With the success of foreign cinema this past awards season, particularly with Parasite winning Best Picture, I figured that now is the best time to highlight other foreign cinema that people should go and check out. That is why the tenth edition of The Ultimate Choice is focusing on the best that foreign cinema has to offer. Check out what everyone had to say.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Chosen by Amy Smith
If you had asked me this same question last month, I would have been ready to declare Battle Royale as my favourite. However, whilst I am unsure which one I truly do prefer, I cannot stop thinking about Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the impact it had on me. This is not a review, as I have already reviewed it and you can read that by clicking here.
Whilst I am yet to see France’s official selection, Les Misérables, I will be shocked if it comes as close as POALOF does for me. I could have easily given this film Best International Feature at the Oscars alongside so many other nominations that it easily deserved. How this visual masterpiece was completely shut out of the Best Cinematography category is beyond me, given the beauty of every single shot.
Recently, I have been getting in the habit of watching only new releases in the cinema and seeing as many different films as I possibly can. However, when it came to the past few weeks, the only film I could think about was POALOF. There were plenty of films that I had a chance to go and see, and yet instead I just went back to my local cinema for a second slice of this delicious French treat.
If you are lucky enough to live somewhere that is still showing POALOF (and is also safe enough from the current virus going around), I urge you to get out and support this type of filmmaking. You will not regret it.
It’s very difficult to choose a single favorite foreign language film, but the one that has been a favorite for the longest for me is easily Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. A completely sung-through musical starring a young Catherine Deneuve, Umbrellas was cited by Damien Chazelle as his favorite film and a huge influence on his own La La Land.
Umbrellas is about two beautiful young people in the small town of Cherbourg, in Normandy, France. Geneviève works with her mother in the family umbrella shop, and Guy works as a mechanic while supporting his sickly aunt. The two are very much in love, but before they can get married, Guy gets drafted to serve in the Algerian war. While he is fighting overseas, Geneviève learns that she is pregnant with his child, and a kind, wealthy jeweler from Paris named Roland Cassard comes to town and begins courting her. Yes, this is the stuff of a million melodramas, but The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has three things all those other melodramas don’t have.
The first, Demy’s eye-popping use of color – this is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see. The second is Michel Legrand’s passionate all-timer of a score – this is one of the most beautiful films you will ever hear. The third is one of the best endings in cinema, a snowy epilogue that freezes you right in your tracks before warming your heart in a curious way. It’s a swoon-worthy film, one that conjures up feelings of longing, passionate romance so beautifully.
I know that for some people, musicals are deal-breakers – they just can’t buy people breaking out into song all the damn time. But if you’re pushing past the one-inch barrier of subtitles, why not push past your fear of sung dialogue, too? The Umbrellas of Cherbourg amply rewards you for your patience with one of the most unique, expressive cinematic experiences you are ever likely to have.
The Raid 2
Chosen by Andy: Twitter | Patreon
In the world of favorite film not in the English language, many immediately come to mind including Das Boot, Cinema Paradiso, Pan’s Labyrinth or The Seventh Seal. There are too many to name. The genre of action foreign films is also intense including such classics as Oldboy, Ip Man, the films of John Woo and Jackie Chan and of course The Raid films. Among my favorites of this genre is The Raid 2, literally one of the greatest, most intense action films I have ever seen including domestic English speaking films.
Shortly after the events of the equally robust and thrilling The Raid Redemption, embattled hero Rama is asked to go undercover to attempt to infiltrate the underworld crime syndicate, befriend a local crime boss’s son and attempt to expose corruption within his own police force. After proving his worth and trustworthiness to the crime family, he begins to learn how deep corruption goes and who the responsible principles are. Tensions run high as rival families look to gain and keep control of their respective territories while maintaining a fragile order within their own ranks. Rama continues to bide his time, intervene when necessary all the while reporting back to his police commanders and the action at hand.
The stakes are much higher in The Raid 2 than the first film, The Raid: Redemption. The initial offering was merely a police assault on a heavily armed criminal fortress and attempts by the law to bring to justice the overlord living there. The Raid 2 shows the audience this thug was merely a cog in the criminal machinery at play and Rama has a key role in the investigation and discovery of the criminal network.
The net intensely choreographed action scene within the film’s framework is never far away including an epic prison courtyard brawl, several epic and well-done car chases through the city streets and also an extended sequence where director Gareth Evans cuts between a femme fatale on a subway going up against a criminal mob only armed with a pair of hammers and a sluggish brute taking out his opponents while slowly dragging his trusty baseball bat behind him. It is interesting to see the constant turmoil within the criminal ranks, even with those on the same sides as they vie for control and even take each other out when things don’t go their way.
The audience is completely rooting for Rama to succeed not only to bring the bad buys to justice, but also to be able to return to his wife and newborn daughter whom he has not seen in over two years. I was completely engaged in the action throughout and the 2 ½ hour runtime goes by in a flash.
