This was a hard list for us. Trust. I believe this is the type of list where many people will flood the c-section saying ‘Oh, I can’t believe you left off…’, but please bear in mind we started with a pretty huge list of contenders. Some great directors, like Miike and Kurosawa, start out under the radar and build to greatness. Others are great right off the bat. In some cases, a director’s very first film winds up being his best. We kick off the list with our number 10 pick:
Director: Jûzô Itami
Plot: At the beginning of the film the father-in-law of the protagonist dies unexpectedly of a heart attack. The remainder of the film is episodic, moving from one incident to another over the course of the three-day funeral, which is held (as is customary) in the home. These incidents contrast old ways and new ways, young and old, ritual ceremony and true feelings, often comically, but sometimes with real poignancy.
Why It’s a Great Debut: If there needs to be only one description of Yuzo Itami’s directing style, it would be “castigat ridendo mores” (criticise customs through humour), to borrow from the great Moliere. His sharp-witted observations on everyday incidents and uncompromising depiction of idiosyncrasies in the Japanese mentality are the keys to the revival of Japan’s stake in international cinema. Although Tampopo is Itami’s most well-known and critically acclaimed film, his first feature, “The Funeral”, is also a commendable achievement for its seamless blend of honesty, humour and quirkiness. Who would have expected that a two-hour film about the mundane funeral of an ordinary Japanese citizen could be chock full of so many great little moments without one false note?
Director: Tarsem Singh
Plot: An FBI agent persuades a social worker, who is adept with a new experimental technology, to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim.
Why It’s a Great Debut: We don’t feature films that are directed or star people from Indian descent, but it would be retarded if I didn’t include this visual masterpiece from director Tarsem Singh. Known for the award winning R.E.M. video `Losing my Religion’, Tarsem blows away everything you could have imagined. The dream sequences are beautifully shot with many camera tricks, creepy color distribution, graphic images, and a tense score. The plot appears to be the main concern, and while it is not revolutionary and borrows heavily from The Silence of the Lambs, it was never intended to be the most important aspect of the film; the plot itself is a vehicle through which Tarsem’s vision–simultaneously horrifying and wondrous–is presented to the audience, much in the same way that the plot of The Silence of the Lambs is secondary to the fascinating study of its two lead characters, Lecter and Starling.
Director: Yimou Zhang
Plot: An old leper who owned a remote sorghum winery dies. Jiu’er, the wife bought by the leper, and her lover, identified only as “my Grandpa” by the narrator, take over the winery and set up an idealized quasi-matriarchal community headed by Jiu’er. When the Japanese invaders subject the area to their rule and cut down the sorghum to make way for a road, the community rises up and resists as the sorghum grows anew.
Why It’s a Great Debut: Yimou showed me how simple things can be filmed to be works of art. Zhang Yimou’s technique here, as in all of his films that I have seen, is to tell a story as simply as possible from a strong moral viewpoint with as little dialogue as possible and to rely on sumptuous sets, intense, highly focused camera work, veracious acting by a carefully directed cast, and of course to feature the great beauty of his star, the incomparable and mesmerizing Gong Li. If you haven’t seen her, Red Sorghum is a good place to start. Obviously this is Zhang Yimou before he became completely enamored of the feminist viewpoint; yet somehow, although Gong Li is allowed to fall in love with her rapist (something not possible in contemporary American cinema), Zhang Yimou manages to depict her in a light that celebrates her strength as a woman.
Director: Chi-jan Hou
Plot: A visual love poem of magical realism.
Why It’s a Great Debut: Not only is the director brand new, but the producer Zoë Chun-Jung Chen, the screenwriters Hou and Kelly Yuan-Ling Yang are all first-timers. Only the film editor Liao Ching-Song and the sound engineer Tu Du-Che are the veterans from the Taiwanese Cinema New Wave in the 80’s. So this is a nearly new-blood creativity that I was happy to see, and it was even beyond my expectations. A film which entices utter melancholy through its emptiness…Its a truly rare gem.
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Plot: Violent thug Crocodile lives under a bridge by the Han River in Seoul together with a peddling boy and a homeless old man. Crocodile saves a beautiful young woman Hyun-Jung from suicide by drowning, but only to use her for sex. Yet, for some reason the woman, betrayed by her lover, stays with Crocodile, and a peculiar family-like friendship forms between the four homeless people. Crocodile gets in ever deeper trouble because of his mindlessly violent temper, and eventually Hyun-Jung decides to attempt suicide again.
Why It’s a Great Debut: I often quote Kim Ki-Duk as my favourite director of all time, partly because of his prolific output (I’m glad he numbers his films, I was losing count!) and his consistently emotional style. While I absolutely adore the “new-wave” Kim Ki-Duk (3-Iron, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…And Spring, The Bow), I also thoroughly enjoy his earlier, grittier films (The Isle, Address Unknown). This film, his debut, is possibly the best and grittiest of the early films. Kim Ki Duk said he had not seen many films and he ignored the basic rules of film language at his debut. Hard to believe it when you’re watching the movie, but it’s so: he just transfers beautiful static scenes from a pictorial language to the less static celluloid. Kim Ki Duk’s vision as a contemplative painter is also evident in many scenes which are easy to draw but almost impossible to direct. Many of these scenes happen in water which occupy a special status in Kim Ki Duk’s films.
