It’s time to give due attention to a community of filmmakers who invariably receive lesser recognition: directors who are based in Chinese diasporas or Chinese-speaking regions. Their films do not seem to represent opposition or resistance to the typical Hollywood film but instead, offer an alternative and unique lens through which to view the world. Some of these directors are even involved in Hollywood productions during their filmmaking career. While there are many established and emerging Chinese filmmakers left to be discovered and appreciated, this list puts together a group of directors that have left their mark on the cinematic world with their compelling stories, outstanding imagery and mastery of the craft.
One of China’s most prominent filmmakers from the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema (a collective term for the fifth batch of distinguished alumni of the Beijing Film Academy), Zhang Yimou is known for his sweeping martial arts epics and lush, polished visuals. Apart from striking cinematography and visual imagery, Zhang’s films explore ideas of the Chinese nation and the Chinese identity. For his ambitious cinematic ideals, he has managed to gain recognition both domestically and abroad, including at the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals, and was a member of jury at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival. He was appointed to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a testament to his celebrated reputation in his homeland – and delivered grand, lavish spectacles that garnered international attention.
Notable works: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live (1994), Hero (2002)
Chen Kaige is one of Zhang’s contemporaries from the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers. By crafting metaphorical visuals and narratives, Chen’s films probe the political beliefs and perspectives of the Chinese people, alongside their lives and hopes for their homeland. Critics have noted that the political turbulence and socio-cultural shifts of the Cultural Revolution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Revolution) has remained a defining influence in his films – an inevitable association, for Chen himself has lived through the Revolution and emerged with personal experiences which have presumably impacted his outlook on filmmaking.
Notable works: Farewell My Concubine (1993), The Emperor and the Assassin (1998), The Promise (2005)
Image source: Roger Ebert (https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/hou-interview)
With a critically-acclaimed body of work to his name, Hou Hsiao-hsien is a respected member of Taiwan’s New Wave cinema movement and an esteemed auteur in world cinema. Hou’s films are mostly set against a backdrop of Taiwan’s history and the social landscape of contemporary Taiwan, and are frequently commended as reminiscent of accomplished Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s film style, featuring long takes and calm, introspective shots. The lingering, meditative tone of his films, complemented by minimalist yet intricately constructed frame compositions, evokes poignant portraits of his characters dealing with the tensions and tribulations of the everyday.
Notable works: Dust in the Wind (1986), A City of Sadness (1989), Three Times (2005)
Image source: Cranes are Flying (https://cranesareflying1.blogspot.my/2017/03/edward-yang.html?m=1)
Edward Yang was initially trained in engineering and only lasted a semester at University of Southern California’s film school, yet turned out to be another leading filmmaker to contribute to the flourishing Taiwanese New Wave. Yang’s films attempt to navigate and articulate the struggle between tradition and modernity, besides offering profound insights into urban Taiwan society. Through understated, nostalgic hues, his films capture the anxieties of societal transformation and its implications upon the relationships between his characters and their sense of belonging in a time of rapid change and modernisation. Yang succumbed to colon cancer in June 2007, but he was posthumously awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Golden Horse Awards – considered the most prestigious film awards in the Chinese-speaking world – in honour of his illuminating repertoire of cinematic work.
Notable works: Taipei Story (1985), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Yi Yi (2000)
Image source: Senses of Cinema (http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/wong/)
An influential figure in world cinema, Wong Kar-wai is an illustrious auteur of Hong Kong’s alternative or arthouse cinema scene. Besides employing less conventional cinematic techniques to his advantage, Wong manipulates colour and lighting to conjure a captivating aesthetic that characterises his distinctive film style. Collectively, his films are lingering ruminations on time, space and memory; his characters are perpetually suspended between the past and present, frustrated by the ephemeral elusiveness of their unattainable desires. Sentiments of loss and longing permeate his films, while tinges of melancholy imbue his otherwise eccentric narrative arrangements.
