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.

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)

Steven Soderbergh

date
January 07, 2016
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Steven Soderbergh

If there is one major schism in cinema, it's no doubt the barrier between mainstream and arthouse. There are a select few directors who manage to bridge that gap, but even that is fairly trivial compared to what Steven Soderbergh set out to do. Soderbergh didn't just try to bring these two worlds together, he actually managed to become successful in both worlds separately. Off the top of my head, there's no other director out there who has done something similar.

Looking at Soderbergh's oeuvre, he has kept a healthy diet of Hollywood projects interspersed with more arthouse-minded films, becoming quite skilled at making films on both ends of the spectrum. His Hollywood work has plenty of flair and gusto while his smaller films feel genuine and don't stray away from a little experimentation left and right.

Soderbergh started off small. Sex, Lies, and Videotape may be quite the bore on paper (with its B-cast and avalanche of small-scale drama), the actual film turned out to be surprisingly fun and entertaining. The next few years Soderbergh would keep to producing smaller films. Kafka and Gray's Anatomy are interesting experiments while films like King of the Hill and The Underneath started to show some openness towards more mainstream cinema.

Before going big for the first time, Soderbergh doubled down and directed his most experimental film. Schizopolis is a title that aptly describes its contents. A collection of ideas, sketches and just some general weirdness make for one of Soderbergh's weirdest films. It's a bit difficult to recommend since the humor won't be everybody's cup of tea, but if you like absurd comedy than this is a little gem.

With Out of Sight Soderbergh released his first attempt to sway the masses. It's a fun, light yet stylish crime comedy featuring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The film marks the start of a series of movies aimed at a broader audience. The Limey is still a bit niche (but pretty damn good), after that Soderbergh directed Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the first Ocean remake. Good, solid Hollywood productions that may not be overwhelmingly great, but definitely better than your average Hollywood fare.

With Solaris, Oceans Twelve and a segment in Eros Soderbergh kept up his good name, but by then I guess these films didn't pose too much of a challenge. That changed when he made Bubble in 2005. The film itself is a worthy but somewhat predictable lo-fi drama, more interesting was the film's release plan. Rather than adhere to industry standards, Soderbergh rose up to call for a revolution. His idea was to release his film across the board, all formats at once. Ten years later this is still the consumer's utopia, but that move earned Soderbergh plenty of praise, because film makers stepping up for the pleas of consumers are a rare sight indeed.

In the next five years Soderbergh would continue to alternate between bigger Hollywood work (the third Ocean film) and smaller, more personal projects (The Informant). Sadly Soderbergh became more and more disillusioned with Hollywood (and the movie business as a whole), which prompted him to quite directing films altogether in 2013. His final feature was Side Effects, a good and solid goodbye, though not exactly the final bang that Soderbergh deserved.

Hopefully this is just a temporary setback, because it's sad to see a director like him lose interest in the medium. While his best years are clearly behind him, Soderbergh rarely made a bad film and always tried to do something interesting with his films, even his lighter Hollywood work. And if not that, he loved pioneering new ideas, from embracing DV to coming up with new release plans. I feel he didn't always get the praise he deserved, maybe because he walked two different paths at once, but looking at his body of work there are some great discoveries to be made. He is by far one of America's better directors if you ask me.

Best film: Schizopolis (4.0*)
Worst film: The Good German (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Steven Spielberg

date
December 30, 2015
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Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood king of my generation. He was the first director I knew by name, probably not too surprising since he's one of the few household names in the directorial world. He's been at the top of Hollywood for the past 30 years. Every new film he makes is met with tons of anticipation and whatever he does, he simply can't seem to make a "small" film anymore. Save for his first couple of movies, all the projects he tackles are big and epic. But honestly, after having seen twenty of his film, there isn't a single one I actually liked.

To me, Spielberg embodies everything that's bad about Hollywood. His films have all the elements I ran away from, pushing me towards arthouse and genre cinema. And even after my recent reacquaintance with Hollywood I don't seem to get much joy out of his work. It's all just so middle-of-the-road, so sentimental and cheesy, without redeeming qualities to speak of. It lacks any kind of purity, it never feels genuine and it's all dragged out for maximum effect. Nopes, I'm not a fan.

