-By Alison Veneto
Welcome to my first Quick Stop Entertainment version of International Intrigue. I can only imagine it’ll be quite similar to the Movie Poop Shoot version, but anything is possible. Perhaps the changeover will make me more clever and intelligent. We can dream anyway.
An introduction for any newbies who have drifted to our fine new shores — as your deductive reasoning may have already figured out this is where I write about the foreign films. A quick look through the archives when are they are brought over will show you that this largely means always talking about films from Asia and pretty much never talking about films from other continents except occasionally Europe. But I always do my best to cover what you want to know about based on your e-mails and now your posts (I’m sure a link somewhere at the bottom will direct you to my shiny new section of the forum).
Since the newbies do not know about my tendency to have some of the longest columns on the site, I’ll try to keep to the spirit of ‘quick stop’ and write columns slightly shorter than a Russian novel so you can read them in one sitting instead of over the course of a number of hours. Although all this pre-column blabber is not helping me any, so let’s get on with it:
The Top 10 Foreign Films Of The 1990s.
And let’s start right off with controversy shall we? Every time one makes a list of any sort, the amount of angry people always manages to out-number the amount of satisfied ones. Obviously it’s all a matter of taste. But a lot of people who are not well schooled in the ways of foreign films often have trouble knowing where to start. And at the very least, I’m going to try to help with that. Here’s a list of where to begin your education so you can impress all your friends at tea parties.
(I’m going to wuss out on numbering them and just go alphabetical):
Japan had some really great movies in the 90s and it was hard to pick (I ended up naming two). They’re all very diverse — from Anime like Ghost In The Shell, to horror like The Ring to comedy like Shall We Dance? or drama like Fireworks. But now to talk about Afterlife. This film shows us a purgatory of sorts, where go when you die, and watch videotapes of your life. It’s a very quiet, simple kind of film but that’s what makes it so affecting. It’s one of those films that stays with you days later. And gives you a very pleasant feeling just watching it.
I think director Takashi Miike is a genius. All of his films are really about something, usually intelligent analogies on Japanese society. Also, all of his movies are absurdly entertaining (or entertaining in their absurdity perhaps). The problem I have with him though is that since he makes a million movies a year and makes them very quickly, they don’t always look technically very good. But AUDITION is an exception. An impeccably filmed movie in which the topic of female repression in Japanese society is played out with sadist horror. The film might be a bit hard to sit through as there are very intense scenes of torture, but it reminds me of a time when horror was a genre for exploring questions like these.
This film, the winner of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 1998, is often forgotten now. Director van Diem creates a fantastic world for his family drama. A revenge tale that deftly weaves otherwise-tired conventions and themes in a unique way. The oft used themes of which I speak include the office as a machine and the Oedipus complex among others, but it all seems somewhat fresh here. And in the end, it is of course a ‘character’ study. But what really stands out is the moody look of Rotterdam van Diem creates as his tale unravels. The film is most easily compared to the works of great writers like Kafka and Dickens. You may not always know what is going on, but you’ll probably still enjoy it, at least until you realize how depressing it all is.
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (China)
It’s no secret that of director Chen Kaige’s films I think TEMPTRESS MOON is the best (if not one of the best films ever made). But for the purposes of this list I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and suggest the easier-to-get film FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE. This film is fantastic with a great epic story spanning several years over the Cultural Revolution in China following two Peking Opera performers. The acting is fantastic, the cinematography is fantastic — it’s an epic worthy of David Lean, the kind rarely seen in America anymore. It’s a great statement on the cultural change in China but put in a story that any audience member anywhere can easily become involved in. A bit of a warning though, the first third of the film shows the torture young children in Peking Opera camps normally had to endure. It may or may not be of interest to you that this portrayal is similar to Jackie Chan’s upbring.
HEAVENLY CREATURES (New Zealand)
I still believe this is by far Peter Jackson’s, director of LORD OF THE RINGS, finest achievement. An inventive tale of two young girls and their relationship with each other and their fantasies. Sure it’s in English so it’s a bit of a cheat, but New Zealand is still a foreign country after all. This film introduces us to Kate Winslet for the first time and she’s outstanding as is Melanie Lynsky (whose career since has not gone quite as well despite her talent). It’s especially enjoyable for filmlovers as you see fantasy lust scenes with computer generated characters like Orson Welles. The whole film explores creative use of CGI as created by the now famed WETA Workshop. And the story explores both the joys and dangers of a fantasy life and makes you feel a lot less weird if you’ve ever had one. And yes there’s all kinds of weird underage lesbian undertones (and overtones) but that’s hardly the point now is it?
LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE (Spain)
I’ve never met another person who has seen this film but I was happy to find out through a quick internet search that others who had liked it as much as I did. A quirky little picture about two lovers with palindromic names (Otto and Ana) and the fate that is more in control of their lives than they are. A fantastic, if not quirky, love story that spans a good amount of the globe. The story and the dialogue are often very matter-of-fact. Although it’s a love story it’s never too emotional or sentimentalized. But I really understand the connection between the characters and this style really works in a film where fate plays such a large role. And despite an assertion of the role of fate in our lives, the movie also posits if there’s any rhyme or reason to life at all. The film is very well made and the great locations add a lot to this universal tale which is told in an unorthodox way.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (Hong Kong)
This movie might be a bad introduction to Hong Kong action films of this period since the quality of the fighting, production values, and even the story are better than a lot of other films in the genre. But in this film, Jet Li, fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, and director Tsui Hark are all in top form (and that’s saying something because these three guys are generally pretty good). The story surrounds the occupation of Hong Kong by the British and the somewhat common theme of martial arts versus guns. Jet Li plays Wong Fei Hung, a legendary character in China who has more films made about him than any other character in history. And while there are certainly moments of melodrama and as in all Hong Kong films all English speaking actors are comically horrible, it all comes down to the fights which are some of the most outstanding in genre history. As a side note, it’s always fun to watch IRON MONKEY after this one to see how Yuen Wo Ping weaves the same choreography themes into the prequel.
THE PROFESSIONAL (France)
Once again, I may be going against the grain here since of Luc Besson’s directing work LE FEMME NIKITA is usually considered the better film. But when sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, I’m a lot more likely to throw on THE PROFESSIONAL. A young Natalie Portman is great as the young girl taken in by the hitman Jeno Reno. Gary Oldman is deliciously almost-over-the-top as the villain. And Besson takes the stale tale of a lonely man and a spirited child finding meaning and happiness in each other and adds blood and bullets. Besson is always finding new ways of using his camera. His action scenes are great and the story is very well handled. Besson is (was?) one of the few men in the world making action film with gravity of dramas — trying to make the popcorn genre into an art.
THE ROAD HOME (China)
Of all of director Zhang Yimou’s works, many think that RAISE THE RED LANTERN is his masterpiece. I like that film quite a lot but have instead chosen to highlight THE ROAD HOME. From a director known for larger epic films like LANTERN, this small film is truly a delight and an achievement. It’s deceptively simple — a country story about a young girl and boy falling in love. It’s Zhang Ziyi’s film debut and she’s radiant, carrying the whole picture on her own. And director Zhang Yimou shows that he doesn’t need big tragedy, big sets and big stories to affect an audience. A scene where Ziyi’s character loses a hairpin is as heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever seen. This is a small film that packs a big emotional punch. One of the few times I’ve cried from happiness. A word of warning though, when I first saw this movie in the theater I was about to walk out after 10 minutes because the film starts in modern China in black and white before flashing back. So, give the film a little time to get going and you’ll be well rewarded.
RUN LOLA RUN (Germany)
I feel like there’s some backlash toward this film at this point, but certainly when it came out it was a jolt of high octane filmmaking. A film that honestly isn’t about very much but contains some good ideas in it’s use of animation and montage still holds up as a very enjoyable use of 80 minutes. The flood of imitators may seemingly have lessened this film’s impact but watching it again it’s as entertaining and full of energy as it ever was. Franke Potente is Lola, who has only minutes to find the money to keep her lover alive. She leads us through a time bending run of desperation that never lets up. The film shows us that small things in life can make as much a difference as the big ones. A great creative effort that will keep you pumped for hours as if you drank a whole vat of Jolt cola.
Now, as shocking as this may seem, I did not see every foreign film that came out in the 1990s. So let’s try a participatory exercise: I’m looking for your e-mails filled with your insightful opinions about what the best foreign film of the 90s truly is (Although I know you are all going to say CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, PRINCESS MONONOKE and ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, but that’s fine). And my next column, two weeks from now, will be a list of 5 or so of the most voted for, or simply most interesting sounding films. I’m very much looking forward to watching some things I haven’t seen (although probably not looking forward to finding the more obscure of your suggestions). You can hit me up at email@example.com.
Also a note to any of you in New York. The truly fantastic New York Asian Film Festival is running until July 1st. More info here. I have seen almost none of these films and am salivating with jealousy at this very moment.
IN TWO WEEKS: Your films. Reviewed.
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