much over. I couldn't immediately appoint a single successor, but it's clear that Taiwanese directors stopped trying to copy Hou's style and started pushing their own, refreshing vision on filmmaking. For people who are new to the work of Hou there's still a lot to discover, particularly the films he made between '95-'05. After that you can travel slowly back in time to see how Hou became the director many people hold so dear.

Best film: Zui Hao De Shi Guang [Three Times] (4.5*)
Worst film: Feng gui Lai de Ren [The Boys from Fengkuei] (2.5*)
Reviewed films: Qianxi Manbo - Zui Hao De Shi Guang
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Tung-Shing Yee

date
October 31, 2016
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Tung-Shing Yee

Tung-Shing Yee (often credited as Derek Yee) fits the typical Hong Kong profile. He's an actor, writer, producer, director with at least 15 titles matching each job description. He started out as an actor, took on writing and directing and would later help to produce a battery of films. Guys like Tung-Shing Yee live and breathe cinema, though it's not always clear whether their artistic aspirations outshine their commercial ones. That said, Tung-Shing Yee directed some pretty interesting films during his (still ongoing) career and it would be unfair to just discard him as just another Hong Kong director.

Yee started out in the mid '80s, directing Din Lo Jing Juen [The Lunatics]. His older work is a little hard to track down though, the oldest Yee film I managed to get my hands on was Zai Jian Wang Lao Wu [Bachelor's Swan Song], a loud and frantic comedy about the hardships of getting married in Hong Kong. I can see how it did well locally, but like most Hong Kong comedies it's very much a niche product and even by that standard it's surprisingly vocal and jittery. Probably not the best film to start with unless you're already familiar with Hong Kong comedy.

Yee's first respectable international appearance came in the form of Lie Huo Zhan Che [Full Throttle]. A typical street racing film (think Initial D) starring Andy Lau. But it was Se Qing Nan Nu [Viva Erotica] released in '96 that marks Yee's first artistic high point. In fact, it's probably the best Yee film I've seen to date, offering a remarkable and refreshing look at Hong Kong's prudish and hypocritical stance on Cat III material. At a time when Hong Kong cinema was struggling for relevance, Yee's film was a bright light in a sea of darkness.

That's not to say he would breeze through Hong Kong's millennium struggle. With only one film in seven years, Yee clearly lacked the posture to save Hong Kong from its film slump. But when things started to get better, Yee also resurfaced. Mong Bat Liu [Lost in Time] is a decent drama (which in itself is quite an achievement) relaunching Yee's career. Wang Jiao Hei Ye [One Night in Mongkok] would up the bar to "just short of great, but with a neat twist" and that's where Yee would camp out for the coming years.

While films like Moon To [Protégé], San Suk Si Gin [The Shinjuku Incident] and Cheung Wong Chi Wong [Triple Tap] wouldn't exactly revolutionize Hong Kong cinema, they wouldn't fully conform to the norm either. Yee's films are a little different from what Hong Kong protocol prescribes and with a decent can of actors to back it all up, all of Yee's post 2000s films are worth a try.

After Yee released Daai Mo Seut Si [The Great Magician] in 2011 things got a bit quieter, but last year he returned with Wo Shi Lu Ren Jia [I Am Somebody] and this year he's teaming up with Hark Tsui to work on a brand new martial arts epic. It's clear there's still some life left in Yee and based on his previous films it's definitely something to look forward to.

Tung-Shing Yee is not the most obvious of Hong Kong directors, but once you've worked through the more famous ones he's a man you're bound to run into. While he hasn't made a truly great film yet, his output is very consistent in quality and there's always some interesting angle that differentiates his work from other Hong Kong films. His earlier films are a bit shabby, but if you can get a hold of one of his post-2000 work it's definitely worth a shot. And if you're a bit more versed in Hong Kong cinema, Se Qing Nan Nu is a neat little gem about the Hong Kong film industry that deserves a bigger audience.

Best film: Se Qing Nan Nu [Viva Erotica] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zai Jian Wang Lao Wu [Bachelor's Swan Song] (2.5*)
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Rob Reiner

date
September 30, 2016
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Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner is one of those directors you keep running into when exploring various corners of America's extensive film catalogue. You won't see his name pop up too often if you only skim the top layers of the mainstream, but once you dig a little deeper you'll find that Reiner is nothing less than a monument. His oeuvre is mostly centred around drama, romance and comedy cinema, but with a decent Stephen King adaptation and an infamous court drama under his belt, Reiner's range is clearly broader than just one single niche.

