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.

John Woo

October 06, 2015
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

October 01, 2015
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)

Eric Tsang

September 24, 2015
Eric Tsang

Most people will think of Eric Tsang as an actor (he's the small, somewhat chubby, high-pitched voiced guy playing Hon Sam, one of the Triad bosses in the Infernal Affairs trilogy), but there's much (much) more to his career. Sure enough he's first and foremost an actor, with almost 240 acting credits to his name and still going strong. But 27 directing credits is nothing to sniff at either and with some worthwhile (and meaningful) production work behind his name I think it's fair to call him one of the driving forces behind 35 years of Hong Kong cinema.

Though he mostly worked in comedy, Tsang started out his career directing martial arts flicks in the late 70s. That may be a little hard to imagine if you are familiar with his style, and truth be told, watching Zei Zang [The Loot] and Ti Guan [The Challenger] does reveal little of Tsang's trademark characteristics. Still, they're both decent enough martial arts flicks with plenty of action and some lighter moments in between. Good fun if you're in the mood for some classic non-Shaw Bros martial arts cinema.

With the rise of Hong Kong comedy during the early 80s, Tsang quickly found his niche. In 1982 he released the first Zuijia Paidang [Aces Go Places] film, a cornerstone release that would mark the start of one of the more popular Hong Kong action/comedy franchises. Tsang would also direct the second film, a sizeable upgrade and my personal favorite. The other sequels were directed by Hark Tsui, Ringo Lam and Chia-Liang Liu, a prime selection of Hong Kong directing talent.

Tsang would continue to direct and act at a frightening pace, but most of his 80s films are hard to come by nowadays. The only other 80s release that really stands out is Zui Jia Fu Xing [Lucky Stars Go Places], a mash-up of My Lucky Stars and Aces Go Places, with Sammo Hung and Karl Maka leading the pack. Hong Kong comedy is quite peculiar and hard to recommend, but films like these are worth a gamble if you're curious enough.

Like many of his peers, Tsang flourished during the early 90s. In '91 he co-directed Wu Fu Xing Chuang Gui [Ghost Punting] with Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen. A simple action/comedy, built almost entirely on the reputation of its stars (Hung and Tsang also starred as leads). Fun filler but only meant for the hardcore Hong Kong fans. One year later Tsang set out to do things a little differently, failing horribly. Fan Dou Ma Liu [Come Fly the Dragon] is a disastrous action flick starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung. It may sound like a golden combination on paper, but the film is a worthless piece of Z-flick garbage, unworthy of the people involved.

Ironically Tsang also produced his best film that year by once again straying from the beaten path. Jue Dai Shuang Jiao [Handsome Siblings] is a sprawling fantasy/martial arts combo starring Andy Lau and Brigitte Lin. It isn't quite up there with the best films in the genre, but it comes close enough and if you're looking for lesser known films resembling the Chinese Ghost Story series, look no further.

Soon after Tsang's directorial career started to wane, so he put more focus on his acting jobs and he started to spend more and more time producing films, paving the way for new talent. The two films he directed during the late 90s bombed, the three he directed after the turn of the millennium were all co-directed films where he clearly took on the role of coach. Guang Hui Sui Yue [7 Assassins] is a pretty fun flick if you're interested in Tsang's more recent work, just know that his input was probably quite limited.

If you're into Hong Kong comedy (admittedly a tough niche to crack) then Tsang's films will have some appeal. But even though he directed 27 films so far, there's little in the way of a signature style to tie his oeuvre together, apart for Tsang's affinity with comedy. He's a tough director to recommend, but if you like him as an actor it wouldn't hurt to try some of his films. Quality varies wildly, but you're bound to find some pleasant surprises along the way.

Best film: Jue Dai Shuang Jiao [Handsome Siblings] (3.5*)
Worst film: Fan Dou Ma Liu [Come Fly the Dragon] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.45 (out of 5)

Kaige Chen

September 03, 2015
Kaige Chen

Kaige Chen (together with guys like Yimou Zhang and Zhuangzhuang Tian) has meant a lot for Chinese cinema in the 80s. Before they arrived international appeal was extremely limited, even for me pre-80s Chinese cinema is still a pretty dark, black hole. But with films like Huang Tu Di [Yellow Earth], Hong Gao Liang [Red Sorghum] and Dao Ma Zei [The Horse Thief] things slowly began to change.

