I like watching movies, and, recently, I have found foreign language films particularly interesting. Some may find reading subtitles troublesome—they find it hard to focus on the film while reading text on screen—but, for me, it is a pleasure. I have so many foreign language films in my computer that I can have my own film festivals in my room whenever I want to.
Aside from being familiar with different languages (I now know some French and Japanese words), watching non-English movies has exposed me to different cultures and allowed me to travel the world while staying in one place.
I want to share the joy of watching films not from Hollywood, so I decided to write this. You’ve probably heard of some really famous foreign language films, but this is not about them. Instead, here are non-English language films you probably haven’t heard of but are worth watching. (After the jump)
You might have heard of: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), movies of Pedro Almodovar, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) or anything that has Gael Garcia Bernal in it
The Secret in Their Eyes [El Secreto De Sus Ojos] (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
This Spanish film from Argentina is about a federal agent who was able to solve a rape and murder case after seeing photos showing a certain man who cannot seem to get his eyes off of the victim when she was still alive. It taught me that the eyes are really the window to the soul.
Warning! This movie has sexagenarian romance, which I actually found cute. You also have to watch out for the spine-tingling ending.
Thesis [Tesis] (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996)
A film student decides to write a thesis about audio-visual violence. She then finds herself busting a snuff syndicate with the help of a friend. Or is he really a friend? If you want suspense, then this film will give you suspense.
What partly made me interested in this film is the title. You see, I dreaded thesis writing, for I almost did not finish college because of it. I submitted my manuscript just two days before graduation. The characters in this film, however, experienced worse.
Also try: La Historia Official (1985), Abre Los Ojos (1997)
You might have heard of: Amélie (2001), La Vie en rose (2007)
Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)
In an era when leftism is rampant, an opposition politician and a potential future president of an unnamed country, after arriving from a trip abroad, is killed by government henchmen. The military-dominated government does everything to cover-up the act. Sounds familiar? This movie is not about Ninoy, for it was made years before he was assassinated, but you will really think of him and the Martial Law Era while watching this film.
Just how great is this movie? Well, it was just the first one to be nominated both for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film in the Oscars, and it won the latter.
Chaos (Coline Serreau, 2001)
A woman cares for a prostitute in a coma, feeling guilty after not doing anything when she saw the hooker getting beat up by three men. The prostitute later wakes up and tells her story. This movie has everything, from a dirty old man leaving his fortune to a prostitute to a prostitute in sneakers. Also, watch out for the “Flamethrower.”
I watched this first on HBO but forgot the title. It took me two years to finally realize it, after typing random keywords on Google. “Chaos” is really appropriate because there is so much chaos in the film. It was reported that Meryl Streep and Aishwarya Rai will star in a remake of the film, but that was in 2004. I hope it was not shelved.
Also try: Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)
You might have heard of: Ringu (1998), Departures (2008), Hayao Miyazaki films, Akira Kurosawa films
Memories of Matsuko [Kiraware Matsuko no Isshō] (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2006)
One day, Matsuko Kawajiri (played by the actress who was also in Ringu), was found dead in a river bank. For her brother, Matsuko was a lying thief and a murderer, but for one man, she was God personified. This film is about a woman who wanted only happiness for others, but she herself could not find happiness.
It was supposed to be a comedy/musical, but I found myself crying near the end of film, which is a first for me. Other movies just almost made me cry; I was able to hold back. But with this one, as one reviewer said, manly tears had to be shed.
All About Lily Chou-Chou [Rirī Shushu no Subete] (Shunji Iwai, 2001)
Contrary to the title, this movie is not all about Lily Chou-Chou, a fictional Japanese rock star. This is about a group of high school students involved in bullying, prostitution, rape, and even murder. Lily Chou-Chou is referenced a lot in the film though.
This film is not perfect. You may find the use of flashback ineffective and may think that the cameraman was drunk because of shaky pictures, but it is a great film nonetheless. What I like about it is the music. Because of this film, Debussy, whose “Arabesque No. 1” was played in different parts of the film, is now my favorite classical musician. And, of course, Salyu's songs (as Lily Chou-Chou) are really ethereal.
Also try: Other films by Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Confessions) and Iwai (Swallowtail Butterfly, Hana and Alice)
You might have heard of: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
Red Cliff (2008, 2009)
Most popular Chinese films I know are wuxia, so I was surprised that Red Cliff is different. It also has some wuxia elements, but it is more of an epic film. The film is based on the Battle of Red Cliffs, which was apparently a significant historical event in China. Think of the film as The Lord of the Rings without the mythical elements.
The film is two parts, totaling almost 5 hours, but every minute of it is great.
Also try: In the Mood for Love (2000), Hero (2002), Lust, Caution (2007)
You might have heard of: My Sassy Girl (2001), Oldboy (2007)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Ki-duk Kim, 2003)
This movie tells the story of a Buddhist monk and his apprentice who live in a secluded part of a forest. The monastery floating on the middle of the lake is simply a sight to behold!
This is very different from the usual Korean flicks that reach our shore. It is a little slow-paced, and there is very little dialogue that it is almost a silent movie. You may have some contemplating to do after watching this.
Also try: The Classic (2001), Daisy (2006)
You might have heard of: 3 Idiots (2009)
Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975)
A former policeman asks the help of two petty criminals to seek the leader of bandits who have been terrorizing a small village in India. This movie is a cross between a Western film and a Kurosawa film, with a lot of Bollywood singing and dancing.
This film is more than three hours long, which seem normal for a Bollywood flick. I admire Indians for having a very long attention span.
Also try: Ghajini (2008)
Run Lola Run [Lola Rennt] (Tom Tykwer, 1998)
Lola, a daughter of a banker, practically a bum, probably related to Sydney Bristow of Alias, needs to raise a big amount of money in 20 minutes to save the life of her boyfriend, who is involved in shady activities. She literally has to run to make it to her boyfriend on time, and thus the title.
Did you ever wish that a film ended differently or that a film character had done something else instead of what he did? This film explores that idea. Lola runs three times, each time making different choices, and so the film has three endings.
Also try: The Lives of Others (2007)
City of God [Cidade de Deus] (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
This film chronicles the life of Rocket, a boy who dreams of becoming a photographer. He lives in a slum area called the City of God, where lawlessness prevails.
This movie is full of violence that guns and blood are almost in every single frame. Watching this flick, I realized how lucky I am to be living in the Philippines. You think that our country is always portrayed in a negative light? Then, you have to watch this. This poverty porn makes similar locally-produced indie films look like fairy tales.
Cinema Paradiso [Nuovo Cinema Paradiso] (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
Here, a famous movie director (played by the actor who also played a pivotal role in Z) goes nostalgic as he recalls his past as a projectionist at a movie house in his hometown, which he has never visited in 30 years. Despite promising never to return, he decides to go back to his hometown to attend the funeral of a dear old friend.
I have seen many Italian films, but this is the only one that I truly liked, aside from Life is Beautiful (1997) and Mamma Roma (1962). Prepare to cry.
Note that I am just a film buff; I am not a film critic. The only thing I am of particular with when watching movies is the plot. I don’t care much about the acting. (But recently I’ve learned the value of cinematography.) Thus, whether you’ll enjoy these films the way I did is not guaranteed. But if you want to take a breather from the usual crap that Hollywood has been feeding us, then these films are definitely worthy.
(The movie posters are from IMDb.com, except for Memories of Matsuko, which is from Wikipedia. Also, I would like to thank Wikipedia for helping me remember some details about the films I talked about here.)