For a long time, those in the know only referenced Sir Run Run and Runme Shaw as the kingpins of Hong Kong and Taiwanese filmmaking. No matter the poorly dubbed and obscenely edited examples of the brothers’ work, Shaw studios became the bellwether for an entire home video revolution. Think about it. Before the advent of the VCR and specialist distribution companies, the works of artists like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Gordon Liu were left to dingy drive-ins and The Late Late Show, if they were shown at all. With cable and the sell through title came a market desperate for product and companies willing to release anything to make a profit. Thus, the martial arts movie came into its own. Today, it’s considered the standard bearer for action, adventure, period piece polish, and good old fashioned ass-kicking.
So who are some of the luminaries working now. Who have replaced veterans like Liu Chia-liang (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master) and Ching Siu-tung (A Chinese Ghost Story)? Below you will find our choices for the 10 Greatest Directors from Chinese Territories still working today. They run the gamut from virtual unknowns to an Academy Award winning auteur. In between, we learn there is more to the Chinese commercial movie industry than crime, honor, and wushu. In at least two cases, the filmmakers featured work within everyday life, though they occasionally fall back on the flashy industry story standards. Consider this a primer, a starting point for any investigation of the form (the latest from the director at number ten, now out on DVD and Blu-ray, would be a good place to start). In fact, let’s begin there, shall we:
Chan studied film at UCLA. He was an assistant director on three Jackie Chan titles (Wheels on Meals, The Protector and Armour of God). As a producer, he helped oversee the career rise of the Pang Brothers (The Eye). Now, four years after working on the Jet Li film The Warlords, Chan has released Dragon, a similarly styled period piece. As a figure both behind the scenes and the lens, Chan may not be as influential as others. Still, in a marketplace and genre that requires cooperation and mutual respect, he’s earned and offered both.
Yee began life as an actor in the Shaw Brothers stable. In 1986 he stepped behind the camera, and earned a Hong Kong Film Awards nomination for Best Director in the process. Steering clear of the crime dramas that populate his peer group, he has instead made melodramatic romances like C’est la vie, Mon Cheri and sex comedies such as Viva Erotica. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 that he attempted something similar to the industry norm with One Night in Mongkok. But it was Protege and The Shinjuku Incident that showed he could hang with his action colleagues as well.
Johnnie To has been making movies since the start of the ‘80s. Since then, he’s won the Best Director trophy from the Hong Kong Film Awards three times, and has picked up the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards for same, five. He’s also screened his work both in and out of competition at Venice and Cannes. Many know him for his Triad dramas Election and Election II as well as the superb PTU police procedurals. To is one of those filmmakers whose name may not be well known, but his style and approach are apparent in current Hong Kong trends.
With his gritty, realistic crime films (City on Fire, Prison on Fire, Full Alert), Lam established himself as a rival, and an equal to his main ‘80s counterpart, John Woo. He then headed over to Hollywood, were he steered aging action icon Jean Claude Van Damme through three films (Maximum Risk, Replicant, and In Hell). Marked by a Western film school education and a sly sense of humor, his work has never really received the recognition it deserves. Along with Woo, he helped redefine the entire stunt set-piece, bullet ballet subgenre.
Yip is a relative newcomer to this list. He didn’t make his first film until 1995. But the impact of his most recent efforts, Ip Man and Ip Man 2 cannot be understated. These semi biographical looks at the noted martial arts master and mentor to Bruce Lee have brought Yip huge critical as well as commercial success. Since then, he’s been relatively quiet, though a remake of A Chinese Ghost Story and the Harry Potter like Magic to Win came out in 2011.
// Notes from the Road
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