That said, Spielberg first effort wasn't all that bad. Released in '71, Duel is a pretty simple genre film. A little boring in places maybe, but the core of the film is tense and exciting. Follow-up Something Evil is equally small in scale, but this would only be a short-lived phase in his career. When Spielberg directed Jaws in '75 he blew up and never looked back. While many people consider Jaws to be one of the great horror films of the 70's, I must say the film did very little for me. It's long, drawn-out and features only two or three actual moments of worthwhile tension.

After Jaws Spielberg would wander around different genres for a while. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a sci-fi film about humankind's first alien encounter, 1941 is a war epic and Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the great adventure films of all time. All that was just child's play leading up to one of Spielberg's biggest and most defining films: E.T. His first film that was truly child-proof, signalling a move to even more tepid, watered-down films. The impact of E.T. is undeniable, but a good movie it ain't.

For the remainder of the 80s Spielberg kept jumping between genres, directing 2 sequels to Indiana Jones, another war drama (Empire of the Sun) and a live action Disney adaptation with a twist (Hook). All popular films in their own right, but Spielberg's next big hit would come in '93. Jurassic Park caught everyone's eye, triggering a world-wide fascination for dinosaurs, spurring several videogames and crushing box office records left and right. It's one of his better films, if you can get past the fake sentiment.

That same year Spielberg would also release Schindler's List, a film that marked the start of a series of more serious, socially conscious films from Hollywood's most sappy director. Amistad and Saving Private Ryan would follow, all big, costly and ultimately very sentimental Hollywood hits. To top it off, in 2001 Spielberg would direct A.I. A legacy from Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly transferred the film to Spielberg because the story needed more humanity than Kubrick himself could manage. The fact that Kubrick fell ill 2 years before the film's release (and actually died) sounds like a more plausible explanation to me though. Anyway, if you're in the mood for mushy sci-fi, A.I. is definitely your kind of film.

Spielberg would churn out several more high-profile Hollywood releases in the coming years (Minority Report, War of the Worlds and the fourth Indiana Jones), but none of them deviated much from earlier films he made. The only remarkable post 2000 Spielberg film is The Adventures of Tintin, a motion-captured adventure of one of Belgium's most iconic comic book characters. Again, it has Spielberg's signature all over, but at least it's a little different from his normal output.

Even though Spielberg is nearing 70, there's still no stopping the man. He just released his latest epic Hollywood production Bridge of Spies and his next one is already in the works (an adaptation of Roald Dahl's BFG). I've long made peace with the fact that there's probably no Spielberg film out there for me, but at least the man has a clear signature to speak of. He's the biggest director of his generation and he's left his mark on the history of cinema more than once, so there's really no escaping his films.

Best film: Duel (2.5*)
Worst film: Artificial Intelligence: AI (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.35 (out of 5)

Cheh Chang

date
December 09, 2015
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Cheh Chang

From the 60+ directors I've handled so far, Cheh Chang is without a doubt the hardest one to write about. Not that there isn't much to say about the man, after all he was one of the top directors of the legendary Shaw Bros studios. His career spans five different decades and he directed almost a hundred films, so there really is no lack of material to write about. But when thinking of the 10 films I've seen so far, they all just seem to blur together into one indiscernible blob of interchangeable martial arts footage.

If you're unfamiliar with the Shaw Bros studios, you're better off satisfying your martial arts fix elsewhere. But once you've seen enough martial arts films there really is no escaping the tremendous impact the studio has had on the genre. They dominated the Hong Kong scene from the late 60's until the early 80's, cranking out martial arts films at an excruciating pace. People interested in the studio will probably end up watching Chia-Liang Liu's films first, since he's by far the best director of the bunch, but once the Liu pool dries up Cheh Chang is the next in line.

When you've reached that point you'll surely have noticed that the Shaw Bros stamp is somewhat like the Ghibli stamp (only for martial arts B-films). While directors did carry a certain influence over their films, there are way more similarities than there are differences. From the actors to the studio decors, the scripts to the plot build-ups and the trademark endings, Shaw Bros films follow a very fixed structure. This to the point where it becomes hard differentiating between different films, especially when several years have passed since you've seen them.

Of course some films stick out, but the bulk of the Shaw Bros productions are little more than fanboy pleasers, 90 minutes of clichés rolled up into an easily marketable product. That sounds quite negative perhaps, but when you in fact like the Shaw Bros style of film making it means you have found an almost infinite supply of decent films to keep you occupied for years. Which is a pretty good overall description of Cheh Chang's oeuvre.

