10 great directors and their English-language debuts

As cult Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook unveils Stoker, his American debut, Matthew Thrift picks out 10 other world-class directors and their first English-language films.

Matthew Thrift
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Nicole Kidman in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013)

Nicole Kidman in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013)

Hollywood has always been made up of magpies. Ever on the lookout for the next big thing, it’s happy to reach across the globe in its attempts to lure those responsible for break-out foreign success stories into its fold. Not that it doesn’t work both ways, of course. The potential for bigger budgets, wider audiences and international recognition is often temptation enough for filmmakers to make the leap of their own accord.

Whether for political reasons, such as the mass decampment into Hollywood of European émigré filmmakers before and during the second world war, or in response to international explosions of a particular trend, these things tend to happen in waves. It may be a coincidence that 2013 sees the release of English-language debuts from three of the biggest names in Korean filmmaking, but the profile of their native cinema was raised immeasurably during the boom in Eastern horror cinema at the turn of the millennium, of which the Japanese ‘J-horror’ phenomenon led the charge.

With Kim Jee-woon’s Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle The Last Stand released last month, and a new film from The Host’s Bong Joon-ho due later this year in the form of Snowpiercer, all eyes are currently on what is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of the three: Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, out this week.

Easily the most stylistically idiosyncratic of the above filmmakers, it’ll be interesting to see how successful his purportedly Hitchcockian tale of bloodlust, violence and dread proves, working for the first time in a foreign tongue. Many a foreign auteur has preceded him, and we’ve picked 10 English-language debuts at which to have a closer look.

Jean Renoir: Swamp Water (1941)

With his 1939 feature La Règle du jeu having embedded its place in all-time Top 10 lists, and his 1937 film La Grande Illusion rarely far behind, it often comes as a surprise that the intricate, vibrantly energetic films of Jean Renoir took quite so long to reach such levels of critical favour. Despite taking up residence in the US in the 1940s, Renoir ultimately made only six films there, perhaps tainted by the unfavourable conditions imposed by his first American producer, Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox.

Zanuck insisted on the addition of a new ending for Renoir’s first English-language feature, Swamp Water (1941), going as far as hiring another director to shoot it. Based on a novel by Vereen Bell and beautifully captured on location in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, it’s certainly a minor work when held up against many another of Renoir’s masterpieces. That said, it’s still an often chillingly atmospheric slice of Southern Gothic and features a terrific cast of players that includes Dana Andrews, Walter Huston and inimitable Howard Hawks regular, Walter Brennan.

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Luis Buñuel: Robinson Crusoe (1954)

Luis Buñuel was always one of the most elusive and playful of auteurs. From his surrealist debut Un chien andalou (1929) via the films of his Mexican period, such as Los olvidados (1950) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), to his later French works such as Belle de Jour (1967) and his final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), he’s a filmmaker who’s simply impossible to pigeonhole. One of cinema’s supreme satirists and anarchists, Buñuel was claimed by Spain, Mexico and France as one of their own, only ever making two films in the English language: Robinson Crusoe (1954) and The Young One (1960).

Beautifully coloured and lusciously designed, Robinson Crusoe proved quite the box office success for Buñuel. It’s a relatively straightforward adaptation of Defoe’s novel, albeit one that’s also wilfully eccentric. Dan O’Herlihy stars as the eponymous castaway, swiftly adjusting to isolated island life by building himself what amounts to a fully mod-conned apartment entirely out of twigs.

With his trusty dog Rex by his side, he soon acquires an entire menagerie of animal chums (including a pair of termites) for either company or dinner, brewing some moonshine whose most potent effect appears to elicit a rambunctious impression of Orson Welles. If the latter half of the picture (when the rest of the cast show up) can’t quite top those moments in the first when Crusoe goes for an afternoon promenade with a dainty parasol fashioned from goat hides, or teaches his parrot to talk only for it to mock his dead, beloved dog, the punchy visuals amply compensate throughout.

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Michelangelo Antonioni: Blowup (1966)

A colossus in the pantheons of modern cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni is truly one of the all-time greats. His is a specific breed of cinematic poetry, and while he undoubtedly inspired many to follow in his wake, there are few who haven’t stumbled on their pilgrimage of big-screen homage. Antonioni’s style underwent continuous evolution. From his beginnings in neo-realist-inspired documentary to his arguable peak with the ‘alienation’ trilogy (L’avventura, 1960; La notte, 1961; L’eclisse, 1962) in the early 60s, film after film strove to break free from the strictures and boundaries of what had come before, much like the disaffected protagonists who populate his immaculate frames.

