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.

wai-keung lau

date
March 18, 2014
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Wai-keung Lau

Wai-keung Lau (often credited as Andrew Lau) is not only one of Hong Kong's most prolific directors, he's also one of the most versatile ones. Lau has had a pretty rich and varied career so far and shows no signs of stopping just yet. But it must be said, it cost Lau quite a lot of effort to get where he is today and he had to fight his way back into the game more than once.

The first few years of his career Lau struggled to get a foot between the door. His very first director credit was for Lian Ai De Tian Kong, an anthology project helmed by Jing Wong, his subsequent projects didn't fare much better. Not that they were terrible films (apart from Xiang Gang Qi An: Zhi Qiang Jian, which was pretty disastrous), they just didn't leave much of an impression.

In 1996, while the entire Hong Kong movie scene was drowning in sorrow, Lau rose to the occasion and released Gu Huo Zi: Zhi Ren Zai Jiang Hu (Young And Dangerous), the first part of what was to become an incredibly popular crime series, spouting five official sequels and at least as many spin-offs. In its wake stars like Francis Ng, Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan rose to fame. This series is probably the perfect starting point if you're interesting in Lau's earlier work (or Hong Kong Triad films in general).

Lau continued to release solid films, most notably Fung Wan: Hung Ba Tin Ha (The Storm Riders) and Kuet Chin Chi Gam Ji Din (The Duel), sticking to a close crew of actors who were all more than happy to return to Lau's projects. Ekin Cheng in particular owes a lot to the success of Lau's films. But as most Hong Kong directors around that time, Lau wasn't able to escape the occasional dud. Oi Gwan Yue Mung (Dance of a Dream) and Wai See Lee Ji Lam Huet Yan (The Wesley Mysterious File) rank amongst the absolute worst films in Lau's entire oeuvre.

But Lau picked himself up again, and how. I admit I'm not the biggest fan myself, but Lau's Mou Gaan Dou (Infernal Affairs) trilogy travelled the world and would end up in the hands of Scorsese. The films are slick police thrillers, featuring some of Hong Kong's best actors and spanning a wide era of Triad activity. The success allowed Lau to travel abroad. First somewhat tentatively, taking a group of Korean actors and a Japanese composer to The Netherlands to direct Daisy, soon after he'd make the trip to Hollywood to direct The Flock. But like most travelling directors, the jump to Hollywood was little more than a failed adventure.

Back in Hong Kong Lau started over once more and came out with Jing Wu Feng Yun: Chen Zhen (The Legend of Chen Zhen), my favorite Lau film so far. With Xue Di Zi (The Guillotines) he repeated that success, earning him a second chance to make the trip to America. Revenge of the Green Dragons is set to be released later this year, featuring Ray Liotta as a potential crowd puller.

From crime to martial arts, from comedy to thriller, Wai-keung Lau has tried many genres and played around in many different corners of the movie business (not just as a director either, Lau also has cinematography, production and even some acting credits to his name). While his truly great films are few and far between, most of his oeuvre is filled with solid, fun-filled entertainment. If you're not a big fan of Asian cinema Mou Gaan Dou is probably the best place to start, if you're familiar with Hong Kong's genre cinema then the Gu Huo Zi: Zhi Ren Zai Jiang Hu is a must-see.

Best film: Jing Wu Feng Yun: Chen Zhen (The Legend of Chen Zhen) (4.0*)
Worst film: Wai See Lee Ji Lam Huet Yan (The Wesley's Mysterious File) (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): The Legend of Chen Zhen
Average rating: 2.94 (out of 5)

koji wakamatsu

date
February 24, 2014
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Koji Wakamatsu

RIP Koji Wakamatsu. He's my undisputed favorite of all classic directors. An amazing man who died a plain and unheroic death only a year ago when he was hit by cab, returning from a meeting about the funding of his latest project. It's truly sad because Wakamatsu had reacquainted himself with his love for cinema, making films (and good ones at that) as if he'd just started out in the business.

