TIME ON YOUR HANDS? TRAVEL THE WORLD WITH THESE EXCITING FOREIGN FLICKS! PART I By B. Allen Bradford, Esq.
Extended “sheltering in place” have you down? Tired of seeing the same faces on your neighborhood walks? Fed up with your Facebook “friends”? Not ready to brush the dust off that classic novel that’s been moldering on your nightstand for about 10 years (as Mark Twain said: “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”). Mostly, are you sick and tired of watching the same old junk on TV?
Well then, there’s no time like NOW to catch up on some of those great foreign language films that you may (or may not) have heard of but have put off because (a) after all, it’s in a foreign language, (b) you don’t like to deal with sub-titles, especially while multi-tasking on your cell phone and laptop and (c) you’re worried it’ll be some “art house” thing that’ll bore you out of your skull. After all, Mark Twain’s quote could apply to “classic movies” as well as books, right?
Your friends here at movieBlog are prepared to broaden your horizons by recommending some foreign language flicks that are not only great but are the celluloid (or streaming!) equivalent of page turners. We’ll prepare you to show off your erudition at virtual cocktail parties, and also save you the trouble of plowing through several hours of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB reviews, and then defaulting to Indiana Jones or When Harry Met Sally. Not only that, our movies are from multiple parts of the world, giving you a truly global experience!
Our criteria are simple: we have to have truly enjoyed the movie, other respected sources back us up, we truly believe you will want to keep watching and no 2 movies can be from the same country. So, while we love Fritz Lang’s classic “Metropolis,” we haven’t included it here because (alas!) we just don’t think most modern viewers will enjoy it. Similarly, while we understand that legendary Swedish movie “The Seventh Seal” is a must-see for serious cinephiles, we couldn’t get past the first 30 minutes ourselves, so it wouldn’t be fair to pretend we’re sophisticated enough to recommend it here.
We’re also avoiding obvious, well-known foreign language movies, such as this year’s Oscar Winner (“Parasite”); 1999’s brilliant, controversial “Life is Beautiful” (winner of best Foreign Language Oscar and Best Actor for Roberto Benigni); and Ang Lee’s spectacular, dazzling tour de force “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner). (Though if you haven’t seen them, they’re all great.)
Herewith, Part I of our select list of recommended foreign language movies:
Das Boot, (1981), directed by Wolfgang Peterson, starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann, 145 minutes. German. Six Oscar nominations, including Best Director. Why would you watch a World War II movie about the bad guys on a U-boat whose mission is to sink Allied ships? Because within minutes, you see them not as the enemy but as men trapped in a sweaty, tight claustrophobic setting trying to do their jobs in terrifying, almost impossible circumstances. The movie doesn’t avoid the fact that its protagonists are minions of a fascist government, but it does show their ambivalence about the very orders they are asked to carry out. Most of all, it is a harrowing, slam bang action story. I can’t do better than this from James Berardinelli of Reel Views: “This film takes all of the drama and suspense inherent in a submarine-based story and delivers it in a near-perfect package, establishing ‘Das Boot’ as not just a terrific adrenaline rush, but one of the best movies ever made.” True dat! Available on Amazon Prime.