An epoch-defining portrait of Swinging London, Blowup (1966) proved Antonioni’s biggest commercial success, yet remains as essential a part of his body of work as those that had preceded it. It wouldn’t be his only film in English: four years later would see the release of the US-set Zabriskie Point (1970), a film only now undergoing some degree of critical rehabilitation after its howling initial reception.

Questioning and challenging the very nature of image-making and film-watching, Blowup shares much with his later masterpiece The Passenger (1975) and perhaps stands as the filmmaker’s most immediately iconic work, its indelible influence cited by the likes of Francis Coppola (The Conversation, 1974), Brian De Palma (Blow Out, 1981) and, er, Mike Myers (Austin Powers, 1997).

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Milos Forman: Taking Off (1971)

Before he achieved widespread acclaim in the US for the likes of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), Forman was one of the leading figures of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, of which his 1967 film The Fireman’s Ball remains perhaps the defining example. Banned for many years in his home country, it was a biting satire on Communism set in the town hall of a provincial community, and a deadpan coruscation of a regime that ultimately led to him pursuing his filmmaking career overseas.

His first US production, Taking Off (1971) harked back to his very first feature, the documentary Audition (1964), similarly charting an open singing competition, this time in NYC. Jeannie (one-time player, Linnea Heacock) has run away from home to attend the audition, with the film following her parents’ attempts to find her.

With the help of a ‘Society for the Parents of Missing Children’, the grown-ups begin to embrace their newfound freedom in their kids’ absence, helped along by a class aimed at understanding the attraction of marijuana (“Pass the joint on. Do not hold onto it. That is called Bogarting, and it is very rude.”). Often brilliantly funny, Taking Off remains something of a product of its time, if mostly due to its extended musical interludes from the likes of Carly Simon, Ike and Tina Turner, and a young Kathy Bates (going by the name Bobo Bates!).

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Wim Wenders: Hammett (1982)

As one of the leading figures of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, king-of-the-road-movie Wenders’ first taste of international recognition came with the success of the Palme d’or nominated The American Friend in 1977. While much of the dialogue in his Hitchcockian take on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game was in English (and included Dennis Hopper and filmmaker pal Nicholas Ray among the cast), it would be another five years until his US debut proper, helming one of the inaugural projects at Francis Ford Coppola’s fledgling American Zoetrope studio.

Although 1984’s Paris, Texas – Wenders’ next US-based feature (after international, on-the-fly co-production, The State of Things) – would be received to widespread acclaim, Hammett was a critical and commercial disaster. A troubled production from the outset, relations with both the Dashiell Hammett estate and producer Coppola proved especially problematic. Wenders had initially shot an introverted, location-based character study, much to Coppola’s displeasure, and demands for protracted re-shoots and the scrapping of swathes of footage quickly led the film into trouble.

In its finished form, Hammett is clearly a victim of its fragmented production history. Its central idea of a writer disappearing into his own fiction is handled better elsewhere. Scenes like the final one, in which Hammett sits at his typewriter, re-casting the characters we’ve just seen into new roles for his next adventure, remaining too few and far between.

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Nagisa Oshima: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Perhaps best (or most notoriously) known for his scandalous 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima remained until his death at the beginning of this year one of the most politically minded figures in cinema. Even in his early work as a film critic, Oshima proved a provocative figure, outspoken in his condemnation of what he considered unnecessarily feudalistic aspects of modern Japanese society. Social criticism and politics would continue to form the backbone of all of his work as a director, working outside of Japan once more after Mr. Lawrence for the European co-production, Max mon amour (1985).

Based on the novel by Laurens van der Post, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may not stand as one of Oshima’s greatest achievements, but would generate him widespread attention through his use of David Bowie in one of the principal roles. A prisoners-of-war drama set in Java in 1942, much would be made of the homoerotic charge between Bowie and camp commander Yonoi (musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, also responsible for the film’s music).

Oshima tackles Japan’s involvement in WW2 more explicitly than anywhere else in his career, but there’s no denying it’s a film made for a mainstream international audience, lacking the piercing qualities this filmmaker demonstrates at his best.

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Paul Verhoeven: Flesh+Blood (1985)

Before he became known as the supreme satirist and purveyor of mainstream action cinema with the likes of Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven was the biggest name in Dutch cinema. Initially finding only European success with his first three features, Business Is Business (1971), Turkish Delight (1973) and Katie Tippel (1975), he hit the international big time with resistance saga Soldier of Orange (1978) and psychosexual thriller The Fourth Man (1983).

A Hollywood career was perhaps an inevitability, but it would be a further four years before he made any substantial impact with Robocop. In the meantime, his first English-language production, Flesh+Blood reunited him with star Rutger Hauer, then hot off Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). A deliriously over-the-top and aptly titled wallow in medieval mud, Flesh+Blood sees human nature at its most base running amok. Sex and violence, flesh and blood – it can’t be said that Verhoeven’s thematic concerns haven’t at least been consistent.