Wakamatsu started his career in 1963, taking a flying start and not slowing down substantially until almost 30 years later. At his prime (1969 was an important year for him) Wakamatsu made 11 films. That's about one film a month. You'd think the quality would suffer a lot, but surprisingly one of his best (and best known) films was made during that year. Yuke Yuke Nidome no Shojo (Go Go Second Time Virgin) is one hell of a movie, one that shows little signs of ageing and still feels like a breath of fresh air, even today.

While a unique director, I feel there is a strong connection between the work of Wakamatsu and Godard, especially the more political and experimental films both directors share in their oeuvre. Politics and rebellion are often returning topics in Wakamatsu's films, his documentaries in particular (Sekigun-PFLP: Sekai Senso Sengen) smelling more than a little of propaganda. Wakamatsu's ideals fare better in his feature films, where his characters and their often retracted personalities give counterbalance to the political ideas covered.

During the 80s and 90s Wakamatsu laid low, only producing one film every year or so. The quality of these films isn't up to par with his earlier work either, as he edged closer and closer towards commercial, identity-ridden projects. During these 20-odd years he only made about 10 films in total. That's still a lot for a normal director, for Wakamatsu it's almost as if he didn't have the energy any more. I'd say these films are probably best kept as filler for those of us who have run out of other Wakamatsu films to see.

In 2004 Wakamatsu made a comeback with 17-Sai no Fukei - Shonen wa Nani o Mita no Ka (Landscapes The Boy Saw). A combination of a harrowing personal portrait interspersed with political ideals, it's my favorite Wakamatsu so far. While not a big commercial success, the film proved there was still some life left in the man and it kick-started a new series of films in his name. With 3 films released in 2012, it seemed Wakamatsu was getting back to his earlier level of output, until one car decided differently.

Wakamatsu is not the kind of director to make easy accessible, commercially viable films. But the combination of interesting characters, natural acting, stylistic freedom and strong ideals make for an oeuvre that hides many gems. With 100+ director credits to his name, I have only scratched the top of the iceberg, but what I've seen so far puts him firmly in my ever-growing list of favorites.

Best film: 17-Sai no Fukei - Shonen wa Nani o Mita no Ka (Landscapes The Boy Saw) (4.0*)
Worst film: Sekigun-PFLP: Sekai Senso Sengen (The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War) (0.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Landscapes The Boy Saw - Kaien Hoteru - Buru
Average rating: 2.86 (out of 5)

luc besson

date
February 19, 2014
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Luc Besson

Even though France has a pretty bustling movie scene, nowadays not too many French directors find success outside of their home territory. There will always be niche interest (like the recent wave of French horror flicks) and some occasional outcasts turned famous (think Jean-Piere Jeunet or Gaspar Noé), but when it comes to big commercial successes, there is only one man who made the cut this generation: Luc Besson.

Like many a great director Besson started off with a very small, personal and uncompromising film that got people to notice him. Le Dernier Combat still stands proud today, thanks to its stylish black and white photography and one of the first major roles of Jean Reno. Besson's productions (and success) grew bigger from that point, with films like Le Grand Blue and Nikita finding their way to larger audiences.

Besson's true fame came when he crossed the ocean and went on to make Léon. Very few foreign directors can say they made one of their best films when they moved to Hollywood, Besson is one of them. Not only did it immortalize actors like Reno and Oldman, the film single-handedly launched the career of Nathalie Portman. His second attempt to woo the American market was a harder sell, though I'll gladly admit that The Fifth Element remains one of my favorite Hollywood flicks to this day.

Besson made one more big production (Joan of Arc) before he rebooted his career. Angel-A (his best film to date) is a throwback to Besson's very first feature. Beautiful black and white photography, an original concept and a small cast was all he needed to make something truly special. From then on Besson's directing career starts to falter a little. His Arthur films form a passable children's animation trilogy but little more than that, Adèle Blanc-Sec an above average mix of Indiana Jones and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Malavita a decent attempt at importing Hollywood stars into France, but all of these films lack that extra something that made his earlier films stand out. While fun and amusing, none of these films truly impress.

