It’s Oscar season and cinephiles are going berserk over the announcement that Parasite, a unanimously adored South-Korean drama/thriller, has been nominated for Best Picture. It is an incredible feat for a foreign film to get the nod of acknowledgement from the academy but it is even harder for a film to win the award. However, with Bong Joon-Ho’s magnum opus, Parasite, this might actually be the first time a foreign film is able to take home the statue.
In his speech at the Golden Globe awards, he injected a well-needed dose of truth laced with charming snark when he said,
“Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”
All the applause for our fearless king!
If you haven’t seen Parasite, you should definitely check it out, for not only is it a spectacular commentary on the bifurcation of classes, it is also executed in the most thrilling and engrossing family drama I have ever seen. In fact, this article was manifested due to his inspiring quote that exposed the prevalently overlooked genre of foreign films. What better way to celebrate 2020 than to watch all the amazing foreign films that have been released within this decade?
So, get your reading glasses on and feast your eyes to some subtitles! Here are JUICE’s top picks for the most underrated yet incredible foreign films as brought to you by yours truly and JUICE illustrator, Kid.
1. Happy As Lazzaro (2018, dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
Men are all trash, but this does not apply to Lazzaro. Happy As Lazzaro or Lazzaro Felice directed by Italian female director Alice Rohrwacher—is not just an ordinary film filled with politics, love, corruption, or magic, it’s an odyssey of a good man who represents unbreakable kindness and all the good there is (and can be) in a human being before being crushed by injustice and opportunism.
The film starts out somewhere in the ’90s in an isolated and remote part of Southern Italy. Hidden from the rest of the world, there’s a shy, innocent, and cute young man named Lazzaro who blindly obeys orders like the sheep he cares for. Lazzaro himself is such a unique and extremely likeable character with a big heart and perhaps a bit too much innocence. Despite being exploited and treated like a beast of burden, Lazzaro’s kindness still shines through.
A twist happens at the end and Rohrwacher leaves the situation open to interpretation, a known signature of a great foreign film. Shot on Kodak S16mm with a unique aspect ratio, the lovely colours, grain and texture envelopes the audience in a dream-like experience akin to a fairytale. Happy As Lazzaro is enchanting, unforgettable and absolutely unique from start to finish.
2. Post Tenebras Lux/After Darkness Light (2012, dir. Carlso Reygadas)
There are movies you love that you could talk about endlessly, and then there are the movies you love that you just want to sit quietly with.
I’m not really sure what this film is really about, but Post Tenebras Lux portrays a bourgeois family trying to adjust to life in rural Mexico. From then on, the movie acts as an accurate depiction of the frantic human brain, jumping fast from one thought to another without a clear linear story. In retrospect, some scenes don’t seem to be connected in any way at all.
Unique in its camera style, Reygadas films most of the film through a custom-built lens. You’ll notice that there is a soft, circular and blurred distortion filter that silhouettes the edge of the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio creating a luminous dream-like effect. The style is deliberate for the film feels like a lucid dream, signifying the distortion of memories when reminiscing on our past.
Post Tenebras Lux breaks free from conventional narrative structures and pushes a non-linear abstract into its storytelling. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t understand the film because it is impossible to follow. Similar to abstract art, you might not get the point but you can still appreciate its beauty.
In my opinion, the film is the embodiment of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Lars Von Trier. It’s not for everyone. In fact, you either hate it, love it or if you’re a moron like me, you can’t understand sh*t about it. But, for lovers of art and the nuances it has, this film is one I humbly recommend.
3. The Farewell (2019, dir. Lulu Wang)
“You mustn’t thank me. Thank your grandma first. Thank her for the sacrifices that she’d made for us to be here today, thousands of miles away from the place we called home.”
The Farewell is a journey of greater understanding and compassion. It is an emotionally complicated film that deals with lies, regret and depression that is based on Lulu Wang’s (writer/director) personal story.
The film, which has since garnered unanimous praise at the 2020 Oscars, follows a young Chinese-American woman named Billi Wang, played by Awkwafina, who returns to her homeland when her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, only to discover that her family has decided to keep their Nai Nai in the dark about her own illness. From there, the family has arranged a fake wedding to spend what little time they have left with her.
Beautiful direction, setting, writing, cast and score (one of my favourite musical scores tbh), The Farewell shines bright and is a reflection of the director’s love for craft and family. Awkwafina’s performance was also notable, as she was the epitome of charm and perseverance. The last time I saw her was in Crazy Rich Asians and I detest that movie. I’d like to forget she was ever in it, thank you.
The best part of The Farewell was how much it hit home for me. The scene towards the end where Nai Nai is waving goodbye at the taxi as it drives away really reminds me of when I had to leave my grandma and move to the city with my family. Moments like that are always great to remember and I think it’s amazing when a film helps remind me of certain things I cherish.
P.S: I sat through most of the credits just to hear the music… “Stupid child!”
4. Incendies (2010, dir. Dennis Villeneuve)
Denis Villeneuve is truly a masterful storyteller. Though I have not yet seen all of his works, I can confidently say he’s my favourite director. Incendies is the most messed up film I’ve seen in a while. A film so complex, exhausting and emotionally traumatizing, it’s groundbreaking how it still preserves the element of rewatchability.
The film opens with striking imagery of young boys having their heads shaved that is hauntingly layered with a background score of ‘You and Whose Army’ by Radiohead. Then the story begins with a twin brother and sister (Jeanne and Simon Marwan) who travel to the Middle East to fulfil their late mother’s last wish—to find the father they thought was dead and a brother whose existence they didn’t know of. The mystery takes us from Montreal Canada to the Middle East in two different time frames- the mother’s heartbreaking life told in flashbacks and the twins’ lives in present-day as they embark on a quest to unfold the mystery plaguing their family.
