It is often said that film and television can be the gateway to understanding the nuances of a particular culture. Since media consumption is frequently considered as a form of entertainment, we may readily take the insights we gain from films for granted in normal circumstances. But, of course, these are not typical times. Feelings of isolation and confinement during quarantine are widespread, so what if we use this opportune moment to give our minds a temporary escape and explore “traveling” without bounds? Here is a list of eight foreign language films, in no particular order, with enticing storylines that will take you on a foreign or perhaps familiar journey into very special cultures.
1. Memories of Murder (2003)
“I only beat you up because I care about you”. Bong Joon-Ho’s 2003 film Memories of Murder should arguably have won an Oscar sixteen years ago, before the international success of Parasite (2019). The film is based on the true story of the gruesome Hwaseong serial murders of several women in Gyeonggi province. What is worth noting in Bong Joon-Ho’s retelling of the tale is his exceptional orchestration of the scenes. From his strategic use of long shots to his clever inclusion of motifs, Bong has a powerful way of connecting the plot with characters and objects. There are also various moral and philosophical questions that arise when the values of the two lackadaisical detectives— Park Doo-man and Cho Yoon-koo—who haphazardly go about the case, clash with the meticulous detective Seo Tae-yoon. Perhaps what is most memorable of the film is the inexplicable presence of the small-city of Hwaseong. From its genuine lack of care to its disappearing hope, Hwaseong seems to have an omniscient role of its own.
2. Late Spring (1949)
“When I slice pickled radish, it comes out all strung together”. Based on the novel The Father and Daughter by Ozu and Kogo Noda, the film follows the character of Noriko, a woman in her late twenties during post-war Japan. One of the most prominent aspects of this film is the exploration of culture and relationships. Set in a time marked by political turmoil and a rising counterculture among young people, Late Spring is portrayed in a way that evokes a sort of nostalgia for its historical setting. This heartwarming yet poignant tale has a way of leaving the audience with a sense of tranquillity, a sure way to brighten up some “social-distancing-blues”.
3. Three Colours: Blue, White and Red (1993, 1994)
“Coffee and ice cream?”- Blue. Inspired by the three political ideals in the motto of the French Republic—liberty, equality and fraternity—director Krzysztof Kieślowski wanted to create a trilogy of three films, Blue, White, and Red respectively, that embodied each of the three themes. Blue tells the story of Julie, a woman consumed by grief after the passing of her husband and daughter in a tragic automobile accident. White tells the tale of a Polish immigrant Karol after he falls out of marriage, faces deportation and struggles with financial burdens. Red tells the story of a part-time model Valentine who meets a retired judge after she runs over his dog. The most prominent motif in all three films is the use of colour. To portray mood, emotion or symbolism, colour plays the main role in driving the stories and characters forward.
4. Shadow “影” (2018)
“Even without a real body, the shadow persists”. This film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and given the decades of largely mediocre Chinese cinema solely catered to the masses for box office wins, it is safe to say that we have come a long way. Set in the Three Kingdoms Era, Shadow ingeniously utilises historical elements to tell the fictional story of a power struggle, a look-alike and two emperors. From the fascinating cinematography and striking visual effects to the precision of sound mixing and the intricate set design, Zhang Yi Mou’s Shadow is an extremely solid film overall. Nevertheless, one personal critique would be that the dubious casting decisions of certain commercialised actors gave, in my humble opinion, quite a lacklustre performance.
5. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
“Destroy the old and you destroy our memory of the past”. Set in post-war Japan, this Studio Ghibli film is centred amid the swift change and cultural preservation of this era. Miyazaki is known for creating stunning visuals and From Up on Poppy Hill is no exception. With its simple storyline, likeable characters and heartfelt moments, this impressive animated film makes an enjoyable watch.
6. As it is in Heaven (2004)
“When you like someone, how do you know that you love them?”. Nominated for the
Best Foreign-Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards, this Swedish film directed by Kay Pollack tells the story of Daniel Dareus, a successful conductor who, after suffering a heart attack, returns to his hometown of Norrland where he lived a traumatic childhood of bullying. What is most notable in this film is the exploration of human relationships, from the budding yet reluctant interactions between Dareus and the church choir, to the despicable portrayals of the Church Pastor, Stig, Pollack, this films presents a kaleidoscope of backstories all harmonically connected by one central desire.
7. Youth “芳华” (2017)
“Some days that have gone by, need not be remembered, but they will never be forgotten”. This is yet another well-crafted Chinese film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival one year before Shadow. Set amid the Chinese revolution, Feng Xiao Gang’s Youth tells the story of He Xiao Ping, a small-town girl who joins the military dance troupe in hopes of pursuing her dreams. The narratives of several characters intertwine with themes of love, friendship, betrayal, war, and the erosion of time. What makes this film a must-see is the soul and nostalgia that it captures perfectly not only through its poignant story, moving performances, and beautiful cinematography, but also its ability to bring the viewer back in time, perhaps back to the ephemeral period of classic Chinese cinema. Not only are we reminded of the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives, but we are also invited to appreciate the potential that Chinese cinema once had and still possesses.
8. City of God (2002)
“I’m a real man.” Two hours, fifteen-years, a plethora of characters in the lawless slums of Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles brilliantly balances the lives of multiple teenagers growing up in the Favelas strung together by one cohesive story about the rise and fall of a drug empire, while shinning insight into the socioeconomic state of the city of God. There is undoubtedly something pervasively unsettling about a film drenched in moral and ethical decline, but uncanny humanity and realism consistently lurk throughout the story. The city of God is not just a setting, it is a character too—the social hierarchy of the drug cartels, the complex needs and desires of each character, and the omniscient narrator through the lens of the audience.
*images for reference