Foreign Film

H is for House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Romantic police captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) breaks Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a beautiful member of the rebel group known as House of Flying Daggers, out of prison but things are not what they seem.

Plot-wise House of Flying Daggers is bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s interesting how pretty much every single character is hiding something and there’s a lot of twists, especially in the last act as motivations are revealed. So that’s intriguing and a twist usually happens just when I’m starting to get a little bored. Which is kind of clever from a scriptwriting point of view, it’s as if they knew when interest might start wanning and pull the audience back in. The love story/stories that are slowly revealed aren’t so interesting to me and the initial conflict of the rebel group vs the government ends up being dropped to focus on the romance. In some ways this leaves the ending a bit unsatisfying.

That being said, House of Flying Daggers is a beautiful and stylish film. When Mei performs a dance and shadow game at the start of the film, how the camera follows her movements as the long fabric from her clothes spins around is wonderful. The colours in House of Flying Daggers are a feast for the eyes. Whether it’s the pastel colours of the Peony Pavilion or the greens of the bamboo forest it’s all captured brilliantly by cinematographer by Xiaoding Zhao.

The fights and actions sequences are suitably dramatic and well shot too. Everything is easy to follow and they’re always exciting and innovative. Not being someone who watches wuxia films that regularly, I always find it’s a visual treat seeing action scenes like this when you compare them to a lot of Western action films that are heavily edited, perhaps in the dark and hard to follow. Plus, it’s fun seeing these people defy the laws of gravity and it all just be an understood part of this world.

The music composed by Shigeru Umebayashi is also beautiful. It’s the sort of music that made me believe in the love story more than the plot did.

I’m glad I’ve finally watched House of Flying Daggers after having the DVD for so long. Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it’s a film that’s referenced in popular culture a lot – I realised that a shot of Mei towards the end of the film was on the cover of one of my university Film textbooks, always thought it was a beautiful cover but never knew what film it was from – so it’s good to actually know the original material.

The fights, colours and acting in House of Flying Daggers makes it stand out when the plot isn’t always that interesting. Perhaps it’s a film where it’s more style over substance but in this instance, I didn’t really care as I was swept up in it all. 4/5.

REVIEW: Peninsula (2020)

Four years after a zombie virus has spread across the country, South Korea has been quarantined from the rest of the world. A small team led by former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) come back to the peninsula in order to retrieve a truck containing $20 million in cash.

Peninsula is a sequel to Train to Busan, but as it has new characters and is set after the events of the first film it can stand on its own. It’s a similar scenario to 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later really.

I think the best way to go into Peninsula is to not think too much of its predecessor. Train to Busan was like lightning in a bottle in terms of a zombie movie with a lot of heart. Peninsula tries to capture the same emotions with familial relationships, but it doesn’t reach the same heights of Train to Busan.

Gang Dong-won gives a great performance as the tortured but capable Jung-seok. He’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his family as they were fleeing South Korea four years earlier so to go back there and meet other survivors gives him a lot to think about. On the peninsula he meets Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her young daughters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), and their grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). This little family is very likable and easy to root for but due to there being more characters outside this family unit and the heist/survival plot, they don’t get as much development to make you truly care about them.

As well as the zombie hoards Jung-seok and his comrades also have to deal with the soldiers of a unit who were abandoned by their government in South Korea. These men are mostly sadistic and greedy, looking out for themselves and subjecting any one they find to their cruel games.

The car chases as people try to either get away with the money, avoid the zombies or both are fun though a large part of them are done with easily noticeable special effects. Likewise, while scenes with a handful of zombies are actors in makeup (the zombies still move in an unsettling way and the makeup is very good), often when there’s a lot of them it’s CGI.

One could describe Peninsula as a zombie heist film with hints of Fast and Furious thanks to all the innovative car chases. The way people use lights, sounds and flares to attract or distract the zombies is really interesting and fun. All in all, while it doesn’t really hold a candle to its predecessor, Peninsula is a decent zombie film. 3/5.

X is for XXY (2007)

Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Fifteen-year-old Alex (Inés Efron) is intersex and is living as a girl, but she and her family begin to wonder if she’s emotionally a boy when another teenager’s sexually advances bring things to a head.

XXY is set in a small coastal town in Uruguay and unfortunately, a lot of people there are closed minded about people who are different. Alex and her family have kept the fact she’s intersex a secret but as everything comes to a head, the cruelty of others is revealed and it is uncomfortable to watch.