On the side Besson also immortalized himself through his production work, giving French genre cinema (mostly action-oriented stuff) such a boost that it got noticed far across the border. Films like District 13, Taxi and The Transporter all carry Besson's name, with of course a special mention for Ong-Bak. If you want to dig into Besson's own oeuvre though, Léon is probably the best place to start. If you're more into off-beat cinema, give Angel-A a spin.

Best film: Angel-A (4.5*)
Worst film: Arthur et la Vengeance de Maltazard (2.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Angel-A - Léon - The Fifth Element - Lucy
Average rating: 3.50 (out of 5)

akira kurosawa

date
February 10, 2014
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Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is the first classic director to appear on my "10 or more" list of directors. He is after all Japan's most honoured cinematic legacy with an body of work that regularly rears its head in all kinds of popularity contests. His oeuvre spans 50 years of cinema and Kurosawa is often cited as an inspiration by fellow film makers (including some of my own favorites, like Shinya Tsukamoto), so it is pretty hard to ignore him.

While I won't contest Kurosawa's legacy, I myself am not a big fan of his work. I got acquainted with his films through several influential top lists and/or popularity contests, but found little to my liking. It seems that Kurosawa's most popular films unite actor Toshiro Mifune and his samurai work, while I seem to prefer Takashi Shimizu and his more contemporary films.

I'm not a very big fan of samurai films to begin with, classic or contemporary, and coupled with Mifune's never-changing bully with the heart at the right place character there just isn't too much there for me in Kurosawa's films. The plots are pretty basic, the fight scenes terribly outdated and the visuals too functional. Still, quality varies as I could, up to a point, appreciate a film like Rashomon, where Kakushi-Toride no San-Akunin bored me to tears.

Ikiru and Nora Inu stand out as some of his better movies, sadly Kurosawa also has a tendency to drag his films out way past the 120 minute mark. It's the prime reason why I haven't seen more of his contemporary work, as the running time of these films often nullifies the positive points. It won't stop me from watching more of his work though, just not on a very regular basis. I know it's not a popular opinion to hold, but I guess I just don't like Kurosawa all that much. Still, if you're looking for a way in I would say Ikiru is your best bet. If you're big on samurai films then Shichinin no Samurai is an absolute must see.

Best film: Ikiru (Doomed) (2.5*)
Worst film: Kakushi-Toride no San-Akunin (The Hidden Fortress) (2.0*)
Average rating: 1.50 (out of 5)

lik-chi lee

date
February 04, 2014
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Lik-Chi Lee

Unless you've truly familiarized yourself with Hong Kong cinema, the name Lik-Chi Lee may not ring a bell. Chances are you've seen at least one of his films though, as a few of his collaborations with Stephen Chow have reached far beyond the boundaries of the local Hong Kong market. Sadly Lee's efforts are often overshadowed by Chow's presence, a good reason to put him in the spotlight for a change.

Lee started his career with Lian Ai De Tian Kong, an anthology project that also launched the career of Wai-Keung Lau and featured Jing Wong as both producer and director. It would take Lee 7 more years before he would release Qing Sheng (The Magnificent Scoundrels), his second feature and his first director/actor collaboration with Stephen Chow. Qing Sheng is the film that truly kick-started Lee's career, even though by modern standards the film has become a rather tame experience.

It's Lee's third film, Tang Bohu dian Qiuxiang (Flirting Scholar), that showed his true potential. Quirky Hong Kong parody, humorous martial arts bits and Stephen Chow's natural flair all combine into faced-paced comedy fun. When Lee finally took Chow on board as co-director he fully cashed in on that potential. Gwok Chaan Ling Ling Chat (From Beijing with Love) is Lee's first truly great film, an almost continuous assault of silliness that charms from start to finish.