To be honest though, I'm not a very big fan of China's 80s cinema. It tends to be quite political, with a recurring focus on rural drama, often surrounded by a strong whiff of propaganda (or counter-propaganda). I only watched Da Yue Bing [The Big Parade] from Chen's 80s work, but that was a pretty big disappointment, not even the fact that Yimou Zhang was responsible for the cinematography made it any easier to sit through.

Chen's big international breakthrough came in the early 90's. Ba Wang Ji [Farewell My Concubine] is one of China's biggest classics, an epic scale romantic drama that panders to the arthouse crowd without completely alienating its potential audience. It's not a bad film, but it's a little tame and quite on the safe side. Personally I prefer Chen's other 90s collaboration with Li Gong and Leslie Cheung, Feng Yue [Temptress Moon]. Not in the least because Christopher Doyle is at the top of his game in that one.

Following in the footsteps of Yimou Zhang and Ang Lee, Chen directed his own fantasy/martial arts epic in 2005. Wu Ji [The Promise] wasn't too bad an attempt, but a little heavy on the CG and simply not as good as the films it was competing against. Chen also participated in two high-profile anthology films (Chacun Son Cinéma and Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet), but failed to make a big impression in the little time he was given for each short. Clearly not one of Chen's strong points.

Like many directors struggling to find their best form, Chen reached back to the material that once made him famous. Mei Lanfang [Forever Enthralled] is another classic opera drama, substituting Gong Li with Ziyi Zhang (you can't help but feel a little sorry for Li). While not a bad film, it failed to spark much interest. The same could be said about Zhao Shi Gu Er [Sacrifice], a historic war drama once again catering to commercial demands.

Sou Suo [Caught in the Web] seemed to foreshadow Chen's seemingly inevitable demise. It's clear that Chen never felt comfortable directing a contemporary thriller, but since Chinese cinema was evolving in that direction Chen had little choice but to try and follow. Lucky for him Wen Jiang would release Rang Zi Dan Fei soon after, throwing Chen a final lifeline. An opportunity Chen grabbed with both hands, seeing as Dao Shi Xia Shan turned out to be his best film to date.

Like many of his peers, Kaige Chen started out directing rural arthouse dramas but eventually ended up catering to the masses. As Chinese cinema grew, he grew with it, trading creative freedom for bigger budgets and ever increasingly lavish productions. Chen handled it pretty well, but he was never truly able to competed with the likes of Zhang. If you're a fan of the classic Chinese dramas then Ba Wang Ji should be the best place to start, do you prefer China's more recent big budget epics then the freshly released Dao Shi Xia Shan is the one you should be looking for.

Best film: Dao Shi Xia Shan [Monk Comes Down the Mountain] (4.0*)
Worst film: Da Yue Bing [The Big Parade] (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Dao Shi Xia Shan
Average rating: 2.90 (out of 5)

Tetsuo Shinohara

August 26, 2015
Tetsuo Shinohara

Japan has quite a few dedicated drama directors. From Ryuichi Hiroki to Hirokazu Koreeda and Hiroshi Ishikawa, there's really no lack of choice if you want to watch a good Japanese drama feature. Tetsuo Shinohara is one of the lesser gods, a pretty decent director who made some worthwhile stuff, but isn't as consistent as his peers.

Shinohara started out as a film director in 1989, but if you're hoping to see any of his pre-2000 work, better prepare yourself to dig deep. It wasn't until 2000 that Shinohara's films started to see any international exposure. With Hatsukoi [First Love] Shinohara landed Rena Tanaka for the lead role, an actress who comes with her own cult following. It's not a bad film, just don't expect anything more than a basic romantic drama. Shisha no Gakuensai [Schoolgirl of the Dead] lies closer to the J-Horror wave, but ended up being more of a mystery. Both films are decent enough, just nothing to get excited about.