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John Woo: Hard Target (1993)

His star may have waned over the last dozen years or so, but from the mid-80s to the late-90s John Woo was the undisputed leader of Hong Kong action cinema’s charge into the international marketplace. His balletic, hyper-stylised take on screen violence, beginning with A Better Tomorrow (1986) and culminating with break-out hits, The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), made an international star of his lead actor, Chow-Yun Fat, and spawned countless imitators.

It was a foregone conclusion that Hollywood would come knocking. US debut Hard Target (1993) sees his usual charismatic lead replaced with an egomaniacal personality-vacuum in the form of Jean-Claude Van Damme. If the film never reaches the dizzying heights of action spectacle witnessed in Hard Boiled, Woo amps his trademark visual sensibilities to breaking point, fetishising his particular brand of ‘Gun-Fu’ like never before.

Perhaps in answer to his difficult star’s insistence on additional shots of his arse, Woo finds little room for traditional romance amid the gunplay in the world according to Van Damme. Instead, he opts for Freudian giggles: notice the hero blowing (dust) off his beloved shotgun in slo-mo, his ostensible love-interest not knowing quite where to look. In fact, the one time she does ready herself for a kiss, Woo has Van Damme reach across her shoulder to (literally) throttle and spank a snake.

Baddie Lance Henriksen may consistently show up the star’s uphill struggle with dialogue delivery (seemingly learnt phonetically on a drunken night out with Christopher Walken), but even he can’t upstage Van Damme’s final descent from the heavens on a giant papier-mâché pigeon, blasting away as his Jheri-Curled mullet sways in slow-motion amid a hail of disappointingly aimed bullets.

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Takeshi Kitano: Brother (2000)

Writer, director, editor, producer, actor, comedian, TV superstar; if ever there were a figure in the film industry you could probably rely on to fix a leaking tap, it’s Japanese multi-hyphenate and jack of all trades, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano. Perhaps most keenly known as a director for his terrific crime films (Violent Cop, Sonatine), Takeshi’s filmography remains remarkably diverse, switching genres with astonishing ease and agility. If his two most recent pictures, Outrage (2010) and Outrage Beyond (2012) represent a return to the type of material that made his name, following a series of smart, reflexive curios that barely broke out of the festival circuits, he’s a filmmaker as at home with bawdy comedy (Getting Any?) as he is with heartfelt romance (Dolls).

In between his most critically lauded (Hana-Bi, 1997) and commercially successful (Zatoichi, 2003) pictures, Takeshi made his only overseas production thus far in the form of the US-set (and generally under-appreciated) Brother (2000). It’s perhaps a tiny bit of a cheat to consider it an English language debut entirely, with as much of the dialogue in Japanese as in English. Its hyper-violent story of a yakuza in search of his younger brother in America takes the tropes familiar to both Takeshi’s own crime films and Japanese yakuza films in general, and recontextualises them in the alien locale in which the film is set.

One of the director’s most melancholy, nihilistic works, Brother’s themes of immigration and cultural identity in the all-consuming wake of capitalist opportunity make it a film as much about what it means to be American as it does to be Japanese.

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Bruno Dumont: Twentynine Palms (2003)

One of the most divisive filmmakers working today, Bruno Dumont’s films defy easy summary. To call him a provocateur would be to do him a disservice, though it’d be a safe bet that more people walked out of Twentynine Palms upon release than anything by Lars von Trier. His filmography provokes the most passionate of reactions: for all those sat enraptured as any one of his films comes to a close, there’ll be as many up on their feet, lobbing things at the screen.

Dumont’s are films about the corporeal and the divine. Sex and spirituality. Violence and faith. His is a rigorous, austere aesthetic of often jaw-dropping formal and thematic choices. His debut La Vie de Jésus took the Camera d’or at Cannes in 1997, his latest, Camille Claudel 1915 recently premiered (to a typically mixed reception) at Berlin.

Twentynine Palms was the first of Dumont’s films to be set outside his native Bailleul, and remains his most divisive work to date, even among his most ardent admirers. An allegorical examination of the relationship between sex and violence, Dumont transplants a modern day Adam and Eve to the scrubland of the Californian desert, to fight, fuck and miscommunicate their way towards the film’s sledgehammer of a conclusion.

Exquisitely photographed with a master’s eye for composition, make no mistake, this is confrontational cinema of the highest order. Passions can be violent, and so too can reactions to the film. Twentynine Palms is not concerned with intellectualising emotions, it’s concerned with reducing them to, and examining them in, their most primal states. It’s not an easy watch, sure, but it’s also a masterpiece.

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