While he started his career in the 50s, his first work of importance is Bian Cheng San Xia [The Magnificent Trio]. Released in 1966 (the same year as King Hu's Come Drink With Me), it's one of the films that kickstarted the whole martial arts rage. Those early martial arts films are pretty basic though. The action choreography is quite stilted and the pacing rather slow (influences of the Japanese samurai film are still quite visible), on the other hand those early productions did feel more solid than some of the newer films.

Chang produced the majority of his oeuvre in the 70s, directing between 4 and 6 films each year. Chi Ma [Blood Brothers], Shao Lin Zi Di [Men from the Monestary] and Can Que [Crippled Avengers] are some of the better films I've seen, Hong Quan Yu Yong Chun turned out to be a disappointing low in Chang's career. His output started to wane during the early 80s, though 1980's Fei Hu Wai Chuan [Legend of the Fox] is by far the best Chang film I've seen up until now.

Cheh Chang is not the kind of director that you can really recommend to other people. He's the kind of guy you happen upon all by yourself, once you've shown a certain interest in a particular niche. His films aren't all that great, but if you like the material then they're never truly bad either. Chang is a genre filmer pur sang, a solid foundation of the Shaw Bros' success and a director you cannot evade once you decide that martial arts cinema is something you'd like to know more about.

Best film: Fei Hu Wai Chuan [Legend of the Fox] (3.5*)
Worst film: Ren Zhe Wu Di [Five Element Ninja] (2.0*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Shion Sono

date
December 07, 2015
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Shion Sono

Through the years, Shion Sono worked himself up to become one of the most revered directors of modern-day Japanese cinema. Some people like to call him the new Takashi Miike, but it's probably better to not ask him about that directly to his face. Sono is actually Miike's senior, having directed three shorts and three feature well before Miike started directing films. Due to a rougher start of his career though, Sono had to wait a decennium or two longer before his genius was finally recognized.

That said, the comparison between Sono and Miike does make sense on several levels. There's Sono's generous output (6 releases lined up for 2015), his ability to break with conventions and his somewhat similar approach to playing around with genre tropes. But save one or two films, Sono's work is recognizably different from Miike and the only thing that really connects both directors is their ability to make truly unique films, no matter what genre they're working in.

Sono's earliest work is pretty crude. I haven't seen his first few films (yet), but Jitensha Toiki [Bicycle Sighs] is a pretty amateurish affaire that only occasionally shows glimpses of Sono's talent. It wasn't until '92, when Sono released Heya [The Room] that things started to get interesting. It's a pretty experimental film, quite uneven but featuring a great soundtrack, one of Sono's typical traits. Utsushimi was another step in the good direction. Once again characterized by a superb soundtrack and a couple of original ideas, Sono started to shape his own unique style.

His big international breakthrough came with Jisatsu Sakuru [Suicide Circle]. Japanese horror was all the rage back then and even though the film didn't really meet the regular criteria (there's none of the long-haired black ghost stuff and it isn't too keen on following the once so popular 'less is more' approach) it was picked up by the crowds anyway. It's not one of Sono's best films, but it does feature one of his more memorable scenes (the girls in the train station). If anything, it's a good place to start if you haven't seen any of Sono's films yet.

2005 was one of Sono's most productive years, with no less than 4 releases. Noriko no Shokutaku [Noriko's Dinner Table], Yume no Naka E [Into a Dream] and Hazard are all fine films, but it was Kimyo na Sakasu [Strange Circus] that stood out the most. A highly disturbing mix of horror, weirdness and taboo subjects, the film is Sono's first masterpiece and the start of an almost constant stream of impressive films. Two years later he released Ekusute [Exte], a fun but rather low-key horror flick (with a magnificent Ren Osugi), only to blow everyone away with Ai no Mukidashi [Love/Exposure] the year after. The film isn't without flaws and it may not be Sono's slickest production, but the 4+ hours are crammed to the brim with all kinds of craziness to the point where it becomes difficult to take it all in. It's a film that defies description and can only be understood by experiencing it first hand.

The next couple of years Sono would crank out one masterpiece after the other. Tsumetai Nettaigyo [Cold Fish], Himizu and Koi no Tsumi [Guilty of Romance] are all amazing films that helped to build up his reputation. Kibo no Kuni [The Land of Hope] was a rare misfire (not bad by any means, just not as good as the rest), but quickly forgotten after he released Jigoku de Naze Warui [Why Don't You Play in Hell?]. Just last year Tokyo Tribe made a big splash and Riaru Onigokko [Tag] is by far one of the better films of 2015, so there's no sign of Sono slowing down just yet.