It all started in the mid 80s, when Reiner released This Is Spinal Tap, a faux documentary following a fictional metal band. It would be unfair to underestimate the impact of this little niche film (it's the only film rated on /11 on IMDb and "turn it up to 11" is still a rather popular quote), but even as a non-metal fan I couldn't really enjoy the cheap insults and bad parodies of said music scene. If you want to have a laugh at metalheads just watch Story of Anvil instead, at least that documentary had some heart.

Two years later Reiner would enjoy his first real success. Stand by Me is one of the quizessential films of the 80s, especially now that the whole 80s hype is at its very peak. With its strong 80s vibes and boyish charm it's not hard to understand why so many people love to revisit this film. If you're a fan of the era and you like a young male-only cast going out on some big adventure (like a more serious version of The Goonies), this should be a top priority (if you haven't seen it already of course).

Reiner would continue his high with The Princess Bride (a much-referenced and lauded film, although its popularity is somewhat country-specific) and When Harry Met Sally... (probably his most mature film to date). The latter is actually my favorite Reiner film, with a solid central duo, a quirky romance and just enough drama and bite to keep it interesting while making sure the actual romantic bits remain intact.

After that it was time for Reiner to branch out a little. Misery is one of the better King adaptations, a decent thriller with a memorable Kathy Bates, A Few Good Men a more than decent court drama featuring Jack Nicholson's infamous "You fucked with the wrong marine" speech. Reiner fared surprisingly well in two genres that weren't really his home turf, even so he quickly changed back to more familiar grounds, giving the impression that Reiner himself didn't feel truly at ease directing these films.

I kinda lost track of Reiner during the 90s, it wasn't until he directed Alex & Emma in 2003 that I ran into him again. The film is basically When Harry Met Sally 2.0, updated with a new set of actors and a different plot. It's a nice enough film, though not all that special. But Reiner was stuck in a rut. His films didn't attract too many people and his audience was starting to forget about him.

He did however have one more moment in the spotlights. The Bucket List is a wildly popular film featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two grumpy old dudes on a trip to see the world while they still have the chance. It's a pretty cheesy affair, but it is well liked by many. Reiner went back to directing smaller, retro-inspired films after that, with Flipped and The Magic of Belle Isle as a result. I'm sure these films have their audiences, but I'm clearly not part of them.

Reiner is still at it, but it seems his films are having a tougher time finding proper distribution. That said, LBJ (his latest) looks like a film that might attract a decent audience, with a couple of familiar names in the cast and a non-fiction halo to attract people interested in the life of vice-president Johnson. I'll probably watch it when I get the chance, but like most of Reiner's films I won't be putting in too much effort trying to track it down.

Even though I have no trouble recognizing Reiner's status, I'm not a very big fan of the man's work. His films are pretty cheesy and are well adjusted to the American mainstream. He likes to play it safe and if you're expecting something unique or surprising, you better look elsewhere. If on the other hand you are a fan of American romances and/or comedies, his oeuvre has a lot to offer.

Best film: When Harry Met Sally... (3.0*)
Worst film: This Is Spinal Tap (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.15 (out of 5)

Stephen Chow

date
August 05, 2016
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Stephen Chow

Saying Hong Kong comedy is an acquired taste is a big understatement. It enjoys little to no international exposure and truth be told, that's not much of a surprise. Infantile humour, gross over-acting and some cultural weirdness make it one of Hong Kong's least appropriate export products. That doesn't make it objectively horrible of course, it just takes a little extra time to get used to and since people in the West rarely invest their time in Hong Kong cinema most comedies remains stuck in Hong Kong.

There is only one man who managed to beat the odds, which is Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow. Chow started out as an actor, but it didn't take long before he switched to directing his own films. It turned out to be a smart move for Chow as not long after he managed to distribute his films internationally. An even bigger feat consider the state of Hong Kong cinema in the late 90s/early 00s. Chow is probably the biggest and brightest comedian Hong Kong as ever known and a perfect entry point for those who want a taste of what Hong Kong comedy has to offer.

The first film with Chow in the director's chair was Gwok Chaan Ling Ling Chat [From Beijing with Love], a strange Bond parody he helmed together with Lik-Chi Lee (also included is actor Man Tat Ng, long-time Chow collaborator in front of the camera). The film gives a good idea of what to expect from Chow's films. Goofy comedy, lots of parodies and a fair slice of action, all delivered at an excruciating pace.

