Updated: Jan 5
Last year, I made a New Years Resolution to watch ten films from a different country every month. I failed by March. It is a surprisingly hard task to accomplish.
So, I shortened the timeline, made the options more diverse, and the schedule more rigorous. These challenges are critical in ensuring that I keep my international film radar just as highly placed as my domestic one. I will likely do several more of them this year.
Without further ado- 10 different films from 10 different countries and my glowing recommendations (for most of them).
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Rafiki, translated from Swahili, can mean friend, ally, or companion. This is a very fitting title for this groundbreaking Kenyan film about two competing politicians’ daughters that fall in love amidst tensions between the families and a homophobic society. It was adapted from Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story “Jambula Tree.” The film was initially banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board for depicting a homosexual relationship in a positive light, as gay sex can be punished with up to fourteen years in prison. At Cannes film festival, it was received with a standing ovation.
Kahiu, the director, sued the Kenyan government in order for it to be eligible as Kenya’s submission for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. In September of 2018, the ban was lifted, and it was allowed to screen for seven days. It did not end up being selected as Kenya’s submission, but Kahiu’s actions were a very strong push in the right direction. In an NPR interview, she emphasized that the film was not intended to be political as much as an artistic portrayal of a love story, but it was “deemed political” because of her gender and race.
This movie is the classic star-crossed lovers, but with a lot more sincerity thanks to the enchanting performances from Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva. The women have excellent chemistry, culminating in a rather beautiful first date nightclub sequence that I have yet to shake entirely. The colors are stunning- it does seem like you’re witnessing Nairobi’s luminescence in full effect-, the soundtrack is very fitting (stream Njoki Karu), and it is just the right amount of bittersweet to leave you yearning.
This is now streaming on the Criterion channel. Check it out if you can (82 minutes!)
The Salesman (2016)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Farhadi is one of the finest directors working in Iran today. He’s made movies in Arabic, French, and Spanish. He is one of the few directors to have won the Oscar for best foreign film twice- first in 2011, and second in 2016, for this movie.
The premise: a schoolteacher, who is also currently putting on an interpretation of The Death of a Salesman at a local theater with his wife, moves into a new home. They haven’t been there a couple days when an unknown individual enters into the house and shocks the wife. The wife wishes to keep the incident quiet. The husband wishes to find the culprit.
It’s hard to not compare this film to Farhadi’s other work because his movies are always surrounded by an intense amount of anticipation, but for what it is, the story is pretty compelling. Farhadi is a master of dialogue and bringing the most out of his actors, and this is no different. The style is modest and performance-centric, which, much like a play, is fantastic at immediately transporting the viewer into the scene taking place. Shahab Hosseini demonstrates a curiously subdued vigor that threatens to augment the tension of a conversation at any given moment in a very natural, believable fashion. Watching his arc evolve beside his gradually fading wife is the greatest feast it achieves, since you are so swept up in his emotions, you start to disregard those of his wife in the very same manner as him.
Admittedly, the ending is a little dragged out and melodramatic. You get the notion that the film is shoving the metaphor down your throat during the runtime rather than letting it stew after the credits roll. Alas, this is a minor qualm in an otherwise very engaging movie, and should not deter from others watching it if they’re curious.
I highly recommend that people watch A Separation (2011). That is Farhadi’s masterpiece and I had the unfortunate circumstance of seeing it prior to this and constantly thinking “well, it’s not A Separation.” A Salesman is streaming on Amazon Prime and A Separation is now available on Netflix U.S.
Director: Houda Benyamina
This is the second of four movies on this list to have a female director, and I admit that that, along with the fact this is a Netflix original with mostly positive ratings, was a very big part of its appeal. Benyamina won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for this feminist twist on the rise of a young drug dealer in a Paris banlieue.
The film’s title is odd: Divines. The movie’s opening credits embark with a montage of Snapchat videos of Dounia and her best friend Maimouna getting into all sorts of mischief while dramatic opera music plays in the background. The girls are teenagers- shrewd petty criminals, but still very much young and, in some respects, naive. This opening leaves an image in one’s mind- an impression of relative unsophistication- that lingers throughout the film as Dounia undergoes all sorts of change in order to help her mother and ultimately become rich. The opera music is recurring. But each time it queues, the connotation changes a little bit. Especially at the finale.
Oulaya Amrara, who plays the lead Dounia, is truly a marvel. She accentuates a kind of confidence and unfettered femininity in her evolution that feels completely fresh. I was taken aback by her star power, and now I sincerely wish her additional epic roles in the future.
I think that there are scenes where the profuse dynamism of the cast is evident (any scene where Dounia is watching the dancers at the theater, whenever Dounia and Maimouna have a moment alone), but there is the occasional lull in story that takes away the potentially “epic” classification this film could receive. Nonetheless, it is a very cool movie with a genuine sucker punch of an ending that leaves you thinking. This was Benyamina’s first feature film, and I look forward to seeing what she delivers next.
The World of Us (2016)
Country: South Korea
Director: Yoo Ga-eun
Another really wonderful feature film debut from 2016 is this Korean film about a young girl experiencing the tumult of a new friend. Apparently this movie is not very well-known in the west, which is a shame, because I was utterly transfixed by how well it captured a pocket of youth.
The movie follows Sun, a shy and obedient 4th grader who struggles to make friends. On the day before summer break, she is the first student to meet new transfer Jia. They have a whirlwind friendship in the couple weeks away from school; however, upon returning to school, Sun finds that Jia has turned on her in favor of new friends.
The opening scene: picking teams for dodgeball in gym class. The camera exclusively focuses on Sun’s face. She looks around her in anticipation. A boy is picked. She is trying to smile, trying to seem relaxed. More and more kids are selected. Soon there are only two of them left. Someone picks the other kid. The other team captain starts to complain. “Why Sun? She’s so bad.” Sun watches, and she waits. Someone tell her what to do.