The Raid: Redemption
Chosen by Samuel Preston: Twitter | Blog
On the 9th February 2020 at the 92nd Academy Awards, Parasite became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, and with that decision, the subject of subtitles and dubbing were brought into the public discussion. Unfortunately, there seems to be a consensus for certain audience members that subtitles are too distracting an inclusion, thereby leading to a reluctance from some to even entertain the idea of watching a foreign movie with subtitles. This can lead to missing masterpieces such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Seventh Samurai, Oldboy, and Tokyo Story. However, one of my favourites, and possibly the most accessible for audiences, is the Indonesian action film Serbuan Maut, most commonly known as The Raid: Redemption.
Directed by former freelance director Gareth Evans, a Welshman who had become fascinated by Indonesian Martial Arts, Serbuan Maut combines the hard-hitting style of Ong Bak with the realistic and visceral violence of Saving Private Ryan, creating a hybrid of exploding guns and broken bones, the speed and ferocity of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s intelligent use of surroundings.
The simplicity of the plot (SWAT Team are tasked to enter, infiltrate and lock down an apartment block controlled by a vicious drug lord, only for them to be found out, locked in and forced to survive) is what allows for possibly more accessibility for an English speaking audience, as the first ten-fifteen minutes has minimal dialogue, mainly to set the scene and convey the active stakes for the main characters, before transcending the need for dialogue. By utilising subtle body language to highlight the dangerous nature of the job, Evans gradually strips the dialogue back as the protagonists attempt to successfully infiltrate without the criminals realising, using silent hand signals and facial expressions to lock down apartment levels, with the build of tension successfully drawing the audience in due to the anticipation of when things will, inevitably, go wrong. Because of this, by the time the audience is hooked, and the action has begun, any dialogue is now minimal and specifically only when essential, meaning the audience won’t feel overwhelmed if originally uncomfortable with the concept of subtitles.
In fact, it might be the perfect introduction for reluctant watchers of foreign subtitled film, as the dialogue is very secondary to the tremendous action and set pieces depicted through natural stuntwork, the lack of CGI adding to the impressive work, personified best by the breakout star of the movie, the likeable rookie and endearing protagonist Iko Uwais. But most of all, it’s a bloody amazing action film, a double bill with Mad Max: Fury Road or any of the John Wick Franchise would be the equivalent of a tantric sex session with the personification of action cinema, and who wouldn’t love that?
Chosen by Brian Skutle: Twitter | Blog
I originally thought to give this space to another film I haven’t spent a great deal of space gushing about over the years (I already have a full review, and podcast episode, dedicated to Stalker under my belt), but in the end, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film continues to draw me in, always mesmerizing me.
Stalker is a spiritual journey “disguised” as a science-fiction film. I put disguised in quotes because, honestly, there’s not much about it that screams sci-fi, even though it is adapted from a sci-fi novel, Roadside Picnic. Tarkovsky was not interested in delving into a society impacted by the arrival of aliens, but the idea of people hoping for an experience that might lead to their hopes and dreams coming true. That experience, in the case of Stalker, is a journey into a mysterious Zone, quarantined off by the military. The story goes, if you made it to the Room at the center of the Zone, your greatest wishes would come true. The guide to the room is the Stalker, and in the film, he takes a writer and a professor into The Zone. You must play by the Zone’s rules, however, or else you may not make it.
Stalker was one of my first non-English film experiences, and my first with Tarkovsky, and it was quite a first impression. It had been on my radar after a critic likened some scenes in my favorite film of the time, The Crow, to passages in Stalker, and, when I finally watched Stalker in 1997, not only was the inspiration recognizable, but the film sucked me in to its poetic, languid rhythms. At 160 minutes, there is not a lot of plot, and Tarkovsky will take his time, with only 142 individual shots in the movie. I would not recommend it for Tarkovsky neophytes, but the truth is, it’s one of the purest expressions of the filmmaker’s philosophy as a filmmaker and a human being. It’s a challenge on Tarkovsky’s part to the audience- like the Stalker, he asks for your faith to trust him on this journey. It’s one I’m always up for taking with him.
A couple of interesting notes about Stalker:
-This was a troubled production. After an error at the lab developing the film for Stalker, Tarkovsky had to go back and reshoot and re-imagine much of the film, with a new cinematographer in tow. You would never know it watching the film.
-A lot of the cast and crew, including Tarkovsky and his wife, would later die from health issues related to this shoot. Much of the shooting took place near a chemical factory, which poured some poisonous liquids downstream. There is actually a calendar we see in one shot with the date, December 28; Tarkovsky died on December 29, 1986
-Near the end of the film, one character hypothesizes that it was a breakdown at “the fourth bunker” that caused the Zone in the film. Seven years after Stalker was made, it was the explosion of the fourth energy bunker that caused the Chernobyl disaster, causing a real-life “Zone” to become reality. This would make a fascinating double feature with HBO’s Chernobyl series. Skip over the found-footage nonsense of Chernobyl Diaries, though.
Thank you to everyone who took part! Which film would you have chosen to write about? And which films are now interested in seeing thanks to the recommendations? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.