At the beginning of his career Chow would keep to codirecting his films. Po Huai Zhi Wang [Love on Delivery], Sik San [God of Cookery] and Hei Kek Ji Wong [The King of Comedy] are all made together with Lik-Chi Lee, for Daai Laap Mat Taam 008 [Forbidden City Cop] Chow relied on director Vincent Kok to help him with his directorial duties whenever he was performing in front of the camera. These older Chow films are all good fun, but clearly just preparation for what would become Chow's big international breakthrough.

In 2001 Chow surprised the world with Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer]. While the rest of Hong Kong was struggling to produce anything half decent, he created a CG-heavy football comedy (of all things) that went on to conquer international audiences. It's a great entry in Chow's oeuvre, although his follow-up might be an even be a bigger contender for most successful Chow film. Kung Fu is a perfect blend of his typical comedy, some funky martial arts and a dash of classic Triad action. If you want to crack open Chow's oeuvre, start with Kung Fu.

With CJ7 Chow would lose the interest of his newly acquired international audience. A fun film still, but with its young protagonist and a fairytale-like plot maybe a bit too childlike to appeal to the people who got to know him through Siu Lam Juk Kau or Kung Fu. After that, Chow would try to further rebrand himself, coming out with Xi You Xiang Mo Pian [Journey to the West], a spiritual follow-up to the A Chinese Odyssey series in which he originally starred. Sadly the film turned out to be a CG crapfest (like so many big budget HK affairs nowadays), the only bad mark in Chow's oeuvre so far.

His latest film is somewhat of a return to form, although it never reaches the heights of his best work. Mei Ren Yu [The Mermaid] is a fun eco-fantasy with Chow's trademark comedy. It's a shame Chow retreated from acting though, as he remains a crucial element in the success of his films. Without him in front of the camera, his films just aren't as funny. Still, if you're looking for some goofy comedy, Chow's oeuvre is warmly recommended. He's by far Hong Kong's most lucrative comedy export product, rightfully so. Start with Kung Fu and Siu Lam Juk Kau and go from there.

Best film: Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer] (4.0*)
Worst film: Xi You Xiang Mo Pian [Journey to the West] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Cheung Gong 7 Hou
Average rating: 3.50 (out of 5)

Dante Lam

date
June 20, 2016
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Dante Lam

Dante Lam is one of those directors who profited wisely from Hong Kong's cinema collapse during the mid-90's. After Hong Kong's martial arts empire imploded a second time, history was set to repeat itself. Through the likes of Johnnie To, Wai-Keung Lau and Dante Lam himself, cop and crime thrillers came back into fashion after a short hype in the late 80's, signalling the rebirth of Hong Kong cinema in the early 00's.

The late 90's were ripe with opportunities for aspiring directors and Lam jumped on the bandwagon. I've yet to see Lam's first film G4 Te Gong [Option Zero], but Yeshou Xingjing [Beast Cops] is a good example of where Hong Kong action cinema would be going. Under the wings of Gordon Chan Lam manifested himself as a director with vision and style, delivering a fun and edgy cop thriller that laid the groundwork for many to come. Next up for Lam was Kong Woo Giu Gap [Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone], which turned out to be another hit, only now focused more on the Triads instead of the police force. Lam's future looked rosy and it seemed he was well on his way to becoming one of Hong Kong's greats. And he'd get there eventually, just not right away.

The early 00's saw a few detours for Lam's career. He didn't stop making action films, though Chung Chong Ging Chaat [Hit Team] and Chung Fung Hum Jun [Heat Team] didn't really live up to the bar Lam had set with his early films. At the same time Lam's focus started to shift to comedy and romance for a while. That may have been a commercial success, but films like Luen Ching Go Gup [Love on the Rocks], Luen Oi Hang Sing [Tiramisu] and Chow Tau Yau Liu [Runaway] just highlighted Lam's shortcomings when working in other genres.

Things did pick up mid 00's. With an action/comedy and two animation features under his belt Lam still hadn't arrived where he needed to be, but he seemed to have learned from earlier efforts, using that new-found knowledge to make him a better overall director. In 2008 he committed to Ching Yan [The Beast Stalker], the film that finally put him back on track. A raw, gritty and entertaining cop flick that kick-started a series of vintage Lam action films.

