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.

M. Night Shyamalan

date
November 03, 2017
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M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan is a peculiar director. A man whose career has been through several ups and downs, though more often than not people can't seem to agree which are the hits and which ones the misses. Nevertheless, Shyamalan has always managed to straighten his back after one of his films got shot down by the critics or bombed at the box office. He also evolved from being a one-trick pony to becoming a more fleshed out director, so going through his oeuvre is definitely a rewarding experience and is sure to unearth some worthy films.

Even though Shyamalan is a well-known director, many people (including myself) never got around to watching his first two films. He released his very first film in '92, but Praying with Anger never made much of a dent, not in the least because the film lacks mainstream distribution. Six years later Shyamalan would direct Wide Awake, a cheesy looking sports comedy with religious undertones. Not quite the crowdpleaser either, but at least it's more readily available for those who want to take the plunge.

Shyamalan's career really took off in '99, when he released The Sixth Sense and switched to the horror/mystery genre. The film went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, endlessly referenced by songs, films and series and ultimately defined by its twist ending. While Shyamalan definitely deserves praise for these accomplishments, the film itself really isn't all that great and its rewatch value is quite disappointing. The same can be said about his followup, Unbreakable, though again Shyamalan deserves credits for the novel way he incorporated the superhero theme into that film.

Signs was Shyamalan's first film I found successful beyond the twisty character of its narrative (and in fact, wasn't all that twisty to begin with). It's a moody, fun and sneaky alien invasion flick that leaves little to the imagination, but at least doesn't pretend to be anything more. It's a shame Shyamalan's next film (The Village) turned out to be the worst thing he ever directed. Still, many people are in love with it and its love it or hate it status became infamous, so your mileage may vary.

When Shyamalan thrives on narrative I tend to get bored real fast, luckily he also made a couple of films that explore more original concepts. Lady in the Water is a modern (somewhat darker) fairytale that oozes atmosphere. It's my favorite Shyamalan, which isn't too surprising knowing that Christopher Doyle handled the cinematography. He followed up with The Happening, a pretty delightful and freaky eco-horror that delivers a novel and atmospheric payback on humanity by none other than Mother Earth.

With that out of his system Shyamalan went on a little commercial Hollywood adventure, starting with the adaptation of The Last Airbender. I never watched the original animation, which probably made the film a bit more bearable for me, but for a blockbuster it sure turned out lackluster. Needless to say critics completely annihilated the film. Shyamalan slipped away even further when he took on After Earth, the infamous Will/Jaden Smith scifi collaboration. The movie screams "gun for hire" on every level, a shame for a director who clearly has more up his sleeve.

Luckily Shyamalan knows how to bounce back and with his latest films he really regained his footing. The Visit is a sneaky little mystery thriller and Split another interesting take on the superhero genre. It's a little worrisome that Shyamalan is planning on connecting the Split and Unbreakable universes (which sounds a lot like he's indulging in narrative overhead again), but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. When he's at his best, Shyamalan is an interesting director who adds something unique that you won't find anywhere else. Not every film's a hit, but most of them are definitely worth checking out. I'd say it's best to avoid After Earth and The Last Airbender if you're willing to break into his oeuvre, apart from that there's plenty of quaity in his films, you'll just have to find out which ones speak to you the most.

Best film: Lady in the Water (3.5*)
Worst film: The Village (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

Hideaki Anno

date
August 10, 2017
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Hideaki Anno

Hideaki Anno is one of the rogue forces that shaped the anime industry in the 80s and 90s. He's best known as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but he's had a much richer career so far than most people appear to realize. In the early 80s Anno was picked up by Miyazaki to work on Nausicaa as an animator. That same year Anno would cofound Studio Gainax, one of the leading animation companies during the 90s. As a director Anno first got noticed when he released Gunbuster, a short but fun OAV that followed a bunch of young, female mech cadets. But it wasn't until Anno directed Evangelion in '95 that his fame exploded. Evangelion is still considered one of the all-time landmark anime releases and while personally I'm not a big fan, it's simply impossible to ignore its impact on Japanese animation (and international geek culture as a whole).

Anno's first steps into feature film territory were directly related to Evangelion. The End of Evangelion was a rework of the series' finale (to clear some thing up, as people were quite confused by the way the original series ended), Death & Rebirth is an almost abstract compilation of the entire series into a single film. While these are interesting additions to the Evangelion universe, they offer very little to people who weren't too impressed by the original series.

With the whole world going mad over Anno's creation, the man himself surprised friend and foe when he decided to make a 180, suddenly turning to live-action cinema. Love & Pop was his first attempt and turned out to be an interesting experiment, with Anno tirelessly exploring the different possibilities of live-action cinema. The film itself is a little uneven, but it was already clear back then that Anno wasn't interested in simply copying existing conventions. He made that even clearer when he followed it up with Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu], a beautiful, creative and original drama that still stands as one of my all-time favorite films. As an added bonus, the film features director Shinji Iwai as one of the lead characters. It may be somewhat of a challenge to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort.

