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Trailblazers 18 Film Directors That You Should Know If You're A Fan Of Asian Cinema

18 Film Directors That You Should Know If You're A Fan Of Asian Cinema

VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 08:  Director Ann Hui poses on the red carpet with the Golden Lion Lifetime achievement award attends the Golden Lion For Lifetime Achivement Award Ceremony at the 77th Venice Film Festival on September 08, 2020 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Director Ann Hui poses on the red carpet with the Golden Lion Lifetime achievement award at the 77th Venice Film Festival (Photo: Stephane Cardinale-Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
By Jianne Soriano
February 16, 2021
From South Korea's Bong Joon-ho and Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda to Hong Kong's Ann Hui, we put the spotlight on the most prolific Asian directors making waves in the film industry

Thanks to the recent success of Bong Jong-ho's Parasite, interest in Asian cinema and Asian directors is on the rise. Directors from cinema powerhouses like South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have already been a frequent presence in the international film scene, but there's still a lot more from the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and other parts of Asia that you should know.

Here, we put the spotlight on some of the household names in the Asian film industry, from the likes of Park Chan-wook, Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, as well as those who are emerging on the horizon such as Antoinette Jadaone and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Parasite might be what jumpstarted the interest of many in Asian cinema but it's just the tip of the iceberg. 

1/18 Bong Joon-ho, South Korea

If you still don't know who Bong Joon-ho is, chances are, you may have spent the last year on a digital detox. While Bong's achievements are far and wide, the one that shot him to worldwide status is his award-winning film, Parasite (2019), which brought home the trophy for the first South Korean film to win Best International Feature Film and Best Picture at the Oscars. But Bong has always been a force in the industry, already establishing a cult following after the release of his debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000).

The subsequent release of his later films such as The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003) also enjoyed commercial success. Bong is one of the most successful directors to come out of South Korea with critics praising the definite trademark of his films such as sudden tone shits or slapstick humour. A household name in his native South Korea, it's thanks to Bong that many who may never have watched a non-English language film are finally paying attention to Asian cinema.

Notable works Parasite (2019), Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006).

See also: How Asia Is Coming To Dominate The Film Noir Genre

2/18 Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan

Hirokazu Kore-eda and his films are a frequent sight in the international film festival circuit, making him one of the most recognisable faces of contemporary Japanese cinema. Kore-eda began working in television but quickly moved to directing in 1991. After just four years, his first fiction feature, Maborosi (1995) already won a Golden Osella Award for Best Cinematography at the Venice Film Festival.

And a list of award-winning films followed from Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Like Father Like Son (2013) and his magnum opus, Shoplifters (2018) which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was subsequently nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Kore-eda's magic touch when it comes to family dramas have captured the hearts of many, often depicting the stories of Japan's marginalised communities. His upcoming film, Baby, Box, Broker will feature a predominantly South Korean cast and crew led by Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona.

Notable works Shoplifters (2018), Still Walking (2008), Nobody Knows (2004).

See also: Southeast Asian Cinema Is Still Lagging Behind. Why?

3/18 Naomi Kawase, Japan

Naomi Kawase is one of the most prolific female directors in Japan, an industry that's male-dominated. Kawase first worked on documentaries and stories that are connected to her, including her own family history and her father's death. Her first 35mm film, Suzaku (1997), won the Best New Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, making Kawase the youngest winner of the la Caméra d'Or award.

Since then, Kawase has been a frequent presence in Cannes with many of her films—including Hanezu (2011), Sweet Bean (2015) and her self-titled masterpiece, Still the Water (2014)—premiering in competition at the festival. Her latest feature, Mother, is slated to be a strong contender for the upcoming Academy Awards. Heavily focused on the distorted space between reality and illusion against the state of contemporary Japanese society, Kawase tackles fiction within the lens of realism.

Notable works Hotaru (2000), The Mourning Forest (2007), Suzaku (1997).

4/18 Hayao Miyazaki, Japan

Animation, as a medium, is still considered by many as something for kids. But Hayao Miyazaki cemented animation as a medium and genre that is just as worthy of acclaim as any other film. The Japanese animator is the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, perhaps the most well-known film and animation studio in Japan. Since its inception, Miyazaki has attained international acclaim as a master storyteller and creator of animated films.