This quality streak would last Lam about 4 years. Jik Zin [The Viral Factor], Sin Yan [The Stool Pigeon] and Sun Cheung Sau [Sniper] are all great action flicks, For Lung [Fire of Conscience] is the one that stands out and captures all of Lam's qualities in one film. It's a prime example of stylish looking Hong Kong action cinema that falls somewhere in between the work of Johnnie To and Wai-Keung Lau.

It's a shame Lam suffered another setback after that. Mo Jing [The Demon Within] is still a pretty good film, but Ji Zhan [Unbeatable] was a little disappointing and Po Feng [To the Fore] is a downright disaster. It's understandable that Lam is looking for something different, but a sports film about cycling is clearly not something he was cut out to make. Hopefully this is just another phase and he'll return as an even better version of himself. Dante Lam has a lot of talent, but it's mostly centered around directing action cinema. When he diverts from that, the result isn't always pretty.

Best film: For Lung [Fire of Conscience] (4.0*)
Worst film: Luen Oi Hang Sing [Tiramisu] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: For Lung
Average rating: 3.05 (out of 5)

Takashi Miike

date
April 11, 2016
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Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike is without a doubt one of Japan's most interesting directors. He's a phenomenon, an unstoppable force, a cinematic anomaly and last but not least, he's one of my all-time favorite directors. I'm sure most film fans have watched some or other Miike film at one point in their life, but really that's not much of a feat when you know he's nearing his 100th directorial credit. That's when he's not writing, acting or producing on the side.

The problem with Miike is that you can watch 10 of his film and still have no clue what kind of director he is. He is, quite literally, not bound to any genre, any niche or any target audience. He can direct big budget commercial project for kids and follow them up with absurd horror comedies. He made a few Yakuza flicks, but that didn't stop him from directing a straight up TV adaptation of a popular TV series. He made a musical, a western and a remake of Seppuku, because why not. The only way to get an idea of what kind of director Miike is, is to watch all of his films. So that's pretty much what I've been doing.

Miike started his career in the early 90s, at the very bottom of the ladder. His first few films were simple, low budget affairs that will likely appeal to only the most hardcore of Miike fans. They are pretty hard to find too. The oldest Miike film I've seen is Bodigaado Kiba [Bodyguard Kiba], which was already his fifth film. It's decent enough, displaying short flashes of Miike's later genius, but it gets seriously bogged down by subpar production values. It wasn't until Miike directed Naniwa Yuukyoden [Osaka Tough Guys] that his style would begin to flourish.

From then on Miike would start making a name for himself as someone with no limitation to what he would put on screen. Films like Gokudo Sengokushi: Fudo [Fudoh], Full Metal Gokuo [Full Metal Yakuza] and Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha all added to Miike's notoriety because of selected scenes that stuck with people. Besides coming up with craziness, Miike became also known as a prolific director, making at least 3 films per year between 1995 and 2005.

Besides making crazy melanges of genres, Miike also got more proficient at more serious work. Films like Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai: Chikemuri Junjo-hen [Young Thugs: Innocent Blood], Chugoku no Chojin [The Bird People of China] and Nihon Kuroshakai [Ley Lines] show a more mature director, one who doesn't necessarily needs to rely on gimmicks or weirdness to make his films work.

But also more purer genre work got some attention. Miike scored his first big international hit with Odishon [Audition], one of his few straight-up horror films (which is odd for someone who's often pegged as a horror director), he directed Araburu Tamashii-Tachi [Agitator], a more than decent yakuza flick and he made Tengoku kara Kita Otoko-tachi [The Guys from Paradise], an interesting drama set in a Filipino prison.

All of this is still before Miike's strongest period. The early '00s brought a lot of international attention to the Japanese film scene and Miike made the best of that. With films like Bijita Q [Visitor Q], Katakuri-ke no Kofuku [Happiness of the Katakuris], Koroshiya 1 [Ichi the Killer] and Gokudo Kyofu Dai-gekijo: Gozu [Gozu], he amused, surprised, shocked and freaked people out. These are all film that are vintage Miike, impossible to compare and perfect examples of the playful, limitless freedom Miike had created for himself.

Not happy with the variety of project he'd done so far, Miike set out to conquer the festivals. With Izo, 46-Okunen no Ko [Big Bang Love, Juvenile A] and his short in Saam Gaang Yi [Three ... Extremes] he adapted a more arthouse-like approach, though not without losing too much of the weirdness he was known for. These are all great films that further underline Miike's seemingly endless talent.