Between 2002 and 2006 Shinohara made his best work, starting with the short he produced for the Jam Films anthology. A year later he would score his first modest international success with Showa Kayo Daizenshu [Karaoke Terror], a unique drama comedy combo featuring Ryuhei Matsuda and Masanobu Ando. It's not all that accessible, but it falls snugly in the category of films people were hoping to see when they were looking at Japan's output in the early 00's.

But Shinohara's best film to date is Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo [Breathe In, Breathe Out], a light-hearted, chill and charming little drama. It's not a very grand or spectacular film, but it's soothing and upbeat, at times resembling a live-action version of Isao Takahata's Omohide Poro Poro. It's no doubt one of Shinohara's more traditional films, but the execution is flawless.

Shinohara would go on to direct a short for anthology film Fimeiru [Female] and he would peek once more with Metro ni Notte [Riding on the Metro], but in 2007 he imploded with the rest of the Japanse drama genre. The result are some cheesy, local market first dramas that are overly long and pretty hard to sit through. Films like Yamazakura, Ogawa no Hotori [At River's Edge] and Manatsu no Orion [Last Operations Under the Orion] eroded Shinohara's good name, making it hard to recommend any of the films he made the past ten years.

It's a shame, because Shinohara did show a lot of promise. It seems though that he is one of those directors who rather rides the flow than carve out his own path. With that in mind, it's not very surprising that his best films were made in the mid 00's, at a time when Japanese cinema was doing pretty well for itself internationally. If you haven't seen any of Shinohara's films, that's probably the ideal place to start.

Best film: Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo [Breathe In, Breathe Out] (4.5*)
Worst film: Yamazakura (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.90 (out of 5)

Billy Wilder

August 03, 2015
Billy Wilder

Much like Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, Billy Wilder ended up here because of his general popularity, mixed with a little randomness. If you start watching classic cinema there's really no escaping the films of Wilder. Pair that with a girlfriend who likes Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe and before you know it you've seen 10 of his films.

I haven't seen Wilder's oldest films yet, like many others I started exploring his oeuvre with Double Indemnity, generally considered to be Wilder's magnum opus. I'm not a big noir fan though (understatement!), so needless to say the film didn't do much for me. I generally find the wooden acting and so-called spiffy dialogues a pain to sit through. The same could be said about Sunset Blvd. and The Lost Weekend, though that last one gets an extra thumbs down for the lousy portrayal of a drunk man (the lead no less), another thing I'm quite allergic to.

From the mid-50's, Wilder turned his back on thrillers and switched to directing comedies. And with great success too, as films like One Two Three, Some Like It Hot and Stalag 17 are broadly cited as classics. Once again though, Wilder failed to impress me. The once so edgy dialogues are terribly outdated and the farcical, fast-paced comedy is simply not funny. That and the fact that most of these films are almost 2 hours long made them hell to sit through for me.

That's not to say all Wilder's comedies are bad though. I kinda enjoyed The Apartment, fronted by an enjoyable performance of Jack Lemmon. But it's Marilyn Monroe's The Seven Year Itch that amused the most. Not so much because of Monroe, her scenes are actually kinda cheesy, but the constant meanderings of Tom Ewell were quite fun indeed. If you only ever see one Wilder film, make it this one, since the film also yielded Monroe's most iconic image (in a white dress on top of a subway grate).

Around the mid 60's Wilder's popularity started to wane a little. I've seen only Kiss Me Stupid from this period, with Dean Martin playing a character that very much resembled his real-life artist persona. It's a somewhat awkward comedy that started off half decent, but turned out to be quite a fluke. Wilder kept going until the early 80's, but I haven't seen any of those films. And since they aren't all that popular, chances are slim they find their way into my queue any time soon.

If you're into classic cinema then Wilder is a name you simply cannot ignore. Almost all of his noirs from the mid 40s and comedies from the mid 50s to mid 60s are high-ranked classics, but his films have aged considerably and for someone with a general lack of interest in classic cinema there's little left from their former glory.