His 2001 animated feature Spirited Away was the highest-grossing film in Japanese history until 2020 and also won the Best Animated Feature in the Academy Awards. Some of the works of this accomplished filmmaker include My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Castle in the Sky (1986), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and Princess Mononoke (1997), often tackling themes such as the environment, family and feminism with most his lead characters being women.

Notable works Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Prince's Mononoke (1997).

See also: Why Indonesian Cinema Is Suddenly In The Spotlight

5/18 Lee Chang-dong, South Korea

Before Bong's Parasite won big at the Oscars, Lee Chang-dong's Burning (2018) was the first South Korean film to make it to the Academy Awards' final shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. Compared to his peers, Lee had no formal training in filmmaking and first worked as a screenwriter and a brief stint as an assistant director but after further encouragement, he went on to take the director's chair with Green Fish. The debut film won numerous awards both from local and international film festivals. Riding on this success, Lee made Peppermint Candy (1999), Oasis (2002), Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010)

All the films enjoyed success locally and internationally, with Lee serving as the Minister for Culture and Tourism from 2003–2004. After an eight-year hiatus, Lee returned with the psychological drama mystery Burning (2018), based on one of Haruki Murakami's short stories. Lee's works are all melodramatic, often tackling dark stories of people suffering from the loss of innocence, alienation and despair, which critics point out reflect the repressive social and political situation of South Korea, especially the marginalised community.

Notable works Burning (2018), Secret Sunshine (2007), Poetry (2010).

6/18 Park Chan-wook, South Korea

Park Chan-wook is another acclaimed director from South Korea, gaining notoriety for his use of framing, black humour and brutal sequences The best example of that is his magnum opus, Oldboy (2003), one of the films from his The Vengeance Trilogy. The film gained high praise from director Quentin Tarantino, the president of the 2004 Cannes jury and has widely been regarded as one of the best neo-noir films of all time.

After the success of Joint Security Area (2000), Park was given more freedom to work independently. Films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Lady Vengeance (2005) and The Handmaiden (2016) followed. Park went on to release his first English-language film, Stoker (2013) and is currently working on his upcoming melodrama.

Notable works Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), The Handmaiden (2016).

See also: The Most Anticipated Book Releases Of 2021

7/18 Antoinette Jadaone, Philippines

Compared to other places, the Philippines enjoys a relatively matriarchal film industry, contributed to by a wave of female directors gaining success in recent years. One of them is Antoinette Jadaone, the mastermind behind a number of award-winning films in the country. Jadaone has worked with many top celebrities in the Philippines including some of the most popular celebrity couples, such as Nadine Lustre and James Reid (JaDine), Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil (LizQuen).

While Jadaone has been in the industry for a while, her claim is That Thing Called Tadhana (2014), which brought independent films to a wider audience. She went on to release Love You to the Stars and Back (2017), Never Not Love You (2018), Alone/Together (2019) and her most recent film, Fan Girl (2020) which bagged many prizes from the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. Compared to the others on the list, Jadaone might not have won any international awards but it's only a matter of time until the world takes notice.

Notable works That Thing Called Tadhana (2014), Never Not Love You (2018), Fan Girl (2020).

8/18 Ann Hui, Hong Kong

Ann Hui, one of Hong Kong's critically acclaimed New Wave directors, was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival for her work, which often focuses on social issues in Hong Kong.

Hailed as one of the most prolific female directors in Asia, her work often depicts the female perspective by showing the daily life of women in Hong Kong and creating a "female gaze". With almost 30 films under her belt, there are only a few filmmakers like Ann Hui today. Hui's Summer Snow (1995) and A Simple Life (2011) are the only two films to have achieved a grand slam—best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor and best actress—at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Notable works Summer Snow (1995), A Simple Life (2011), The Way We Are (2008).

9/18 Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong

When we talk about Asian cinema, especially Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar-wai needs no introduction. A household name in the city as well as in the region and even beyond, Wong is considered a pivotal figure in Hong Kong cinema, enjoying success locally and internationally. Wong began his career as a screenwriter for television and transitioned to directing his debut feature, As Tears Go By (1988). Compared to his Hong Kong contemporaries who focused on crime and action films, Wong sought his own style. While his subsequent films didn't perform as well, Chungking Express (1994) catapulted Wong into the limelight and with the release of In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong shot to international status.