While the rest of Hong Kong descended into a dark period of mediocrity, Lee continued to churn out good to great films for a little time longer. Shi Xiong Di (Ten Brothers) is Hong Kong comedy at its most random, Sik San (God of Cookery) is Lee's magnum opus. After that things started to go downhill for Lee too, though Hei Kek Ji Wong (The King Of Comedy), Lee's final collaboration with Chow, saw Lee give it his all one final time.

Hong Kong comedy is an acquired taste, but if you want to have a go at it Lik-Chi Lee's films are an ideal starting point. His collaborations with Stephen Chow in particular are quite accessible, and if you end up liking those there are still some of Lee's solo projects that are definitely worth exploring.

Best film: Sik San (God of Cookery) (4.0*)
Worst film: Hung Wan Yat Tew Loong (The Lucky Guy) (2.0*)
Average rating: 3.15 (out of 5)

herman yau

date
January 06, 2014
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Herman Yau

At first glance, Herman Yau could easily be mistaken for another one of those mainstream, prolific Hong Kong directors, but upon closer inspection you'll find a man who operates in a slightly different corner of Hong Kong cinema. Yau is the king of B-cinema, a director who uses small budgets to his advantage and who made a name for himself with some rather questionable (but fun!) films.

Bat Sin Fan Dim Ji Yan Yuk Cha Siu Bau (The Untold Story), Di Shi Pan Guan (Taxi Hunter) and Yi Boh Lai Beng Duk (Ebola Syndrome) are three of the biggest 90s classics of Hong Kong B-cinema. Together with Anthony Wong (who plays the lead in all three) Yau built his reputation mostly on these three films. Surely it's not everyone's cup of tea, but with a slew of memorable scenes and a truly wicked Anthony Wong they are definitely worth checking out.

The next 10 years in his career are still somewhat of a blind spot for me. Sut Ging Mo Sun (Dating Death) and Gong Tau (Gong Tau: An Oriental Black Magic) are pretty much okay, but some of the others I tried are just flat out horrible. Whatever you do, try to avoid Aau Yeung Liu 4 Yue Gwai Tung Hang (Troublesome Night 4) and Lao Fu Zi (Old Master Q) until you're certain you want to dig through Yau's entire back catalogue.

Yau did work himself back into the picture though. Ever since he released Laughing Gor Chi Bin Chit (Turning Point - what's in a name) he has been cranking out respectable films once again. He even managed to land him some international attention when he took up two Yip Man films (which are pretty good unless you compare them to Wilson Yip's efforts). Compared to his older work his newer films aren't as edgy or nasty, instead Yau focuses more on quality these days, though always within the limitations of his budgets. This lead to Jian Hu Nu Xia Qiu Jin (The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake), a surprisingly interesting mix of martial arts and feminism.

Herman Yau has a vast and broad oeuvre that contains quite a lot of hidden gems. You have to dig a little to find them though. Just about every film he made falls into the B-film category, some of them are plain bad, others reach far above their initial potential. Start with his older films if you're into the B-movie scene, if you're not it's best to tackle some of his later works and go from there.

Best film: Jian Hu Nu Xia Qiu Jin (The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake) (4.0*)
Worst film: Lao Fu Zi (Old Master Q 2001) (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake
Average rating: 2.78 (out of 5)

hark tsui

date
December 23, 2013
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Hark Tsui

Hark Tsui, what a legend. More than 30 years in the business, always busy directing, producing and writing. If not that, he's probably acting or editing. With more than 40 films on his resume as a director, his oeuvre is a sprawling trip through three decades of Hong Kong action cinema. He belongs to a generation of prolific workers, starting out right before Jing Wong and Johnnie To. While that also means Tsui directed some real stinkers, he stands as one the best of his generation.