If you're looking for something different and you can handle a solid dose of Japanese weirdness, Shion Sono is one of the best options out there. While his older films are a not as slick and/or refined, pretty much every post 2000 film he directed is at least worth a shot. His films are never boring, they never repeat themselves and there's always at least something memorable about them. Sono is rightfully one of the hottest alternative directors out there, so if you haven't seen any of his films yet, do yourself a favor and give the man a chance.

Best film: Tokyo Tribe (4.5*)
Worst film: Seigi no Tatsujin: Nyotai Tsubo Saguri (0.5*)
Reviewed films: Ekusute - Ai no Mukidashi - Tsumetai Nettaigyo - Himizu - Koi no Tsumi - Kimyo na Sakasu - Jigoku de Naze Warui - Tokyo Tribe - Rairu Onigokko
Average rating: 3.28 (out of 5)

Yukihiko Tsutsumi

date
November 30, 2015
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Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Yukihiko Tsutsumi may not be the most famous Japanese director out there, but if you've been sampling Japanese films on a regular basis the name should probably ring a bell. Tsutsumi is somewhat of a niche director, though one that likes to switch niches from time to time. He hasn't made any really big international successes (yet), but some notorious entries in his oeuvre did help to get his name out there. It makes for a somewhat inconsistent oeuvre, but one that houses some interesting titles well worth exploring.

Tsutsumi started his career in the late 80s, but like many modern Japanese directors his international career only really took off right after the turn of the century. His pre-'00 work is pretty obscure and is, quite frankly, completely unknown to me. The first film I've seen by Tsutsumi is Keizoku/eiga, a film adaptation of a popular TV show. While that may sound pretty dull (those kind of adaptation are usually pretty bad), the film is actually quite unique and intriguing and definitely worth a try if you happen upon it.

In 2002 Tsutsumi delivered a nice little short for the first Jam Film anthology, one year later he would enjoy his modest breakthrough in the West with 2LDK. To be fair, Tsutsumi more than likely benefited from the involvement of Ryuhei Kitamura (of Versus fame), who directed Aragami as part of their unique director battle. The two of them had made a bet to see who could make the best film following a strict set of rules. Tsutsumi's entry was 2LDK, a fun and outrageous little film that fully deserves the attention it received.

That same year Tsutsumi also released Renai Shashin [College of our Lives], a film that shows he also has a knack for romance and drama. It's a little uneven maybe, but Ryoko Hirosue, Ryuhei Matsuda and Eiko Koike make it worth the while. Sadly it all went downhill from there for him. Ashita no Kioku [Memories of Tomorrow] is a decent drama, but a little too heavy-handed and Sairen[Forbidden Siren] is a run-of-the-mill horror flick, adding little to the flood of similar films out there.

Tsutsumi enjoyed a little boost with Jigyaku no Uta [Happily Ever After], one of those odd yet compellingly fun Japanese mixes of heavy drama with a light-hearted finish. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but if you don't mind the clash of styles it's actually a pretty accomplished film. Sadly he would pick up the 20-seiki Shonen series soon after, a trilogy of films based on a manga that really failed to live up to the hype. The films got progressively worse, the final (2009) one being 150 minutes of pure silliness, told with an unseemly amount of gravity and self-imposed importance.

At that point I kind of lost track of Tsutsumi's work. He made a couple of films between 2010 and now, none of which I've seen yet. It may be a little unfair, because even though it doesn't always show in his films, Tsutsumi is actually pretty talented. He can handle a broad range of genres and knows to add some unique touches to his films. Sadly he kind of went under with the rest of the Japanese movie industry in the late '00s. That said, he made a few worthwhile films and I'm sure there's plenty left to discover, so there's no reason to simply discard his entire oeuvre off the bat. If you're interested, 2LDK and Keizoku/eiga are a great place to start, on the other hand I would stay clear from the 20-seiki Shonen films, unless you're a serious manga/anime fan.

Best film: 2LDK (4.0*)
Worst film: 20-seiki Shonen: Saishu-Sho - Bokura no Hata [20th Century Boys 3: Redemption] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Keizoku/eiga
Average rating: 3.10 (out of 5)

Ridley Scott

date
November 19, 2015
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Ridley Scott

A guy like Ridley Scott hardly needs introducing. He's one of the key directors of the past 30 years. Maybe not Spielberg-level famous (mostly because he's a bit more genre-centric) but nonetheless a common, household name. And even those who don't know him by name are bound to have seen at least one of his films. While I will readily admit Scott made some good stuff along the way, I'm not really a big fan of his work and generally speaking prefer the films of brother Tony.