Wong's work is loved for his focus on mood and atmosphere, creating some of the most beautiful visual styles we see in film, which is further strengthened by cinematography Christopher Doyle, one of Wong's defining collaborators. Wong also received other accolades such as National Order of the Legion of Honour: Knight (Lowest Degree) from the French government and Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Film Festival in India.

Notable works In the Mood for Love (2000), Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997).

10/18 Yim Soon-rye, South Korea

Yim Soon-rye is at the forefront of South Korea's New Wave cinema, often focusing on stories that highlight female empowerment. Yim did her graduate studies in Paris and upon moving back to South Korea, worked as an assistant director. Her feature film debut, Three Friends (1996), won at the Busan International Film Festival.  Her second feature, Waikiki Brothers (2001), drew critical acclaim despite the low ticket sales and won several awards locally, jumpstarting the film's cult following. After a seven-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, Yim came back with Forever the Moment (2008), a sleeper-hit that became Yim's most commercially successful film.

Honoured for her contributions to South Korean cinema and a trailblazer for female directors in the country, Yim received the Park Nam-ok Award for outstanding achievement from the International Women's Film Festival in Seoul as well as Woman Filmmaker of the Year at the Women in Film Korea Awards. Yim's most recent work is the 2018 film Little Forest, which Yim made to move away from mainstream Korean cinema. Yim's films can be described as slice-of-life, often using long dialogue takes, slow camera movements and camera cuts.

Notable works Waikiki Brothers (2001), Forever the Moment (2008), Little Forest (2018).

See also: 11 Inspiring Netflix Documentaries To Make 2021 Your Healthiest, Happiest Year Yet

11/18 Lav Diaz, Philippines

Lav Diaz is one of the key players of the slow cinema movement, creating some of the longest narrative films on record. Being in the industry since the late 1990s, the world didn't pay much attention to Diaz until the release of his 2013 epic, Norte, the End of History. Since then, his films received garnered attention and brought home awards including the Venice International Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival. Diaz's work often tackles the current social and political climate of his native Philippines.

Diaz's visionary films deal with the Philippines' tumultuous history and put strong-willed and passionate people in the spotlight. The result is a sprawling saga that challenges the convention of cinema. But even if his most well-known works are his political and social epics, Diaz has dived into crime stories, ghost stories and even a musical.

Notable works Norte, the End of History (2013), The Woman Who Left (2016), Season of the Devil (2018).

12/18 Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan

Leading the pack in Taiwan's New Wave cinema movement is Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou is known for his films that deal with Taiwanese history, showcased in A City of Sadness (1989), which received the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1989, making it the first Taiwanese films to win the award. With his use of extremely long takes and minimal camera movement, Hou highlights the performances of his actors.

His 2015 film The Assassin earned him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Some of his other highly regarded works include The Puppetmaster (1993) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998). In 1998, Hou was also voted as one of the three directors that are crucial to the future of cinema at the New York Film Festival worldwide critics' poll. Besides directing, Hou also sits in the producer's seat and has appeared as an actor.

Notable works A City of Sadness (1989), The Assassin (2015), Flowers of Shanghai (1998).

13/18 Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand

Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul is perhaps the most well-known director from Thailand, with films such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, Blissfully Yours (2002), which nabbed the top prize at the Un Certain Regard programme, and Syndromes and a Century (2006), the first Thai film to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Apichatpong often discusses the themes of dreams, nature and sexuality in his work and chooses to adopt an unconventional narrative approach.

Despite including themes that the Thai government sees as controversial, Apichatpong pushes back and continues to make films, wanting to give a voice to ordinary people. Besides being a director, Apichatpong has held exhibitions in various galleries, including the British Film Institute, BFI Gallery and Para Site. 

Notable works Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Blissfully Yours (2002), Syndromes and a Century (2006).