This film turned me into an emotional wreck by the time the credits rolled because the twist is crazyyy. An incredibly written script complemented by atmospheric set pieces, fantastic cinematography, masterful structure and beautiful acting makes Incendies a film you shouldn’t skip.
This film is like a big ‘f*ck-you’ to my lovely innocent co-worker (this article was her idea) for saying that The Handmaiden (2016) has the greatest plot twist of all time. Incendies makes The Handmaiden seem like a PG-13 movie. (Author’s note: Thank you, Kid. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it’s wrong!)
1. The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook)
Is it really a list of the best foreign films if there’s not at least one entry from Park Chan-Wook? Is the article really written by me if it doesn’t include at least a single mention of The Handmaiden?
Seriously, from Oldboy to Thirst, this seasoned South Korean director has no flaws when it comes to producing fantastic quality films with maniacally sinister tones. However, with The Handmaiden, the sinister element is dialled down and replaced with intrigue, forbidden romance and an explosive plot twist (as per Chan-Wook’s regular fashion) that is so mind-bending, you can’t shut up about it.
Take it from me, I’ve seen this film 5 times and have pestered my colleagues over at JUICE to watch it relentlessly that I have now been exiled from any conversations regarding movies because I sound like a broken-record.
Don’t be deterred by the fact that it is a period drama set in the ’30s, for the way The Handmaiden weaves the perfect story of deception, theft, perversion and love will keep you glued to the screen until the credits roll and you’re left with a void in your heart that can never be replaced with any other film. Now, I know I sound melodramatic but trust me, there is a reason why this film is my number 1 film of all time, regardless of the language barrier. Bless you, subtitles!
Brimming with strong female leads that propel the movie into peak excellence, The Handmaiden is a feminist manifesto that should not be ignored!
2. The Guilty (2018, dir. Gustav Möller)
An epic and expansive set does not make a great film. In fact, it is the cleverness of a script, the strength of the character’s performance, and the vision of the director that makes a film truly exceptional. The Guilty proves this by isolating the only character in a murky, dark room set in a police station.
The protagonist, a police officer demoted to an alarm dispatcher, receives a call in the middle of the night by a distressed and hysterical woman. She alerts him that she has been kidnapped and is currently in a race against time and mortality. The protagonist, concerned for her safety yet morbidly excited by the thrill of danger, remains on the call as he accompanies her while she tries to escape capture.
However, there is an underlying plot twist that simmers to an explosive boil by the end of the film. The genius that is Möller managed to hide certain information from the audience while keeping it in plain sight. His masterful work accompanied by an immaculate script makes The Guilty a prime example of how to maintain suspense without resulting to cheap thrills.
3. The Lunchbox (2013, dir. Ritesh Batra)
Tell me, is there anything more romantic than to receive home-cooked food from someone you love? Well, according to The Lunchbox, the answer is receiving food from someone you’ve never even met.
A story creatively centred around the famous lunchbox delivery system, Mumbai’s Dabbawallahs, The Lunchbox explores the cliche trope of an impossible romance but it delivers (no pun intended) a fresh twist that somehow transforms the impossibility from mildly infuriating to beautifully realistic.
The protagonist, Ila, a tired housewife whose married to man that appreciates dhal more than he appreciates his wife, cooks daily meals to be spent to her spouse at work. These meals are delivered to him via the lunchbox delivery system. One day, despite the efficiency of the service, her meal is accidentally delivered to another man. She realises this mistake and sends him a letter alongside another meal to apologise for the mishap. Unbeknownst to her, the man, Saajan, has already fallen in love… you can call it love at first bite. Cue the laugh track!
From then on, they begin exchanging letters that detail their lives and how completely different they are from one another. A friendship ensues and the chemistry between the two leads, despite them never meeting, is palpable through the screen.
A definite twist on the meet-cute trope (the meeting part being omitted), The Lunchbox is a welcomed release from movies that make your head hurt from thinking too hard on the endless possible intellectual interpretations. It is simple and it is sweet, just like a great dessert to cleanse your pallet. Because of that, I recommend this film to anyone who enjoys an innocent tale of friendship and romance.
4. One Cut of the Dead (2017, dir. Shinichiro Ueda)
There is this misconception that foreign films have to be thought-provoking with sharp social commentary and numerous ways of portraying imagery to be considered incredible. I object to that preconceived notion because a film does not have to be intellectual for it to be praised, sometimes it can be silly yet still deliver the same satisfaction. Take for example, One Cut of the Dead.
Over-saturation of zombie movies might deter you from watching this film, but I beg you, just this once, reconsider your choice because One Cut of the Dead is Shaun of the Dead but on hallucinogens. At first, it’s a mess. Filled to the brim with shaky cam and stilted acting (but not unintentionally), the film tells a story within a story.
A celebrated Japanese director attempts to film a realistic zombie movie in one cut, but hijinks ensue and the crew realise that they’re dealing with real life zombies. I’m not exactly selling you on this movie with that summary because I’m refraining from major spoilers… that’s how much I want you to watch it. It would be even greater if you refrained from watching any trailers. Go into it blind, live a little!
Not only is this film gut-punchingly hilarious with moments where you’ll laugh so loud, your roommates will bang on your door asking you to shut up, but it is also filled with so much heart. As the audience, you get to see the amount of work put into the production of a single-cut film and the effort is outstanding. The characters give it their all to ensure the best performance whilst remaining comical and hilariously outrageous (true to Japanese humour).
I’ve never seen a film quite as inventive as this and it is a testament to comedies everywhere that you don’t need to make references to outdated pop culture or inject snarky jokes on social issues to make a great comedy. Sometimes, you just have to be funny.
Main image by JUICE illustrator, kkkkkiddddd
For more film related articles, I heard JUICE has a great selection…