Scott's early years (the late 70s/early 80s) are probably his best, were it not that he also directed The Duellists, his very first feature. A rather horrible film that betrays none of Scott's lingering talents. It stands in great contrast with his second feature, Alien. While I'm probably the first to point out that the film works so well because of Giger's tremendously awesome designs, Scott deserves his share of the credits as director of the film. Blade Runner is another cult classic, though one that more aptly demonstrates Scott's shortcomings. While the first half is moody and atmospheric, it quickly dissolves into a lame 'catch the bad guy with horrible romance' ploy that does little justice to the first part of the film. Still, it's a must see for every sci-fi fan, but beware of the iffy Hollywood aftertaste.

For the biggest part of the 80s and 90s, Scott would switch back and forth between genre cinema and Hollywood blockbuster. Films like Black Rain and Someone to Watch over Me have clearer genre roots, while 1492 and GI Jane are little more than subpar money grabs.

In 2000 Scott directed what may be considered his biggest success (if you take IMDb as a viable source that is). Gladiator is loud, big, long and epic, pretty much everything I hate about Hollywood cinema. Personally I think it's one of Scott's worst. On the other hand, just one year later he directed Black Hawk Down, a film that could also be described as loud, big, long and epic, but for some reason I was able to stomach that one a lot better. Black Hawk Down is more stylized though, where Gladiator is firmly stuck in the narrative corner of Hollywood.

Through the '00s Scott kept jumping between huge Hollywood projects (Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, American Gangster) and smaller projects (Matchstick Men, All the Invisible Children). The results were very hit and miss, with only Matchstick Men standing out as a worthwhile film.

Then came the news that Scott was going to revisit the Alien universe. Expectations were mile high for Prometheus, sadly the film didn't really deliver. Giger's lack of involvement was all too visible and all of Scott's attempts to add extra spice to the Alien universe backfired. Something that doesn't bode well for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel I'm afraid. After Prometheus I was convinced Scott had completely lost it, luckily he proved me wrong with The Martian (his latest film). A very typical Hollywood sci-fi adventure, but well-executed and a fun ride.

Looking at his oeuvre, Scott is a pretty tricky director to coin. Some of his films I like, some of them I hate, but there's no obvious differentiator to separate the good from the bad. Sometimes I like his big, epic Hollywood fodder, sometimes his smaller, less prestigious projects. But it could be just as well the other way around. It's probably the reason why I've been going through his oeuvre so easily, because even though there's a lot of garbage there, you never know when you might hit another diamond in the rough.

Best film: Alien (4.0*)
Worst film: The Duellists (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.95 (out of 5)

Isao Yukisada

date
October 15, 2015
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Isao Yukisada

Japanese cinema has a pretty broad range of dramatic offerings. From the gritty, the nihilistic and the barren to the sweet, the tender and the soft. Isao Yukisada's films fall in the latter category, which isn't all that surprising when you consider he started out working for Shunji Iwai (Hana to Arisu) as an assistant director. Yukisada spent the last 20 years building up a strong, cohesive and sizeable oeuvre, so if you've seen some of Iwai's films and liked them, Yukisada is an obvious and easy recommend.

In '98 (the early years of the latest renaissance of Japanese cinema) Yukisada made Open House, a film that still closely resembled Iwai's work. Three years and four attempts later, Yukisada would have his first (modest) international success, coining his signature style and launching his career for real. Go is a solid drama, starring an impressive Yosuke Kubozuka and focusing on the friction between the Japanese and foreigners living in Japan.

The coming years Yukisada would work hard to fine-tune his style. With a strong focus on characters over plot, light and meandering atmospheres and natural but slightly stylized camera work he helped to define the characteristics of the niche he operated in. Films like Zeitaku na Hone [Luxurious Bone] and Rokkun Rouru Mishin [Rock 'n' Roll Mishin] are above average dramas, mellow in tone and featuring interesting yet loveable characters. Perfect filler for the fan of Japanese drama cinema who has seen the most (if not all) of the usual suspects.