14/18 Garin Nugroho, Indonesia

As a filmmaker for over 35 years, it's not a stretch to say that Garin Nugroho is legendary. The Indonesian director is most known for integrating his own Indonesian culture in his work, the best example of which is seen in the musical film Requiem from Java (2006). Critics laud Nugroho's work as emphasising aesthetics without sacrificing the social-political messages. Some of the issues he takes on include politics, intercultural communication and his ideal vision for the future of Indonesia.

Nugroho's films have won at regional film festivals including the Asia Pacific Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival and Pyongyang International Film Festival. He's also often cited as a mentor for Indonesia's new wave of filmmakers, many of whom used to be his assistant directors.

Notable works Memories of My Body (2018), Under the Tree (2008), Requiem from Java (2006).

See also: Malaysian Olympic Gymnast Farah Ann On What It Takes To Be A Champion

15/18 Eric Khoo, Singapore

Eric Khoo is often credited as reviving the Singaporean film industry thanks to his films Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997) screening at over 60 film festivals, including the ones at Venice, Berlin and Rotterdam, which helped put Singapore on the international film map. In 1997, Khoo joined forces with writer/producer James Toh and actress Lucilla Teoh to write a white paper that saw the formation of the Singapore Film Commission.

Being the son of the late businessman Khoo Teck Puat, filmmaking didn't come naturally for Khoo, but he chose to follow his passion. In 2019, Khoo received the Honorary Cylo Award at the 25th Vesoul International Festival of Asian Cinema.

Notable works Mee Pok Man (1995), 12 Storeys (1997), My Magic (2008).



16/18 Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Pakistan

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy wears a lot of hats. She's a journalist, an activist and also a filmmaker, best known for her work that put the spotlight on the inequality that women face. Because of this, she has received two Academy Awards, six Emmy Awards and a Knight International Journalism Award. To honour her achievements and contributions, the government of Pakistan bestowed her the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, the second-highest civilian honour in the country in 2012. The same year, she was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Obaid-Chinoy is also the first female director to have two Academy Awards at just 37 years old.

Her award-winning films includes the documentary Saving Face (2012) and the biographical A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015). The latter was so impactful that after seeing the film, the Pakistani prime minister said he would change the law on honour killing after seeing it.

Notable works Saving Face (2012), A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015), Song of Lahore (2015).

See also: In A Country Where Environmental Activism Can Cost You Your Life, One Campaigner Is Using The Power Of Storytelling To Effect Change

17/18 Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan

This Malaysian-born and Taiwanese-based director is one of the most celebrated Second New Wave film directors of Taiwanese cinema, directing over 10 feature films, short films and television films. Tsai Ming-liang boasts a number of film honours under his name including a Golden Lion for Vive L'Amour (1994) at the Venice International Film Festival, a Silver Bear (Special Jury Prize) for The River (1997) at the Berlin International Film Festival and the FIREDSCI award for The Hole (1998) at the Cannes Film Festival among many others.

Tsai was also named an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the government of France. The New York Times called him a "poet of urban anomie" due to his works that express desire, alienation and loss, often accompanied by bursts of absurd humour. 

Notable works Stray Dog (2013), Vive L'Amour (1994), The Hole (1998).

18/18 Aparna Sen, India

Aparna Sen, a mainstay in Bengali cinema has been working as a filmmaker, screenwriter and actress for decades. Her affinity for the film industry can be traced back to her father, veteran critic and filmmaker Chidananda Dasgupta, while her mother, Supriya Dasgupta, was a costume designer. While Sen first ventured into acting, she switched to directing in 1981 with the release of her debut film, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), which received several National Film Awards in India and other international accolades. Some of her other award-winning work includes Yugant (1995), Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), 15 Park Avenue (2005) and Iti Mrinalini (2011).

Sen has served on numerous juries at film festivals including Moscow International Film Festival, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Ladakh International Film Festival. For her contribution to Indian cinema, Sen received the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award from the government of India as early as 1987. Since then, she also received many other lifetime achievement awards.

Notable works 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Yugant (1995), 15 Park Avenue (2005).

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Trailblazers yim soon-rye park chan-wook lee chang-dong hou hsiao-hsien apichatpong weerasethakul garin nugroho eric khoo bong joon-ho hirokazu kore-eda ann hui wong kar-wai naomi kawase hayao miyazaki lav diaz aparna sen tsai ming-liang sharmeen obaid-chinoy


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