Die Bian (The Butterfly Murders), Suk San: Sun Suk San Geen Hap (Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and Do Ma Daan (Peking Opera Blues) are your smartest bets when browsing through Tsui's early works. Signs of Tsui's talent are littered through most of his earlier films, though you might want to avoid Da Gung Wong Dai (Working Class) and Huang Fei Hong Jiu Er Zhi Long Xing Tian Xia (The Master), Tsui's first crossover to the USA.

Working up to '93 (the golden year of Hong Kong martial arts cinema), Tsui started with Xiaoao Jiang Hu (Swordman) before he hit the jackpot with Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon A Time In China). An amazing collaboration with Jet Li that started a 6-film long series of martial arts bliss. Sun Lung Moon Hak Chan (New Dragon Gate Inn) and Ching Se (Green Snake) might be less famous, but still a treasure for those who have already sifted through the more famous martial arts films of the 90s.

Tsui suffered together with the rest of Hong Kong when the movie business went downhill in the mid 90s, his Hollywood adventures didn't wield any great films either. Until 2001, when Tsui rose from the ashes with Shun Liu Ni Liu (Time and Tide), my favorite Tsui film to date. A film that earned him enough credit to direct Qi Jian (Seven Swords) and Tie Saam Gok (Triange - together with Johnnie To and Ringo Lam).

Nowadays Tsui is busy directing the Di Renjie series (Detective Dee), a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Chinese folklore. A fine set of films that show the master has still some juice left in him, even if these films don't exactly measure up against Tsui's absolute best. Thirty years is a long time and Tsui lived through a career of ups and downs, but considering the many ups (and comebacks) Hark Tsui is a director that's hard to ignore. When you're planning to acquaint yourself with Hong Kong action cinema, he should be one of the first directors to dig into.

Best film: Shun Liu Ni Liu (Time and Tide) (4.5*)
Worst film: Black Mask 2: City of Masks (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Green Snake - Zhi Qu Weihu Shan
Average rating: 3.08 (out of 5)

robert rodriguez

date
November 20, 2013
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Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez probably needs no introduction. Google him and you'll be greeted by larges cowboy hats and smug grins. An image that suits the bad-ass action films he's known to direct. Sometimes seen as Tarantino's lesser brother, there is quite a bit more to Rodriguez' career.

Rodriguez started his career at the very bottom. El Mariachi is a no-budget action flick that earned Rodriguez enough credit to start work on the sequel (Desperado), but watching it nowadays is pretty a painful experience. Desperado isn't, a film that remains a perfect showcase for Rodriguez' visual flair and gun-filled action sequences. There's also a third film in the series (Once Upon a Time in Mexico), but that one is best forgotten.

After that Rodriguez teamed up with Tarantino. The two have released a bunch of films together, often in different setups. Four Rooms and Grindhouse are anthology projects, Sin Sity was co-directed by Tarantino (though he didn't do all that much) and From Dusk Till Dawn was written by the man. I'm not a big Tarantino fan, but his involvement did put Rodriguez on the front of the grindhouse revival, a slick move that allowed Rodriguez to make a full feature version of Planet Terror and two Machete films.

But the coolest thing about Rodriguez is that amidst all this testosterone action, he managed to become a respected director of children's films. It started in 2001 when he directed the first Spy Kids film, currently the fourth instalment in that series is out. Add Shorts and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D to the list and it's hard to ignore Rodriguez' second career. To be fair, I haven't seen any of these films myself (so I can't vouch for them beyond their obvious popularity), then again I don't exactly belong to their target audience.

Rodriguez' style is a bit hit and miss for me. When he gives style preference (like with Desperado or Planet Terror) I can appreciate his bad-ass nonsense, but more often than not the effect is ruined by dumb characters, failing dialogues and a lack of visual flair. Rodriguez' films are never boring though, so with each new film he makes it's worth giving it another try, even when the result isn't all that great.