In 2004 Yukisada released Kyo no Dekigoto [A Day on the Planet], his first humble masterpiece. Essentially not al that different from the films that came before, but just that little more engaging and enveloping. That same year he also directed Sekai no Chushin de, Ai wo Sakebu [Crying Out of Love, In the Center of the World], a film that made a bigger impact on the international market, but is at times a bit too heavy on the drama. Still a worthwhile film if you're just starting out with Japanese cinema.

Like many directors working primarily in the drama genre, Yukisada's next couple of films would test the waters by deviating ever so slightly from his success formula. Kita no Zeronen [Year One in the North] is a historic samurai drama, Toku no Sora ni Kieta [Into the Faraway Sky] an Always San-chome no Yuhi-like nostalgia-infused feel-good drama. Fine films in their own right, but not quite up there with his best work.

With Paredo [Parade] he would once again approach his best form, combining his trademark drama elements with slightly grittier and darker influences. It's not as a big shift as it sounds, but it's definitely noticeable within his body of work. Onnatachi wa Nido Asobu [Women Play Twice] was an interesting follow-up to that, a 5-part omnibus that Yukisada directed all by himself. Basically he tells the story of 5 different (and unrelated) women within the confines of a single film.

Isao Yukisada is somewhat of an undiscovered treasure. A select few of his films have caused small ripples beyond the borders of Japan, but if you're interested in getting to know his oeuvre it's going to involve some dedicated digging. Yukisada is by far one of the most consistent directors I've come across, with everything I've seen so far rating between 3.5* and 4.0*, so if you're into meandering, character-based drama a la Japonais then his oeuvre is a treasure trove of little-known gems. If you're unfamiliar with the genre though, there are probably some other directors (like Hiroshi Ishikawa, Ryuichi Hiroki or Shunji Iwai) that need exploring first.

Best film: Paredo [Parade] (4.0*)
Worst film: Kurozudo Noto [Closed Note] (3.5*)
Reviewed films: Paredo - Kyo no Dekigoto - Onnatachi wa Nido Asobu
Average rating: 3.65 (out of 5)

John Woo

date
October 06, 2015
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John Woo

John Woo is probably Hong Kong's most successful cinema export product ever. He is, at least to my knowledge, the only Hong Kong director who managed to direct a series of A-grade blockbusters. But there is a lot more to Woo's oeuvre than just his Hollywood stuff.

Woo started his career in the early 70s, directing run of the mill martial arts flicks. While not terrible films, it's pretty obvious why it would take him half a lifetime to have another go at the genre. Chu Ba [Fists of the Double K] and Shao Lin Men [Countdown in Kung Fu] do merit some extra attention, though not so much because of Woo's direction. Both films feature a very young Jackie Chan, Shao Lin Men also has Sammo Hung listed in the credits, so hardcore martial arts fans should have some additional incentive to check them out.

Before wooing the world with his heroic bloodshed cinema, Woo would take a little detour directing comedies. It's a little-known fact, but for a span of almost 10 years Woo would direct 7 comedy films, the biggest surprise being that they weren't half bad. Films like Hua Ji Shi Dai [Laughing Times], Mo Deng Tian Shi [To Hell with the Devil] and Liang Zhi Lao Hu [Run Tiger, Run] are above average comedies that stand as the best of their time. If, of course, you can stomach that typical Hong Kong sense of humor.

By the time Woo started working on his first real action film (guns blazing and all that), he had already directed 11 films in total. In '86 Woo released Ying Hung Boon Sik [A Better Tomorrow], a landmark in his oeuvre that saw him united with Yun-Fat Chow for the first time. It's the start of what would come to be known as "heroic bloodshed" cinema, a combination of high octane action mixed with overly sentimental drama, undoubtedly Woo's biggest contribution to the world of cinema.

Woo's first real masterpiece is Dip Huet Seung Hung [The Killer], a film that contains most of his trademark elements. Crazy action scenes, lots of slow-motion, a little unwelcome drama and of course a couple of doves to add some extra class to the action. In '92 Woo would one-up himself with Lat Sau San Taam [Hard-Boiled], an even more explosive action film also worth checking out. In between he directed Zong Heng Si Hai [Once a Thief], following the short-lived trend to make a film about a couple of art thieves.

In '93 Woo finally made the switch to Hollywood, but instead of storming the American market with his skilful action work, Woo dropped back to the bottom of the ladder and was forced to work his way up from scratch. His first Hollywood films are mediocre B-grade action films. It wasn't until Face/Off, his fourth American project, that Woo finally made it back to the big league. Sadly he couldn't follow it up with more great films, though action fans might still appreciate films like Mission Impossible II and Windtalkers.