Best film: The Seven Year Itch (2.5*)
Worst film: The Lost Weekend (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.00 (out of 5)

Ann Hui

June 23, 2015
Ann Hui

Ann Hui, the undisputed empress of Hong Kong cinema. In a field dominated by men, Hui had to fight twice as hard to keep her head above water. It paid off though, a good 35 years and almost 30 feature films later she is one of Hong Kong's veteran directors, still going strong. I'm not Hui's biggest fan, but if you're interested in Hong Kong cinema you can't escape her work, so it was only a matter of time before my counter would hit the 10 mark.

Some directors take a flying start, other learn the trade as they go along. The oldest Hui film I watched is Zhuang Dao Zheng [The Spooky Bunch] (Hui's second feature) and Hui had her work cut out for her. It's a pretty bad, uneven film that tries to combine horror and slapstick, not the best combination when you're watching a Hong Kong flick.

Hui got her first real break with Woo Yuet Dik Goo Si [God of Killers], a film that became crucial to the rest of her career. After all, when you have Chow Yun-Fat (Hong Kong's biggest non martial arts action star of the 80s) headlining your film people are bound to take notice. But Hui didn't just grow big on other people's star power, she also put something of herself into the mix. While she made clear-cut genre films, she added dramatic and romantic elements not often found in other Hong Kong films. The results weren't always terrific, but it did help to set her apart from the rest.

Safe for Gam Ye Sing Gwong Chaan Laan [Starry Is the Night], I didn't really see much of her early films. The next film I watched was made in the mid 90s, right after the industry collapsed. Starring Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung, it's a sizeable chunk of girl power that gives us a rare insight in the workings of the Hong Kong movie industry. It's a decent film, although the final act derails pretty badly.

Hui would continue to struggle with balancing different genres within a single film. Youling Renjian [Visible Secret] is Hui's attempt at horror, though it's probably best not to approach the film that way. It's still a fun flick, even though it's quite light-hearted, with some drama and romance influences thrown into the mix. Yu Guanyin [Goddess of Mercy] on the other hand starts off as a romance, but ventures off into thriller territory later on. Ironically enough, Laam Yan Sei Sap [July Rhapsody], the only true drama Hui did during the early 00s, is one of her weaker films.

In 2006 Chow Yun-Fat finally returned to Hui's films, though not in an action part. Yi Ma De Hou Xian Dai Sheng Huo [The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] is a strange, somewhat darker comedy that eventually turns into a dark drama. It's my favorite Hui, but once again the balance between the different genres feels a little off. It was just a temporary recovery as her next few films did very little for me. Somehow she tried a little too hard to get a point across, which hurt the integrity of her dramas.

But Hui is someone who just keeps going and in 2011 that resulted in Tou Ze [Still Life], probably Hui's most famous film to date. It's another light-hearted drama that highlights the elderly situation in Hong Kong. A nice film and probably the best way to get to know Hui, though I still haven't discovered what made people take notice, as it's little more than a basic Hong Kong drama. On the other hand, Hui deserves the extra attention as she's too easily passed by on the international scene.

Being the respectable Hong Kong director she is, Ann Hui is already busy working on her next film. If she follows in the footsteps of people like Jing Wong, Tsui Hark and Johnnie To she still has a healthy part of her career in front of her. Finding her films isn't always easy and not every film is as balanced as it should be, but she's a force to be reckoned with and if you're into Hong Kong cinema you simply cannot ignore her work. But make sure you start with her later films, as Hui's early work may be a little hard to stomach, especially if you're not really familiar with Hong Kong cinema.

Best film: Yi Ma De Hou Xian Dai Sheng Huo [The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhuang Dao Zheng [The Spooky Bunch] (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

Fruit Chan

June 15, 2015
Fruit Chan

Hong Kong is a fortress of genre cinema. From martial arts cinema to Triad films, from the Cat III work to their own specific brand of comedy, Hong Kong directors are frighteningly efficient at cranking out genre films at blistering speeds. Few escape the clutches of this cinematic machine, director Fruit Chan is one of them. While almost impossible to coin and wildly inconsistent, Chan has worked hard to set himself apart from his peers. This hasn't always resulted in good films, but it did brand him as one of the more interesting Hong Kong directors of the past 30 years.