Hols: Prince of the Sun
Director: Isao Takahata
Plot: Set in Iron Age Scandinavia, the film opens with the young Hols (aka Horus) (Hisako Ookata (Japanese)/Billie Lou Watt (English)) attempting to fight off a pack of “silver wolves,” and accidentally waking up an ancient stone giant, named Mogue (or Rockoar in some editions of the film). Hols succeeds in pulling a “thorn” from the giant’s shoulder, which transpires to be a rusty and ancient sword. The giant proclaims this to be the “Sword of the Sun,” promising also that when the sword has been reforged, he will come to Hols, who will then be called “Prince of the Sun”.
Why It’s a Great Debut: Out of all the great anime out there…why this? Hayao Miyazaki, Yasuo Ōtsuka, Yoichi Kotabe, and Yasuji Mori, among others, worked as animators in this movie, providing many designs, story ideas, and storyboards as well. How’s that for you? This was a trendsetting anime that broke barriers.
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai
Plot: Filmed entirely in black-and-white, The Days follows the life of Dong (played by actor and artist Liu Xiaodong), and Chun (Yu Hong), married artists who have recently graduated from the Beijing Art Institute. Living meagerly in the hope of making enough money off their works, it soon becomes obvious to everyone but themselves that the marriage has begun to die.
Why It’s a Great Debut: Wang’s first film on his own after graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1989, The Days was shot on a meager budget of less than $10,000 with filming on the weekends with Wang’s friends playing the lead roles. Made outside of the state film system, The Days was blacklisted upon its release by the Chinese Film Bureau. On the international front, however, the film was seen in a different light. Riding the high that Chinese cinema was enjoying abroad at the time (notably by older directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige), Wang Xiaoshuai’s small independent film was an early indication that a new movement was beginning to supplant the old one. Wang has stated that inspiration for The Days came from a variety of sources. One of those was, of course, the harsh reality of his situation. Wang realized that a large-budget film would be impossible and therefore became interested in the small-scale, independent features. Beyond pragmatics, with The Days, Wang Xiaoshuai was consciously rebelling against the films of the period. In particular, the early 1990s was a high point for many “Fifth Generation” directors, whose lavish period films, like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern or Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine received critical accolades on the international circuit. Wang, however, found them “unnatural and pretentious.” As such, he set out to create a film that spoke to the contemporary Chinese generation.
Victory Is Mine
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Plot: Jiro is a sailor. His best mate is a jockey. When the latter falls in love with Masako, a gangster’s girl there is big trouble for everyone. It is Suzuki’s first film, credited under his given name Seitarō Suzuki. The film was primarily a vehicle for an already popular song.
Why It’s a Great Debut: His films are renowned by film enthusiasts worldwide for their jarring visual style, irreverent humour, nihilistic cool and entertainment-over-logic sensibility. Suzuki successfully sued the studio for wrongful dismissal, but he was blacklisted for 10 years after that.
Director: Ang Lee
Plot: Master Chu, a retired Chinese Tai-Chi master, moves to Westchester, New York to live with his son Alex, his American daughter-in-law Martha, and their son Jeremy. However, Martha’s second novel is suffering from severe writers’ block brought on by Chu’s presence in the house. Alex must struggle to keep his family together as he battles an inner conflict between cultural tradition and his modern American lifestyle.
Why It’s a Great Debut: So many topics are breached, under the gentle, loving eye of the director. There is no question that Ang Lee has the ability to put kung-fu back at the top of the martial art world. Through his well thought out story line and his perfect blend of drama and comedy he has taken a deep look at the struggle that exists today for thousands of people as they care for their elderly parents. This is truly a movie that can bond many generations.
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Plot: Penniless miners talk in passing about labor unions. A miner and his young son go to a village in Kyushu where the miner has been told he’ll find work, but it’s a ghost town, save for one woman. The miner leaves and is followed by a man in a white suit and white gloves. A murder takes place: faked footprints, bribery and intrigue, investigations, a frame-up, and a ghost who wants to know why meet in a story of realism and the surreal. A child mutely witnesses all. Does the truth count for anything in this world or in the next? Can everything be manipulated?
Why It’s a Great Debut: It is one of the great triumphs of Teshigahara’s movie – the first in a strikingly unique trilogy that borders on the avant garde (Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another are the other two), created in collaboration with novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe and musician Toru Takemitsu – that he employs this most basic element of the Japanese ghost story and uses that not to scare but to infuse his socially conscious tale with a vicious, almost unbearably pitch-dark humor that evokes discomfort and laughter in equal measure, often at the same time. And to think that along with black humor and ghost story, Pitfall contains elements of the murder mystery and a scathing social commentary on the moral corruption in post-war Japan is to get some hint of the sheer amount of ideas contained within. Indeed, it would be accurate to call Pitfall the cleverest movie of the trilogy, if not the best.