I for one was very happy to see Woo return to China. In 2008 he came back to him homestead to make his 2-part tactical war epic Chi Bi [Red Cliff], fun films with some great (tactical) action, though quite CG-heavy. Two years later John Woo would assist Chao-Bin Su in directing Jianyu [Reign of Assassins], one of the best martial arts film of the current generation. It's a bit hard to say exactly how involved Woo was, but looking at Su's prior work and the high quality of the action scenes, I think it's fair to say Woo's name is not just up there for show. Currently the man is working on another 2-part war epic titled Tai Ping Lun [The Crossing]. The first one was a bit melodramatic for my taste, but if you like yourself some big budget action set pieces it's well worth a try.

Woo has had a long and worthwhile career, travelling between martial arts, comedy, heroic bloodshed and Hollywood, only to return to Hong Kong to (probably) end his career in the local market. There's still life left in Woo, though I wonder if he'll ever return to his most iconic work. The way I see it, one more heroic bloodshed film to rule them all would be a superb goodbye gift by one of the top action directors of his generation.

Best film: Jianyu [Reign of Assassins] (4.0*)
Worst film: Once a Thief (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.68 (out of 5)

Shusuke Kaneko

date
October 01, 2015
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Shusuke Kaneko

Last week I watched my 10th Shusuke Kaneko film. Believe it or not, I hardly had a clue who he was at that time. And it's not because Kaneko lacks a clear personal style or because he acts as a director for hire. On the contrary, his body of work is quite cohesive and looking back at the films he made there are some rather memorable entries, even the ones I didn't end up liking.

It's probably because Kaneko is mostly active in fringe niches of the horror genre. He directs the kind of films that are very characteristic for Japanse cinema, but never manage to impress me that much. His kaiju films in particular are a fun distraction, but I find them quite hard to keep apart and I never seem to be able to remember the directors who made them.

Kaneko started directing in the early 80s, but I'm completely unfamiliar with the films he directed back then. While quickly scanning through the genres and plot summaries it seems to be mostly comedies with otaku-like influences, which goes a long way to explain why those films haven't enjoyed broader international interest. His first big breakthrough came about in '93, when he was asked to direct one part of the Lovecraft-inspired Necronomicon anthology where he went head to head with Brian Yuzna and Christophe Gans.

In '95 Kaneko's career took an interesting turn when he directed the first entry in the 90s Gamera reboot. If you don't know who or what Gamera is, just think Gojira, only with a flying turtle. Kaneko proved quite capable at directing kaiju cinema and he returned to work on the second and third installment in the series. Fun stuff, but if you're not really sure what kaiju is it's probably better to sample some Gojira films first. In 2001 Kaneko made the switch to Gamera's big brother and directed Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidora: Daikaiju Sokogeki [Giant Monsters All-Out Attack], one of the more memorable entries in the long-running Gojira series.

When Kaneko wasn't busy directing kaiju films he explored other horror niches, but to no avail. Kami no Hidarite Akuma no Migite [God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand] had an interesting premise but was bogged down by poor execution, Kurosufaia [Cross Fire] was an even bigger letdown and still stands as one of the worst Japanese films I've seen to date. Even when he was given popular franchises (Death Note and Azumi) Kaneko failed to truly engage.

In the latter part of the '00s he turned his back on horror cinema and tried his hand on some drama films. And just like that the little international interest there was in his work dropped off completely. It wasn't until last year, when he released Shojo wa Isekai de Tatakatta [Danger Dolls], that Kaneko popped back up on the radar. Sadly the film is hardly worth the effort.

It's hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a typical Kaneko film, but at some base level there's a connection that binds his films together. Sadly the mediocre quality of his work is part of that connection. Personally I prefer Kaneko's kaiju films, but it's hard to recommend those to people unfamiliar with the genre. His horror films, while not all that bad on a conceptual level, suffer from poor execution and lifeless direction. As for his comedy and drama work, I really can't say as I haven't seen any. It's not an easy director to recommend and since he hasn't directed any essential films you might just as easily pass him by completely (even when showing great interest in Japanese film), but to say that he isn't worth your time would be unfair. Just don't expect too much and you might end up with some decent filler.

Best film: Gamera 3: Iris Kakusei [Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris] (3.5*)
Worst film: Kurosufaia [Cross Fire] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.20 (out of 5)