Z, (1969), directed by Costa Gavras, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Irene Papas and Jacques Perrin. A French-Algerian film, in French, Russian and English. Won the 1970 Oscar for best foreign language film and was nominated for Best Movie. “Z” is a gripping thriller based on a novelized version of the 1963 assassination of an opposition political leader in Greece. More specifically, it’s about the investigation into that assassination and the efforts of the Greek military junta to cover it up. Most of all (at least to me) it’s about “The Examining Magistrate,” a government functionary brought in by the government to validate their cover-up. His convincing conversion to the truth and his dogged determination to uncover it drive the movie forward with propulsive force. This character, played rivetingly by Jean-Louise Trintignant, was based on Christos Sartzetakis, who went on to become president of Greece in 1985. Available on Amazon Prime.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, (2019), directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, starring Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lily Banda. In Nyanja, Arabic, English, 113 minutes. That’s right, the star of “Twelve Years a Slave” is also a more than competent director. “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is a moving, fascinating, partially fictionalized version of the remarkable true story of William Kamkwamba, the brilliant young Malawian who figured out how to build a wind turbine out of bicycle parts, gum trees and bits of junkyard scrap. In the movie, he uses this invention to save his African village from drought. Ejiofor (who plays William’s father) delivers not only a compelling story of young William’s struggle—and that of his family and indeed his entire village—but a dazzling look at a little known (at least to most Americans) part of the world that is at once beautiful and under severe climatic stress. Grounded in the utterly convincing performance of young Kenyan actor Maxwell Simba (who actually did grow up in a small farm village), this movie is both heart-breaking and ultimately hopeful. Meaning, gentlemen, be sure your lady has a hanky—you might even need one yourself. Available on Netflix.
Note: the real William Kamkwamba, now 32 years old, ultimately graduated from Dartmouth College and now builds solar powered water pumps in his native country.
King of Masks (1999), directed by Wu Tianming, with Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-Ying. Chinese, 101 minutes. Although it won numerous international awards, “Masks” had only limited release in the U.S. but I found it recently on Amazon Prime (for my second viewing). Culture Vulture calls it a “tour de force”; Scott Myers calls it “a hidden gem.” In 1930’s Sichuan province, Master Wang is maestro of an ancient Chinese performance street art, rapidly switching masks to “magically” transform himself from one character to another. Old, childless, lonely and desperate, he buys (yes, buys) a 7 year old boy so that he can pass his skills and masks on to a male heir. Shocked and dismayed when he later discovers that “Doggie” is actually a girl, Wang at first refuses to continue teaching his precious skills. But Doggie, abused all her young life, is in her own way just as desperate as Wang, and will go to great, heartbreaking lengths to win him over. Gripping chemistry between the leads, beautiful and evocative cinematography, touching melodrama and historical resonance that may remind you of great old Hollywood classics—all that, and a monkey, too! Another “hanky accessory” advisory here. Available on Amazon Prime.
Last of the Pagans, (1935); directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Ray Mala and Lotus Long, Polynesian, 71 minutes.This was American made and the two leads are American (albeit Mala was half Native Alaskan and Long was Japanese-Hawaiian), but this movie is distinctly Polynesian. Per the American Film Institute, the rest of the “entire cast…was comprised of natives from French Polynesia,” most of the dialogue is Polynesian and it was shot on location in Tahiti, quite a feat for 1935. Part love story, part action/adventure movie, part documentary, this delightful, fast paced pic begins with the male lead (named Taro) literally kidnapping his feisty female counterpart (named Lileo) from a neighboring island, moves to her falling in love with him after he demonstrates his manliness (but only after several good-natured pratfalls), then to his own kidnapping by Westerners of undetermined origin who whisk the hero away to slavery at a phosphate mine on yet another South Sea island. There soon ensues the lady’s betrothal to the unscrupulous king of Taro’s island, her brief reunion with Taro, their mutual but separate incarceration and a thrilling climax amid a wild and destructive monsoon. Much fun, great visuals, and not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.
The AFI also reports the film was rejected by Hitler’s Germany and censored by the French, who apparently smarted at its depiction of foreign imperialists. Unfortunately, though I recently watched this on Turner Classics, it now seems available only on Vimeo—but that’s a truncated version, so I say wait for the full movie.
Closing Notes: These movies will literally provide you with a world of adventure right from your own sweet home! But if you’re at all up on your foreign films, you may be surprised that we failed to include any movies from the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The reason is simple: if we did, then this list would be twice its size, and half the movies would be Kurosawa classics. BUT! In Part II, we will recommend 5 Kurosawas, including a couple of great ones that even casual Kurosawa fans may not be familiar with.
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