But Anno isn't one to get stuck in a particular niche, so from there on out he went back to animation, directing the somewhat obscure Submarine 707R and following it up with a Cutie Honey revival (consisting of an animated anthology and a live-action feature film). The animated anthology (Rec: Cutie Honey) is definitely the stand-out of the two, but I'm sure that had more to do with Hiroyuki Imaishi's involvement. The live-action feature is a pretty cheesy anime adaptation, quite cheap and childish and only worthwhile if you're a big fan of the original series.

In 2007 Anno finally returned to the series that brought him his fame. With three new feature films spread out over 5 years, Anno set out to reimagine Evangelion for a third (and final?) time. The first film is pretty tame and remains quite close to the original series, only adding some improved animation. But part 2 and 3 is where things get more interesting. Anno went for a more dynamic and exuberant visual style and really upgraded the films in such a way that they became true stand-alone entries in the Evangelion franchise. They may still cling to the original storyline, but the experience of watching them is quite different and in fact marks the first time I managed to actually enjoy something Evangelion-related.

Not too long ago Anno set out to reboot the Gojira franchise, together with up and coming director Shinji Higuchi. The result was Shin Gojira, a fun and worthy addition to the long-running Gojira franchise that didn't quite reinvent the series, but did showed enough potential for possible future remakes. At the very least, it's a lot better than what their Western counterparts are currently up to with the Gojira franchise. Up next is the fourth and final instalment in Anno's third Evangelion reboot, though no specific date is set for that one.

Even though Anno's name will forever be tied to the Evangelion franchise, he has a much wider range than most people give him credit for. Evangelion is a curse and a blessing, though ultimately it allowed Anno to venture out and do what he wants to do, with surprisingly little restraint, which is something I'm sure many other directors are quite envious of. Not everything he touches turns into gold, but it's always interesting and often surprising to see where he goes next.

Best film: Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu] (5.0*)
Worst film: Evangelion: Death & Rebirth [Evangelion: Shito Shinsei] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Ritual
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Yoshihiro Nakamura

date
April 20, 2017
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Yoshihiro Nakamura

I guess Yoshihiro Nakamura is a somewhat atypical Japanese director. Most directors over there are either very focused on the festival market or aim squarely at local audiences. Nakamura falls somewhere in between both stretches. He's had a couple of international near-breakthroughs in his career, but he never quite managed to become a household festival name in the West. And when the occasional Nakamura film does finds its way into the hands of Western critics, it's met with warm feedback, though it never quite tends to stick.

The thing with Nakamura is that he is one of those directors who by and large goes with the flow. When he started in the early 00's he tried to make a name for himself directing horror films, a few years later he switched to comedy/dramady and nowadays he's all into police thrillers. He's not very bad at what he does, most of his films have a clear base quality, but he never really excels at anything and he never quite manages to put a personal touch on the projects he works on. This makes it difficult to fully embrace his work.

If you were into Asian suspense cinema some 15 years ago, chances are you've come across Suiyô Puremia: Sekai Saikyô J Horâ SP Nihon no Kowai Yoru [Dark Tales of Japan] and Busu [The Booth], two films that enjoyed minor successes in the West. More hardcore fans probably saw Watashi no Akachan [Lizard Baby] and @beibimeru [@babymail] too, though these two hardly made a dent here. They're all decent enough examples of Asian suspense, with Busu being the best of the bunch, but they're not what you call flagship material.

After the interest in Asian horror had died off, Nakamura switched to drama (often served with a slice of wry comedy). Ahiru to Kamo no Koinrokka [The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker], Fisshu Sutori [Fish Story] and Goruden Suranba [Golden Slumber] are all more than decent films, a tad long maybe but definitely worth seeking out. Just don't expect too much from them, because even though they're good films, they all lack something unique that sets them apart.

In the meantime Nakamura also started to release comedies aimed at the local market. Chonmage Purin [A Boy and His Samurai] and Eiga Kaibutsukun [Kaibutsu-kun The Movie] are two films you'd do well to avoid, Potechi and Minasan, Sayonara [See You Tomorrow are notably better, with both films clearly benefitting from Gaku Hamada's comedic talent. Pure comedy isn't Nakamura's strong point if you ask me, but opinions seem to differ so you might want to give the latter two a chance.

A few years ago Nakamura tried his hand on some thriller material, with Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken [The Snow White Murder Case] and Yokokuhan [Prophecy] as a result. Again, they're not bad films, but they're not very memorable either. Much like Nakamura's other work, it ends up above-average filler, good for when you're short on potential masterpieces, but never quite a masterpiece itself.

You could say Nakamura is a good choice if you want to ease people into watching Japanese films, as his work isn't too weird, unique or experimental. Then again I'm not sure if people are going to feel the need to further explore Japanese cinema after seeing one of his features. If anything, it's pretty nice filler, just stay away from his films aimed at the local market, unless your OCD compels you to complete Nakamura's entire oeuvre.

Best film: Busu [The Booth] (3.5*)
Worst film: Eiga Kaibutsukun [Kaibutsu-kun The Movie] (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.95 (out of 5)

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)