XXY is a slow, thoughtful film. Many times the camera lingers on Alex, her body or just her face, as she wanders alone. The coastal setting with the beach and the stormy sea fits the tone of the film as Alex often feels alone as no one can know how she feels, even her parents who want to look out for her. Her father (Ricardo Darín) is especially kind and protective and he puts in a lot of time and research into figuring out how best to support Alex as she tries to decide who she wants to be.

Inés Efron gives a brilliant performance as Alex. Showing the hope and fear she feels, as well as her rebellious nature. The chemistry between her and Martín Piroyansky who plays Alvaro, the son of her mother’s friends who comes to stay, is there but it’s interesting. The dynamics between their two characters are constantly shifting as they get to know one another and make a connection that neither of them was expecting.

XXY is a sincere take on the struggles a young person can face when figuring out who they are, and if they’re OK with that. The haunting score and stark setting makes XXY feel bleak but there are moments of happiness and hope their for Alex and her family too. 3/5.

Q is for The Quake (2018)

Three years after surviving a deadly tsunami, geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) is estranged from his family as he struggles to deal with the fallout and the constant fear of another tragedy. When his friend and fellow scientist shares with him his data on the tremors in Oslo, Kristian rushes to the city to learn more and to try and save his family from an impending tragedy.

The Quake is the sequel to The Wave and stars the same actors as the central family. Much like its predecessor, The Quake puts many big budget Hollywood disaster movies to shame. By focusing on so few people, you become invested in their survival and how they fight to overcome such a huge natural disaster.

Everything about The Quake builds tension brilliantly. The first half of the film is focussed on Kristian’s research and how he struggles to connect with people when he feels he has to be ready to save people at any time. The Quake does a great job as showing the lasting effects on living through an ordeal like a tsunami and even if you survive it, there’s still so many things you must come to term with. The score is haunting and slowly amps up the tension as Kristian begins to put things together, even when others aren’t sure there’s anything to worry about.

When disaster does hit, it’s horrifyingly spectacular. In a strange way the catastrophe seems almost earnt as you’ve had to wait for so long, and by waiting, you’ve become more attached to the characters and are more invested in their fates. With the aftershocks and collapsing buildings, The Quake never stops being a nerve-wracking experience as everything that could possibly go wrong does.

The Quake keeps you on the edge of your seat but never forgoes common sense or character development. Just like the first film, it’s well worth the watch – even if it may make you slightly hesitant about visiting Norway any time soon, because as it says in the end credits, the country is overdue for a large-scale earthquake. 5/5.

L is for Let the Right One In (2008)

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an overlooked and bullied twelve-year-old, finds companionship and revenge through newcomer Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl with a deadly secret – she’s a vampire.

Vampire stories are nothing new. With a lot of the folklore surrounding vampires so well known, it is difficult to put an inventive spin on what anyone would know about a vampire. Let the Right One In does do some interesting and different things with the lore, for instance how vampires cannot entire a property without being invited, and this leads to some tense scenes as you’re unsure if the person who entered is friend or foe.

The setting of Let the Right One In is a snowy small town in early 1980s Sweden, where everything feels grubby and depressing. The school, Oskar’s homelife and even the snow-covered playground outside his apartment building where he first meets Eli, feel isolated and unwelcoming.

This fits into how both Oskar and Eli are feeling. They are both social outcasts, albeit for different reasons, and in a cruel, hateful world they find solace in each other. Their relationship is so full of childlike innocence – even though Eli is a lot older than she looks – but there’s also anger bubbling away in them both. The two young leads give great performances, but their characters were difficult to connect to as they were both so (justifiably) reserved.

There’s a group of adult side characters who become entangled in Eli’s life, but they are not particularly interesting and while they allow some more of the vampire myth to be explored (there’s an interesting scene featuring cats) they also feel somewhat pointless as it’s difficult to care about them.

The pacing in Let the Right One In is very strange. For the most part it’s very slow and, with the score and cinematography, very atmospheric but that’s not quite enough to keep you fully engaged. Everything snowballs at the end and that sudden shift of gear is a little jarring.

I had heard a lot of good things about Let the Right One In and I’m pleased I’ve now seen it. However, unfortunately it didn’t blow me away and perhaps it could not live up to the hype. 3/5.

