By Lee Chapman
Movies. A series of pictures in a rhythmic motion accompanied by sound, story, and setting. It’s relatively easy to make the claim that, if you are reading this, then you have seen a movie. Maybe you recently checked out “Get Out” because you heard of the subtle messages or witnessed Hugh Jackman’s phenomenal portrayal of a weary Logan, in “Logan”; however, there are times where we want less American and more global. In an age with rising international tension, it might be ideal to see what art and culture has come from that nation. From China to Mexico, other nations have a thriving bank of cinematic art that we rarely witness when viewing trailers.
In this list, I will be recommending a few of my personal favorite foreign films and providing a brief synopsis about it. Of course, it goes without saying (yet, I’ll say it anyways), these are my personal choices and may not necessarily reflect that of the majority or critics; however, if you’re looking for something intriguing to watch on a random night, check out these films.
Se Jie “Lust Caution” - Chinese
This Chinese film was released in 2007 and directed by Ang Lee, the same Taiwanese director who gave us the martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the controversial drama “Brokeback Mountain”. This is a well-paced tragedy involving an aspiring actress and the liaison to the Chinese Army during WWII. What starts out as a simple tale of theater life spirals into a tragic romance involving deception, espionage, and violence. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Broken Sword in “Hero”) portrays the liaison, Mr. Yee, with ruthless efficiency; while Wei Tang flawlessly captures the beauty, innocence, and eventual resolve of Wong Chia Chi. With a well composed soundtrack by Alexander Desplat (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows”) this revolutionary-charged love affair will certainly keep you gripped, but be prepared to be sedentary because the film is nearly two and a half hours. Aside from the time, there is little else to complain about. The acting is impeccable, the plot thorough and compelling, and the wardrobe is true to the time period. In essence, it's the untold story of civilians using what they can to combat the threat of a dangerous society.
La belle et la bete “Beauty and the Beast” - French
American cinema is on the fritz. Remakes of timeless cartoon classics are being pushed out rather than focusing on original content. First it was “The Jungle Book”, and now we have “Beauty and the Beast”, but what if I told you the cartoon version you grew up watching was also a remake? Yes, in 1946 a pioneer French director named Jean Cocteau introduced the world to the tale of Belle and the Beast. This black and white film follows the plot of the original story, a young maiden in town must live in the castle of a cursed prince in exchange for her father’s freedom. However, in this film there are significant differences in the characters, ranging from their upbringing to the true antagonist. Being an older piece of cinema be prepared for a switch up in the quality of the shots, editing, sound, and acting; not to say that any of these are bad. Actress Josette Day gives us a believable Belle, not a whimsical homesick girl, but a woman who understands her worth. The Beast’s make-up is something to marvel at, (remember this was made at the end of World War II). Coming in at one hour and thirty three minutes, you and a date can pour up a glass of wine and watch this while the food digests, saving you 32.79 on movie tickets and popcorn.
Y Tu Mama Tambien “And Your Mother, too” - Mexico
What do you get when you combine two post-puberty stoners, an exhausted wife, and one road trip to the fabled Mexican coast of Boca de Cielo (translation: Heaven’s Mouth)? This tale directed by Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”, “Gravity”) explores these topics and others such as hidden desire, passion for life, and the extent of suffering. What a rollercoaster of antics this is; be prepared to laugh at the mischief of Julio Zapata (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna). You might recognize young Tenoch as the dashing rebel spy Cassian Andor from the latest space thriller “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. The trio find themselves caught in tense situations as they navigate car problems, late night sneaking, and buried secrets. Ana Lopez Mercado steals the show as Ana Morales, a desperate woman seeking the ecstasy of life. What I enjoyed about this film was the realness of it; the shots were able to capture the spirit of a journey through Mexico. Beside the obvious drawback of having to read subtitles, (which you have to do for all these films anyways), the pacing of certain scenes is slow. Action packed and cinematic this is not; but this is a voyage through teenage passion, risk taking, and acceptance of fate.