Notable works: Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000)
Image source: Options (http://optionstheedge.com/topic/people/cover-story-director-john-woo)
John Woo is credited as a significant influence on the gangster/triad film genre and the Hong Kong film industry in general. Woo’s exceptional handling of the action film genre has led to ventures into Hollywood productions as well as historical epics in Mainland China. His signature combination of expressive slow motion, unflinching violence, high-stake action sequences and a deference for codes of honour has introduced moviegoers to an intriguing view of contemporary Hong Kong, conjuring an alternate urban landscape occupied by gun-toting undercover cops, slick criminals and ruthless mobsters. After his beginnings in Hong Kong action films elevated him to an international profile, he proceeded to undertake big-budget productions which have repeatedly secured box office success.
Notable works: A Better Tomorrow (1986), Hard Boiled (1992), Red Cliff (2008)
Image source: Alchetron (https://alchetron.com/Jack-Neo)
Probably Singapore’s most popular filmmaker, Neo is widely known on both sides of the Causeway for his entertaining fare and trademark satirical humour. The comic relief offered by his films, however, is merely a guise for his underlying commentary on the idiosyncrasies of Singaporeans and social issues in Singapore. His films endear themselves to Singaporean audiences with their homegrown relevance, unabashedly using colloquial Singlish to invite Singaporeans to chuckle at themselves. Besides directing, Neo also appears in his own films as well as in films by other directors. In recognition of his contributions to the Singaporean media industry, Neo became the first filmmaker in Singapore to be awarded the Public Service Award. He also received the Cultural Medallion award in 2005.
Notable works: I Not Stupid (2002), Homerun (2003), Ah Boys to Men (2012)
Image source: East Asia (http://eastasia.fr/2016/08/27/hotel-singapura-entretien-a-lhotel-avec-eric-khoo/)
Eric Khoo, one of Singapore’s leading contemporary filmmakers, is credited with reviving the contemporary Singaporean film scene with his award-winning, thought-provoking creations. Khoo has also founded film production company Zhao Wei Films, which also specialises in producing commercials. His films have travelled to film festivals worldwide. Most notably, his seminal work, 12 Storeys was the first Singaporean film to enter the 1997 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard segment. In his films, he confronts the conveniently neglected underside of Singaporean society and its marginalised communities, culminating in bleak and unsettling narratives. Nevertheless, the versatile Khoo also deals with other themes in his films and serves as a producer for fellow directors, resulting in an oeuvre of work that reflects various facets of Singaporean society.
Notable works: Mee Pok Man (1995), 12 Storeys (1997), Be With Me (2005)
Chiu Keng Guan
Image source: The Edge Markets (http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/edge-inspiring-young-leaders-awards-2017-chiu-keng-guan-%E2%80%93-film-director)
Chiu Keng Guan made his mark on Malaysian cinema with his CNY trilogy consisting of WooHoo! (2010), Great Day (2011) and The Journey (2014), bringing a breath of fresh air to the local cinema scene. Apart from being family-oriented, the films in the trilogy captivated audiences with their aesthetic merit and heartwarming storytelling, set against a backdrop of picturesque landscape views of lesser-known Malaysian locales. Chiu’s films attempt to explore the negotiation between tradition and modernity besides highlighting the importance of familial relationships, and are well-received for their resonance with the daily lives of Malaysians. Chiu is also known for casting non-actors and amateurs in his films, even in major roles.
Notable works: WooHoo! (2010), The Journey (2014), Ola Bola (2016)
Tan Chui Mui
Image source: IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1472235/mediaindex?ref_=nm_mv_close)
One of the pioneers of the Malaysian independent filmmaking scene, Tan Chui Mui is a prolific director, scriptwriter and producer who also occasionally acts in the films of her contemporaries. In addition, Tan co-founded independent film production house Da Huang Pictures with fellow filmmakers Amir Muhammad, James Lee and Liew Seng Tat. Her films have garnered wide acclaim on the international film festival circuit, winning awards at the Pusan International Film Festival and Rotterdam International Film Festival, among others. Her poetic, contemplative film style conveys profound reflections on everyday encounters and observations, as well as tender evocations of memory and personal history. She is currently actively involved in developing the local filmmaking scene through various initiatives for aspiring filmmakers, such as Next New Wave (http://www.nextnewwave.com.my/).
Notable works: A Tree in Tanjung Malim (2005), Love Conquers All (2006), Year Without A Summer (2010)
Written by Choo Suet Fun