G is for Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

When his mother Christiane (Katrin Saß) wakes from an eighth month coma, Alex (Daniel Brühl) does everything he can to keep her from learning that her beloved nation of East Germany as she knew it has disappeared, because a sudden shock may kill her.

The premise of Good Bye Lenin! sounds farcical but it works. Alex’s mother falls into a coma before the Berlin Wall came down and the unification of Germany. Alex, his sister Ariane (Maria Simon} and the rest of the population of what was East Germany has had months to get used to the changes – the good and the bad. So, when their mother wakes up and Alex comes up with the scheme, their friends and neighbours get in on the act of keeping up the charade.

Being set in 1990, it’s interesting to see how such a change in society and politics can happen so quickly, and how people can get used to the new normal relatively easy too. It’s the little details like how Alex has to re-jar all the food that’s now from international producers into jars with labels that his mother would know.

Saß and Brühl have a believable mother/son relationship and Daniel Brühl gives a great performance (when doesn’t he?), especially when things start to get out of hand, and he struggles to hold everything together.

Good Bye Lenin! is a sweet and funny family drama. The humour of the situation works well, and the comedic moments never takes away from the more quieter, dramatic moments. It has a real sense of community as neighbours help Christiane live out the past. But really, it’s a film about the love a son has for his mother, and how he will tell the most elaborate lie to keep her safe. 3/5.

E is for The Edukators (2004)

Three friends, Jan (Daniel Brühl), Jule (Julia Jentsch) and Peter (Stipe Erceg), lead a silent revolution as they break into rich people’s houses and unnerve them through their protest art. That is until one homeowner returns sooner than expected, forcing them to cobble together a kidnapping plot that threatens their political beliefs and their trust in each other.

The main trio all give great performances as idealistic anti-capitalists. Their daily struggles, especially Jule’s as a waitress in a high-end restaurant where the customers often make ridiculous demands, are easy to understand and they are looking for a way to release their pent-up anger and frustration in the world they live in.

When they are forced to kidnap businessman Hardenberg (Burghart Klaußner) to save their own skin, things start to spiral. It’s through discussions with him that their youthful optimism and idealism clashes is shown how it clashes with an older pragmatism. They want to change the world, or at least be able to make at least one person change their thoughts and habits, but Hardenberg demonstrates the reality that even those with the best intentions can in time find themselves following the societal norm.

It’s not just their political ideals that are called into question, but their relationships too. All three of them have great chemistry in whatever combination, and their character dynamics mean they each balance the others out really well. Jule and Peter are a couple and while Jan has been friends with Peter for years, he and Jule had never had much to do with one another. But as they spend more time together, Jule and Jan get closer. The trio’s relationship is an interesting one and all the way through I was thinking a lot of their problems (keeping secrets, lack of good communication) could be solved if they were in a polyamorous relationship, by the end of the film, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they may have gone down that route, though nothing was ever explicit.

I’m somewhat surprised there hasn’t been an English-language remake of The Edukators yet, if or when there ever is it’ll be set in LA and will probably miss some of the nuances in the original. Plus, I’m sure it’d forego the hints at a potentially polyamorous relationship between the main trio.

The Edukators presents interesting ideas on revolution, capitalism and protest, how individuals can or can not change things, and it often depends on the people they have surrounding them, and how far they’re willing to go. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Seventh Seal (1957)

As the Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return home from the crusades, they find their country in the grip of the Black Death. As the Knight seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in order to prolong his time on Earth.

The Seventh Seal is a classic film that opens with the iconic imagery of a man, sat across from Death, playing chess on a beach. It’s an image that’s been replicated in media over the years, and it was the only thing I knew about this film before watching it.

The Seventh Seal is about more than a chess match though. As Antonius and Jöns travel across the country to Antonius’s home, they meet different characters along the way that join them in their journey in the hope to avoid the plague. There’s Jof (Mils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), two performers who with their young son are looking to earn money and keep safe. Jof and Mia symbolise the goodness that Antonius is looking for proof of.

The image of Death is so unsettling in The Seventh Seal not only because of the black cloak that covers Death from head to toe, but because of Ekerot’s performance. It’s so measured as he verbally spars with Antonius who tries to bargain for more time. It’s also how Death appears when you least expect it, in a shadowy corner unseen by everyone but Antonius. There becomes a sense of foreboding as you realise that moments of light-heartedness Antonius as with Jof and Mia cannot last long with the presence of Death looming over him.