Fruit Chan started off like many others do in Hong Kong. He did a couple of acting jobs, worked his way up from assistant director and learned the director's trade under Sammo Hung while doing Long De Xin [Heart of the Dragon]. The mix of action and drama was not a big success though and Chan's directing career was quickly put on ice.

During the mid 90s the Hong Kong movie industry collapsed, leaving a tremendous void for others to fill. Chan saw an opportunity there and in '97 he released Heung Gong Jai Jo [Made in Hong Kong], a mix between Zimou's You Hua Hao Hao Shuo [Keep Cool] and Wai-Keung Lau's Gu Huo Zi: Zhi Ren Zai Jiang Hu [Young and Dangerous] series. It's the first real sign of Chan's emerging talent.

In the early 00's Chan tackled Hong Kong's prostitute situation with two separate features. First there was Durian Durian, a somewhat lifeless drama that didn't add too much to what was already out there. Lucky his second attempt was a lot more interesting. Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood [Hollywood Hong Kong] is a kind of magical, almost Jeunet-like tale featuring rising star Xun Zhou, set in the outskirts of the city. It's a unique film that still stands as one of my favorite Hong Kong films ever made.

In 2004 Chan would finally catch his big international break. His horror film Gaau Ji [Dumplings] would find its way to the West, riding the Asian horror wave. First as part of the Saam Gaang Yi [Three Extremes] anthology, later as a full-length stand-alone feature. Beautifully shot (Christopher Doyle behind the camera) and pleasantly morbid, it's a great entry into Chan's work if you like horror films.

Chan would stick with the horror themes, first remaking Nakata's Ghost Actress as Don't Look Up, later on contributing to Hong Kong horror anthology Tales from the Dark (the first batch of shorts). But both films never reached the heights of Gaau Ji. There's still some life left in Chan though, as proven by his latest film: Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong Gok Hoi Wong Dai Bou Dik Hung Van [The Midnight After]. A fun and entertaining mix of genres that parked itself somewhere between scifi, mystery and horror.

It's hard to imagine someone liking all of Fruit Chan's films, if only because his work is so varied. Through the years he skipped between drama, mystery and horror cinema, injecting his own stylistic elements without ever going full author. His films are generally ignored here in the West, so if you feel adventurous his oeuvre holds a few rare gems just waiting to be discovered. Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood is by far his greatest accomplishment, so that's probably the best place to start.

Best film: Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood [Hollywood Hong Kong] (4.5*)
Worst film: Hwajangshil Eodieyo? [Public Toilet] (1.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood - Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong
Average rating: 2.95 (out of 5)

Joe Dante

June 12, 2015
Joe Dante

Joe Dante, 80s horror icon and one of the last ones of that era to survive as a director today. If you were living and breathing during the 80s chances are that at one point in your life you saw one of Dante's films. And if you are the nostalgic kind you probably still have a soft spot for his 80s work. Younger horror aficionados beware though, while Dante is generally considered a horror director, his oeuvre is a little more varied than that and most of his horror films have a somewhat child-like edge to them.

Dante started off slow. His first film was a strange 420 minute compilation film made in the 60s, after that it would take him 8 more years to complete Hollywood Boulevard, his first actual feature film. But it wasn't until '78, when Dante released Piranha, that the world took notice. To be entirely honest though, I'm not quite sure why they did. I never really understood why Piranha became the horror classic it is today, but it's impossible to contest its status and it launched Dante into the 80s.

Three years later Dante came out with The Howling, one of the quintessential films in the werewolf niche. A lot less pulpy compared to Piranha and one of the most straight-up horror films he ever directed. After that Dante's horror films began to change. First there was his segment in The Twilight Zone, then came Gremlins. More humorous. more kid-friendly. Gremlins in particular is a film that served as a perfectly fine introduction to horror cinema for younger viewers.

Dante continued down that path, focusing more on Stand By Me-like children's adventures, quite often dropping the horror entirely from his films. Films like Explorers, Innerspace and The 'Burbs are all solid 80s children's entertainment, but might have trouble enticing more mature audiences (unless they're looking for 80s nostalgia of course).

