What would it be like if you existed six minutes in the future, ahead of everyone? Things around you look familiar, being young is still cool and institutional repression hasn’t caught on with your latest act of rebellion. This is the world of Karim Huu Do, director.
Some of the most esthetically-intense, visually-rousing short films come from advertising work. And some of the most esthetically-intense, visually-rousing short films have been directed by Karim Huu Do. His work on commercials is of its time, but it’s also of a near-future epoch-to-be, and that gap is everything. The artistry of his films looks a little familiar but it also bursts with novelty and possibilities. I ask myself. Is Huu Do too cerebral for commercial work?
He has directed videos for Drake, Converse, H&M, Adidas and Hugo Boss. He is in the planning stages of a first feature-length narrative film. The commercials he directs are provocative and emotionally-intense affairs in which silences hold as much sway as the musical bits (hip hop, rock, etc.), and chaotic imagery translate into a saneness, a kind of wisdom. Huu Do’s films often border on the esoteric, too. Maybe it’s his way of telling us that the world is too fast, too now, too revealing. Karim Huu Do’s artistic signature—one that lends itself well to luxury brand names—has made him one of the most in-demand directors today.
Huu Do professes an admiration not only for Jonathan Glazer and Fritz Lang but also for Steven Spielberg, citing all of these as sources of inspiration. In his videos, whether it’s a music video for Miguel or a commercial for Amnesty International, chaos is influential and music the emotional trigger.
During a recent phone conversation, I asked him how he chose collaborators. “I like working with the same people. But it depends on the project. Sometimes I want to try and push myself in new directions. Lately, I’ve been trying new people out.”
While at school, Karim Huu Do (he grew up in Switzerland) was part of a collective that included other talented artists, like Florence Tétier and Florient Joye, both of whom are photographers. “They started a magazine, other members of the collective went on to teach, work in art direction.” He adds, “I was doing short films, and with my best friend we had a street brand that we did on the side. It was the beginning of something.” The collective that Huu Do speaks fondly of also included another alumnus, Maxime Plescia-Bushi. “Maxime joined the atelier. He’s an AD for Kanye West, he created Sang Bleu magazine. He has tattoo shops around the world.” Huu Do stayed with the collective for about a couple of years, and then struck out on his own.
In 2014 he traveled to London to shoot “Last night in Paris,” a music video for the namesake art collective that’s headlined by hip-hop artists Jordon Wifi and Taurean Roye. Here, again, that feeling of intemporality that I describe earlier. The events in the video could’ve taken place in the seventies, the nineties or 2079. Huu Do’s camera follows the characters around an apartment until we come face to face with an albino gator on a TV screen. Suddenly, it thrashes ferociously, turning towards the camera. What is Huu Do telling us, that we are living in overindulgent times, be mindful, stay sharp, for danger/failure/death is never far?
“We did it [the “Last Night in Paris” video] with almost no money,” which is astonishing when you consider the film’s production values. “My producer Katie Dolan and I did pre-production for three months. We were passionate about it. It was hard to find everything for no money, from scouting, negotiating equipment deals with camera houses. It was fun and informal, you learn a lot from those.”
The idea for “PURE,” in which a posse of friends is hanging out at home and then goes out into the woods to hold a mysterious initiation ritual, grew from Huu Do’s interest in customs and tribes.
“The idea was to see how gangs perform rituals. How they take in the new kid, like the Bloods or the Crips, run him to an isolated place and beat him, almost to the point of fainting. I was interested in how rituals work. Either you give the kid a beating or you send him off to fight a lion. Or, you give him a potion that will drug him. And I was thinking of a unique way to create a ritual for this gang.” In describing the actors in the video, he adds, “the way they were dressing, the way they were doing music, merging hip-hop and electronic, they were open to everything.”
The resulting film, which stars rap artists like Jordon Wifi and Taurean Roye, left a mark on me.
Huu Do, who recently turned forty, put himself on a course to becoming a director at an early age. Tarkovsky and Kurosawa were some of the names thrown around the living-room. “I watched movies a lot, it was the only way my father could have some time for himself (laughs). He’d send me to the video store, told me I could rent anything.” Huu Do added, “I could’ve rented horror movies, for all he cared. And I was only seven.”
Huu Do’s father had a home movie library, too. Films by Cimino and Coppola fought for shelf space with Chuck Norris or Schwarzenegger.
Like many people growing up in Europe, Huu Do was exposed to cineclubs, something that lacks in American popular culture. People went to cineclub meet-ups or, like Huu Do, watched curated movies on TV. Before John Cameron Mitchell had his falling out with IFC, he presented “Escape from Hollywood,” on IFC, a show that I watched avidly. “Escape from Hollywood” was of that culture.
In France we had something called “La Dernière Séance” (“the last show”), hosted by one of France’s best-known rock singers, Eddy Mitchell. The show was taped inside a movie theater, Mitchell would stand on stage and speak briefly about the film he was to introduce. Without fail, the cigarette girl would clumsily stumble unto the stage, apologize, laugh and coo, and the two would strike up a conversation, half-flirtatious, half-serious, and then the movie would start.
Huu Do, who is half Vietnamese and half Moroccan, told me about his own experiences. “We had the Monday cinema series. There was this old film critic who talked about movies and presented a new film every Monday. Those are the nights that I would plan on staying home.” Movie watching was definitely an occupation for the whole family, Huu Do recalled to me watching with his mother “Elephant Man.” Both were moved to tears. “It was amazing, this emotional bond that you could have with a niche movie.”
Cinema made its mark, one movie among the others stood out. “In ‘Empire of the Sun,’ a super young Christian Bale plays a kid in a Japanese internment camp. That movie got imprinted on my mind, it pushed me in this direction. ‘Solaris,’ ‘M,’ and Kurosawa’s movies, also, Kobayashi’s ‘Harakiri,’ those movies changed my life, if not my perspective.”
At the moment Huu Do is working on a Japanese period film set in the seventeenth century. Finding the right angle to tell the story is obviously central to the project. “I didn’t want to make a tribute, or modernize [the genre]. I hate it when they do those cheesy westernized adaptations of samurai movies.”
I took the conversation back to the work of the aforementioned Jonathan Glazer, another commercial filmmaker who made some features, including “Under the Skin,” a film that really affected me, Huu Do said,“ I think he was pretty bold to do this, but I didn’t really connect with the movie. I connected way more with ‘Birth,’ his previous movie, and ‘Sexy Beast,’ which I loved.”
Jumping on what he had told me earlier in the conversation, Huu Do added, “when I was growing up trying to find my way, I thought that cinema was an art but that it was also entertainment. I was OK with movies being just for entertainment. As I got older I found that even the most entertaining movies, like E.T., have a message. In commercial work there is a thin line, between what you do and the message you convey. In feature film you can go way deeper than this.”
On his exotic heritage, Huu Do remarked, “my parents were immigrants. I have this Westernized mind, and at the same time, I have roots that are not coming from here. All this stuff mixed together creates something interesting.”
Huu Do hopes to start shooting his first feature film in early 2020.
All of Karim Huu Do’s videos are available for viewing here.
Special thanks to Taghi Naderzad for his contributions to this interview.
VIDEO: “Superstar,” for ADIDAS ORIGINALS