There are moments of humour in The Seventh Seal, most of which comes from Jöns. He has seen a lot and is equal parts cruel and thoughtful, his wry commentary on the romantic escapades some of the people he meets goes through are funny. However, that humour does stand out when everything around Jöns is so bleak with the plague, witches being burned, and Death around the corner.

The Seventh Seal is weird and haunting. The score, scenery and imagery are unsettling, but it all comes together to be almost beautiful. I’m not sure I’ll watch The Seventh Seal again, but I’m glad I have seen it. 4/5.

REVIEW: Capernaum (2018)

While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) decides to sue his parents for the neglect and the life they’ve given him.

Capernaum begins with Zain being led to court in handcuffs to sue his parents and then the story goes back so you can see how he ended up in this situation. To say that Zain’s life is a tough one would be an understatement but it’s how the film shows how so many people in his life struggle. While his parents are certainly at fault in the way they treat him and his siblings, it’s through the quieter moments that you can see that they are second guessing themselves and are making terrible choices as none of the options available to them are good ones. Zain is such a resourceful and strong boy, who has a great sense of empathy in spite of, or because of, the world he’s grown up in that doesn’t see value in children. He’s someone who tries to do the right thing by those he cares about, even if it might mean doing some light thievery to achieve his goal.

When Zain runs away from his parents, he meets undocumented worker Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She takes him in and the three of them form a new kind of family. The whole cast is brilliant, but this trio were phenomenal. Al Rafeea is an incredible young performer and the way that director Nadine Labaki captures the dynamics between the children in this cast brings out some wonderful performances. There’re moments between Zain and Yonas that can’t have been perfectly scripted due to one of them being one years old, but they feel so sweet, intuitive and natural. The scenes with Zain and Yonas are so natural and are both sweet and heart-breaking at times.

It could’ve been so easy for Capernaum to just be sad and bleak but thanks to an organic screenplay and true to life oddities, there’s laughter to be found here. It also shows that while life and so many of the people in it can be terrible, there are kind people who want to help others with no ulterior motives as well. The way Capernaum is shot neither romanticises nor demonises the poverty Zain and the people he meets face. It’s an honest look at what’s life like for some people and, with its script that has so much natural dialogue, it makes Capernaum feel like you’re a spectator to Zain’s life for a while.

Capernaum is sad but it’s also funny and thoughtful. With a great cast led by Zain Al Rafeea, it’s a film about family, compassion and survival. It’s a film that’s often like a punch to the gut but it’s one that leaves a lasting impression. 5/5.

Thoughts on… Foreign Language Films

I’ve realised that this year I’ve watched way more films that aren’t in English, than I have in previous years. In fact, in the Spring I watched more films in a foreign language than I had in the last couple of years combined.

I’m not sure why I don’t watch more films that are in another language because there’s so many films out there that could be great and to not watch them just because I’ve got to read subtitles is just silly.

I’ve noticed that when I watch films with subtitles, I pay more attention to the film and can therefore get absorbed into the story and characters more. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve found some random film in English on Netflix that I’m not super excited about and it’s just something to watch, I often find myself scrolling through Twitter etc as I can still hear and understand what’s happening even if the film doesn’t have my full attention. When I’m watching a film that’s not in English and has subtitles, I don’t touch my phone for the full runtime of the film and I get so much more out of it because of that.

One of my favourite foreign language films is Banlieue 13. It’s a French action film full of brilliant stunts and it’s a lot of fun. The first time I saw it, I watched it dubbed as it was playing on a coach on a school trip to France. I loved it as soon as I saw it and bought my own copy, including the sequel, as soon as I could. Ever since then I watch it with the subtitles.

I prefer to watch films not in English with the subtitles, as then you get to hear the voice performance of the actors as the filmmakers intended. I get pulled into foreign language films and barely notice the subtitles once I’m 10 minutes into the film.

Some of my favourite films not in English that I’ve watched this year is the South Korean Train to Busan and the Danish The Guilty. Both are fantastic and super tense and, or course, they are both set to get American remakes. It’s a shame that so many people don’t step out of their comfort zone and won’t watch something that’s not in their native language. There’s so much out there and I know there’s more I want to catch up on so give me all your foreign language film recommendations!