During the 90s Dante's career took a pretty big dive. With only a couple of B-grade comedies and a poorly executed action film (Small Soldiers) Dante was struggling for relevance. It wasn't until 2005, when the Masters of Horror project set out to revive the glory days of a number of oldskool horror directors that Dante got back into the spotlight. Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution are two decent horror short films that are worth a look.

Dante saw this as an opportunity to reboot his career, releasing a few more films in recent years, but none of them sparking much interest. While his career isn't exactly dead, most people have abandoned his work in favor of keeping the memories of his 80s films alive. Which is probably not such a bad idea. If you're looking for that light-hearted, adventurous 80s vibe Dante has a few nice films to seek out. And if you end up liking those you might decide to try out some of his other films, but know that you're entering muddy waters. If you're more into modern cinema then his Masters of Horror work is a good place to start, but it's probably best to keep your expectations quite low.

Best film: Homecoming (3.5*)
Worst film: Piranha (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.10 (out of 5)

Ringo Lam

June 01, 2015
Ringo Lam

Ringo Lam is one of the big names of 80s and 90s Hong Kong action cinema, but I never really connected with the man's work. When I started getting acquainted with Hong Kong cinema I tried a couple of his films, but quickly abandoned him in favor of other directors. It wasn't until I was done with my first wave of Hong Kong directors that my interest in Lam renewed.

What sets Lam apart from other Hong Kong directors is his grittier approach to action cinema. While Hong Kong is known for choreographing great action sequences, Hong Kong action is mostly stylized and not all that brutal. Lam's films are different. His films have a darker, grimmer edge where death comes easy and characters are killed off without flinching. While that itself isn't a bad thing, Lam's films are often bogged down unnecessarily by overly theatrical drama and romance.

Somewhat surprisingly though, Lam started off directing comedies in the early to mid 80s. Rather typical Hong Kong stuff, not horrible but not all that great either. I watched Oi San Yat Ho [Cupid One] and Zuijia Paidang Zhi Qianli Jiu Chaipo [Aces Go Places IV] and while amusing I wouldn't recommend them unless you have a soft spot for 80s Hong Kong comedy cinema.

In '87 Lam flipped his career around when he started on his Fire trilogy. Not only did he turn his back on comedy cinema, it's also marked Lam's first collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat, the legendary Hong Kong action star. Lung Fu Fong Wan [City on Fire] is probably the most famous of the three, if only because it's so often cited as an important influence on Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. I wasn't too taken with the film though, apart from the cool ending it's a pretty standard late 80s police thriller.

During the early 90s Lam would become one of Hong Kong's leading directors, working closely together with some of its biggest action stars. Yi Chu Ji Fa [Touch and Go] had him collaborating with Sammo Hung, Shuang Long Hui [Twin Dragons] teamed him up with Jackie Chan and Xia Dao Gao Fei [Full Contact] is a pretty nice action flick featuring Chow Yun-Fat and Simon Yam. But my favorite Lam from that era is Huo Shao Hong Lian Si [Burning Paradise], Lam's take on the popular martial arts genre. No famous actors to get it noticed, but a fun and spectacular martial arts fantasy film nonetheless.

Like so many other famous Hong Kong directors, Lam also tried his luck in America, directing a total of three films with Jean-Claude Van Damme. He never really left his home turf though, also making several other Hong Kong films in between. Mid 2000 it seemed that Lam's career was over and done, until he formed an alliance with Johnnie To and Hark Tsui. The result was Triangle, Lam's best film and a worthy film to end a career.

Lam is the kind of director that will appeal to Hong Kong genre enthusiasts. I can't say I'm a big fan, but he made some interesting films and if you're serious about Hong Kong cinema it's hard to ignore that man's films. Depending on what genres you prefer there are several possible entry points in his oeuvre, but I would suggest starting with Triangle as that is by far his most accomplished film.

Best film: Tie Saam Gok [Triangle] (4.0*)
Worst film: Da Mao Xian Jia [Great Adventurers] (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)