Best film: Planet Terror (4.0*)
Worst film: From Dusk Till Dawn (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.10 (out of 5)

alan mak

date
November 14, 2013
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Alan Mak

Hong Kong-based director Alan Mak should need no introduction, but for some reason he never became a household name amongst film fans. Even though he (co)directed what may as well be the most popular and critically acclaimed trilogy coming out of Hong Kong, Mak failed to build up a huge fan club and remains somewhat in the shadows of his contemporaries.

After directing a couple of low-key films in Hong Kong, Mak got a major break when he was invited by Wai-keung Lau to co-direct the Mou Gaan Dou (Infernal Affairs) trilogy. It was the start of a successful collaboration, as they would go on to direct Tau Man Ji D (Initial D) and Seung Sing (Confession of Pain), two high-profile Hong Kong films. Sadly, Mak got a little eclipsed by Lau's success in the process.

Mak switched teams soon after and rebooted his career with Felix Chong on his side. A new collaboration that led to a series of successful films, gaining Mak some renewed international attention. Qie Ting Feng Yun (Overheard 1) and Sit Yan Fung Wan 2 (Overheard 2) both made it out of Hong Kong, while Guan Yun Chang (The Lost Bladesman) reached us with a little help of Donnie Yen's star power.

Even though Mak branched out occasionally to other genres, he's at his best when he can pen his way through stories of espionage. His latest film (The Silent War) is perfect proof of this. In the end his films may lack that little extra to make them truly stand out, but apart from the rare dud (Daai Sau Cha Ji Neui - Lady Cop & Papa Crook - is the only one that comes to mind so far) Mak delivers stylish, quality thrillers that offer tense and exhilarating stand-offs between intriguing characters.

Best film: Mou Gaan Dou III: Jung Gik Mou Gaan (Infernal Affairs 3) (4.0*)
Worst film: Daai Sau Cha Ji Neui (Lady Cop & Papa Crook) (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.27 (out of 5)

jackie chan

date
September 12, 2013
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Jackie Chan

Does a man like Jackie Chan really need an introduction? He's no doubt one of the most famous Chinese actors working in cinema today and one of the select few that managed to build up a successful international career. But Chan's career spans more than just acting. When he's not in front of the camera he's busy being a stunt coordinator, writer, singer ... and director.

When I started getting interested in martial arts cinema I deliberately avoided Chan's films because of his Hollywood image. But when the work of other directors started to dry up, moving on to Chan's oeuvre was a natural evolution for me. It turned out that Chan wasn't much of a director in the traditional sense of the word. I don't think he was ever truly interested in making his own films, instead he simply seemed to want more control over his stunts, his co-stars and the pacing of his action work. And what better way to do that than to direct your own films.

I can't really comment on his earliest features as I have been primarily focusing on his more popular work, but from what I've seen most (if not all) of Chan's films follow a pretty fixed pattern. They are all a mixture of comedy and action, featuring elaborate stunt and fight sequences where Chan is allowed to demonstrate his signature style of fighting and acrobatics. It's a golden concept, especially when people like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao are helping out, but his films don't really amount to much beyond that. The only exception to the rule so far seems to be Xinhai Geming, though I haven't caught up with that one yet.

Chan's films are neither very good or very bad. Some of them are better than others, but apart from minor variations you pretty much know what to expect from the get-go. They seem to follow the ups and downs of the HK industry quite closely, then again it's hard to fault Chan for choosing to direct his own films considering he really did produce the best stunt sequences in his self-directed films. The Police Story series in particular (Ging Chat Goo Si and Ging Chaat Goo Si Juk Jaap) contains some of Chan's most impressive acrobatics, making them a perfect target should you wish to break into Chan's oeuvre.

If you're not into martial arts and/or you can't appreciate the HK style of comedy, Chan's films probably won't be for you, but if you like Jackie Chan (the actor) films in general you can't go far wrong with the films he directed.

Best film: 'A' Gai Waak (Project A) (3.5*)
Worst film: Wo Shi Shei (Who Am I?) (2.0*)
Average rating: 2.77 (out of 5)