Los Ojos de Julia “Julia’s Eyes” - Spain
So far the three previous films have been more drama centered, but “Los Ojos de Julia” is a descent into the darker side of cinema. Released in 2010 and directed by Guillem Morales, this Spanish thriller follows Julia (Belen Rueda) a woman born with a congenital ocular disease that threatens to take her sight. When her sister who lives with complete blindness is mysteriously killed, Julia along with her husband Isaac (Lluis Homar), seek answers surrounding the strange death. Filled with plot twists and psychological themes, this thriller will definitely release some of pent up adrenaline from the work week. What I found most impressive about this film was the composition of shots; after a certain point, viewers will notice a well-executed alteration of camera angles. At times, the film lags and becomes somewhat predictable, but the third act rewards a patient viewer with a dramatic conclusion. At just about two hours, this film produced by Mexican Master of Horror, Guillermo del Toro, will have you thanking God for sight.
Kimi no na Wa “Your Name” - Japan
If you are familiar with Japanese visual media, then you have surely heard of anime. Yes, the same anime that pops up on your Netflix feed, yeah those “cartoons”. Well, they’re not just for children and often times anime allows us to explore the nature of humanity while transporting us to a realm of watercolor wonder. Kimi no na Wa is a perfect example. Released just a year ago, by novelist Matoko Shinkai, this tale catapults us into the worlds of Mitsuha Miyamazu and Taki Tachibana. Mitsuha who lives in a rural village town wishes to live in the bustling city of Tokyo is granted her wish when she suddenly wakes up in the body of Taki; meanwhile Taki is tasked with living in a girl’s body. What follows next is an emotional tale of love transcending physical limitations, unexpected loss, and the power of hope. The art direction and drawings are some of the best I’ve seen in an anime (I’ve seen alot, trust), and animations are fluid to the point that you forget they aren’t real. This was also a record-breaking production, being one of the first commercially successful animes that didn’t originate from the OG Studio Ghibli (“Spirited Away”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”) So if you’re seeking something free from the realm of reality, check out this “cartoon”, and try not to shed a thug tear.
Borgman - Netherlands
It’s time to get weird. Like real weird. Like the opening scene is an axe-wielding Dutch priest is walking through the forest with a hunting party. Yes, that is just of the beginning of this dark tale known as “Borgman”. The plot is hard to put into words, but basically this eccentric man arrives at the home of a wealthy family and proceeds to just do a bunch of bizarre acts that are both queer and skin-crawling. Whew, some weird sh*t goes on in this one Ladies and gents. Alex van Warmerdam helmed the director’s chair for this 2013 Palme d’Or nominee. The Palme d’Or is the best award one can receive at the Cannes Film Festival. The imagery is striking, the acting so convincing, along with a spine-tingling atmosphere that looms over the entire film. You thought that priest opening was weird, wait till they *spoilers* the *spoilers* and dump *spoiler, spoilers, spoilers*. The film is filled with wit and it is constantly self-aware of its dark comedy. This psychological drama clocks in at an hour and fifty three minutes, so watch it on Hulu instead of scrolling through your phone.
Hunger - Ireland
To finish off the list we have Hunger, a gritty drama that expresses how resolved a man can be to a charge. 2014 Oscar winner for The Best Motion Picture of the Year (for “12 Years a Slave”) Steve Mcqueen proves that he’s been tackling controversial subjects long before his depiction of American slavery. This film locks us in an Irish prison where the mistreated (read:tortured) prisoners are conducting a hunger strike. Bobby Sands, played by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender (Magneto in “X-Men:First Class”), is leading the charge as these men starve themselves in order to demand rights. It is a heavy tale as it delves into the depths of humanity and shows both the depravity and dedication of these individuals. Some of the scenes are tough to stomach (ha!), but it is essentially a true story. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, I’d probably steer clear from this film, but when you want to watch something with grit and grime, then give it a spin. At an hour and thirty six minutes, you’ll be done with this tour-de-force before you realize the stars are out.
So there you have it, seven foreign films that will take you through global culture. Although originating from other nations, these works of art have a way of reaching us, even if the language is one we can’t comprehend. Topics such as the nature of love, suffering, and hope exist beyond any man-made border and, every once in awhile, we should expose our senses to these truths. Now, I can’t necessarily speak on how to view these films, but with an installed ad-blocker and some persistent Google searching, one can easily watch all of these on a laptop. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comment box, I’m always seeking new recommendations. Until then, check out these intriguing films, and I’ll have another list on the next Night at the Kino.
Photo Credit: Lee Chapman