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10 Directors to Watch: Joseph Kahn Blasts Racist Rhetoric in Battle-Rap ‘Bodied’

When he wasn't busy directing Taylor Swift music videos, the Korean-American helmer managed to cook up a politically incorrect crowd-pleaser.

It was relatively early in Kahn’s lucrative career as a music-video director that he began toying with the idea of making a feature film about battle rapping. The only problem? He hatched the concept while directing videos for Eminem around the time of “8 Mile.”

“Obviously, he’d just made the best battle rap movie of all time, so that put it under wraps until I could figure out a way in there,” says the South Korea-born, U.S.-raised Kahn. “I had to think, what do I have to say with this material? Not just the fact that I want to make it, but is there something there to mine to express something about society that justifies making this thing?”

Nearly 15 years after the idea was seeded — in which time he won multiple Grammys and VMAs for his work with Taylor Swift and Eminem, and directed the features “Torque” and hyperkinetic horror satire “Detention,” which premiered at SXSW in 2011 — Kahn finally bowed “Bodied” at 2017’s Toronto film festival. The film could hardly be more timely. Using battle rap to explore issues of race, appropriation and cultural sensitivity with an infectious disdain for delicacy, the riotously dark comedy won audience awards at both TIFF and AFI Fest.

“Until TIFF accepted it, it was literally turned down by every major festival,” notes the director. While he’s forged a distinctive career already — making idiosyncratic indie features between mega-budget videos — Kahn certainly has his eyes on bigger things.

“I would love to be more looped into the studio world, because I feel like I’m a studio director,” he says. “I’m afraid that the more my films get the cult audiences, the studios will get more afraid of me, and think I’m some pretentious director who just wants to make art films all his life.

“There’s a piece of truth to that, because these films are personal, and I’m making them off the grid. But at the same time, I’m fully capable of making mainstream work, as I do in my videos and commercials all the time, at the highest level.”

Influences: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Jackie Chan, David Lynch, the Coen brothers
Agents: ICM
Lawyer: Burgee & Abramoff

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