The next ten years Miike would continue to hunt for things he hadn't done before. Make a straight-up sequel (Crows Zero II), direct children's films (Yattaman), take on a Western (Sukiyaki Western Django), do a game adaptation (Gyakuten Saiban), do a musical (Ai to Makoto), adapt a samurai classic (Ichimei, a remake of Kobayashi's Seppuku), try a superhero flick (Zebraman) ... it just doesn't end. By then Miike was proficient enough at making films that nothing posed a challenge anymore. While not every film is equally great, these are all accomplished films made by a seasoned director.

If you're looking for more recent work then Gokudou Daisensou [Yakuza Apocalypse] and Mogura no Uta [The Mole Song] are prime examples of Miike's unique approach to cinema. Just know that there's no real shortcut to understanding this director. Even after having seen 70 of his films, he still manages to surprise, seeking out new challenges (next up: a scifi space horror and a humanitarian drama) and coming up with wild, original ideas. He's one of my absolute favorites and his oeuvre is varied enough that most people should find something to like. Actually finding it might be somewhat of a challenge, still, when you do it might one of the best things you've ever seen.

Best film: 46-Okunen no Koi [Big Bang Love, Juvenile A] (5.0*)
Worst film: Shirubaa [Silver] (1.0*)
Reviewed films: Gokudo Daisenso - Kamisama no Iu Tori - Hyoryuu-Gai - Mogura no Uta - Yokai Daisenso - Ai to Makoto - Izo - Gokudo Kyofu Dai-Gekijo: Gozu - Gyakuten Saiban - Nintama Rantaro - Bizita Q - 46-Okunen no Koi - Zeburaman: Zebura Shiti no Gyakushu - Kurozu Zero II - Kuruzo Zero - Taiyo no Kizu
Average rating: 3.55 (out of 5)

Peter Chan

date
February 25, 2016
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Peter Chan

Peter Chan is not your typical Hong Kong director, although from afar he may appear that way. He pretty much followed the same path as his peers, he worked with the big stars and he won the local awards, but in a few key areas his work is noticeably different. For one, he's a lot less prolific than most of his fellow Hong Kong directors.

Maybe it's because he's also rather active as a producer, maybe he just likes spending more time on a single film. Whatever the case, in his 28 year long career he's only directed 17 films. Sure enough that's more than most directors out there, but for a Hong Kong director that number is actually quite low. If you can't manage 1 film per year, you're just slacking.

Peter Chan started in the late 80's, but his early films are hard to come by. The oldest Chan I've seen is Xin Nan Xiong Nan Di [He Ain't Heavy... He's My Father], a rather poor drama/comedy that fails to engage on any level. It's not because Chan lacked the means or failed to get a compelling cast (both Tony Leungs appear in the film, next to Yuen Chor), it's just that the presentation is disappointing, the humor is tepid and the drama never hits the right notes.

The 90s weren't kind to Chan either (though many people seem to like Tian Mi Mi [Comrades: Almost a Love Story], don't ask me why) and like many of his peers he ended up moving to America around the turn of the century. Still trying to make it with comedy/dramas, he managed to hook Tom Selleck and Ellen DeGeneres for his USA-based film, but the result wasn't exactly pleasing. No surprises there. Even so, something changed after that because his return to Hong Kong marked the start of a string of worthwhile releases.

It started with a short in Saam Gaang, a successful pan-Asian horror anthology. The real turnaround came when Chan released Ru Guo Ai [Perhaps Love], a stunning modern musical featuring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Xun Zhou. He even upped himself with Tau Ming Chong [The Warlords] and followed up with Wu Xia [Swordsmen], all great variations on established genres. But then Hong Kong cinema started to slump once more and Chan did what most of his peers did ... he moved his business to China.

While I haven't seen Zhong Guo He Huo Ren [American Dreams in China] yet, Qin Ai De [Dearest] is a decent enough film, but nowhere near Chan's best work. It's quite typical for most Hong Kong directors who relocated to China. Somehow they have trouble reaching their best form over there, while native Chinese directors are releasing the more interesting films.

Peter Chan made some good film and if you're not familiar with his work yet, make sure to at least sample some of his post-2000 films. His earlier films are a bit tougher to get into and will mostly appeal to Hong Kong die-hards. Whatever you do though, don't start with his American film because that may put you off of his oeuvre entirely, which would be a downright shame.

Best film: Tau Ming Chong [The Warlords] (4.0*)
Worst film: Venice 70: Future Reloaded (1.0*)
Reviewed films: Wu Xia - Tau Ming Chong
Average rating: 2.75 (out of 5)