So simple, so modest, and yet so singular. The child actors are quite impressive. It ebbs and flows between joyful, as Sun appreciates her very first taste of companionship, and awkward, as Sun tries to read the social cues given by the girls in her class and act accordingly. Sun’s mother is mostly occupied by her little brother, her dad works a lot of late nights at the factory. They’re not wealthy: it’s a well-known fact. But what do they have to do with her?
It’s best summed up when one of the girls in her class who relentlessly bullies her turns to her, in a moment of weakness, and asks, “why do you always make me feel like a bad person?”
The muted peaches and tans of the color palette suggest the brightness of childhood intermixed with the dissatisfaction of sameness and repetition. Sun’s perfectly manicured bob haircut, her plain clothing, her rigid posture: she is trying her best to fit in. But these things only make her more of a prime target for abuse.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and it evoked memories I’d entirely forgotten about my own childhood. These ups and downs are universal. Definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen about kids in a minute.
Still Walking (2008)
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
This is the second film I’ve seen from Kore-eda after 2018’s Shoplifters, and I really admire the frequent deliberation in his films. Every moment in this movie feels like a memory in the making, as vague and mundane as memories occasionally are.
The film follows a family reunion between the aging grandparents and their children several years after one of the sons drowned in an act of self-sacrifice. Kore-eda’s style is frequently compared to Yasujiro Ozu, a familiar name in classic Japanese cinema. What Kore-eda does that is especially interesting is extract the conventional formality of the familial interactions, typical of Ozu, and leave behind only the bare bones: the tension and then the peace at relative contiguity.
The tiresome experience of being a child in the house of your parents once again as an adult that the film is depicting is equivalent to the experience of watching it. You wear out quickly. The repetition is unbearable. Old habits die hard. You’re pining to leave until the very last minute.
And then suddenly you’re on the road again. You feel a little bit empty, as you understand the world is putting the reigns of control back in your hands. You realize you were being overzealous in your desire to leave, that forfeiting the power isn’t so bad when in the care of your loved ones. You feel guilty about how much you wanted it to be over.
The ending packs that principle punch as the universality of that lingering sentiment rushes through your body. Wishing away time is, in fact, possible- and one day time will run out.
Kore-eda admitted to having based the story off of his family, which will give you some insight to its authenticity. It’s a movie that will likely be more relatable to the aging adult who has witnessed true grief. But it’s a contemplative two hours sure to make even the most detached person reconsider their aloofness.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Not all films can be winners in my book. I know a lot of people that believe this to be a surrealist masterpiece- enough to have won the Palme d’Or (and be the first Thai film to do so). But it just didn’t sit quite right with me.
Some context is in order: Weerasethakul (nicknamed Joe by cinephiles, out of convenience) is an artist who has been pushing the boundaries for years. Uncle Boonmee happens to be the final installment out of a series named “primitive.” The first portion was a multi-screen video installation created specifically for display within a gallery. “It consists of seven videos of differing durations in which the history of the border town of Nabua, in northeast Thailand, is re-imagined as an elusive science fiction ghost story rooted in Thai folklore. The work comprises eight projections, since one of the videos, Primitive which gives the work its name, is shown on two synchronised screens,” (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/weerasethakul-primitive-t13564 )
Boonmee was inspired by the 1983 book, A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Buddhist abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti. “Joe” took this and ran with it with his consideration of reincarnation. At its core, it’s a depiction of a dying man’s final days with his loved ones, both living and dead. Occasionally, it tells the story of the man’s past lives.
What starts out as an entrancing tale (the human-animal hybrid imagery is quite haunting) gradually turns into something overly pensive and without much semblance of epiphany.
The initial spook of the ethereal environment quickly wore off, and was only sparsely revitalized by an interesting geographical filming location. I realize that art is entirely subjective and probably not entirely accessible for the non-art film aficionado, but even as I try to push myself to receive it with an open mind, I still find myself without much enthusiasm about this particular project. And there is also a scene with a catfish that I absolutely loathe and hope I never have to witness again.
Weerasethakul has stated, in an interview for the Encounter Thailand journal, that all of his films are personal in nature and he does not consider himself a cultural ambassador for Thailand (from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apichatpong_Weerasethakul). Given that, this was probably the wrong movie to choose for viewing as an essential of Thai cinema. But on the other hand, it gave me a taste of a very ambitious creator who clearly has a significant dedication to his craft and exploring complicated thematic concepts. So this wasn’t for me- but Tropical Malady (2004) might be. And I don’t discourage curious individuals from seeking this movie out.
Touki Bouki (1973)
Director: Djibril Diop Mambety
This is one of three movies I chose from prior to the 2000s, mostly based on their cult status and recent restoration by the Criterion channel (50% of these films are only available there). The director, Mambety, only directed two feature films in his career. He started as a theater actor before embarking with filmmaking, for which he had no official training. Like many on the African film scene in the late 20th century, Mambety used his films as a method of critiquing society; principally, neocolonialism. With what I believe to be intentional irony, Touki Bouki has strong influences from the French New Wave with its chanson récurrente (Paris, Paris), jump cuts, and forward-thinking fashion. Many could compare it to the dynamic of Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965). However, it would be an insult to Mambety’s efforts to accuse him of borrowing solely for aesthetic effect.
Premise: Cowherd Mory and his lover, Anta, try to find ways to raise money to flee Senegal and move to Paris.
The film begins with a cow slaughter- something I was not expecting and did not end up digesting until well after the runtime. The idea that this was to be a juxtaposition between traditional Senegalese culture and values and those of France (or, at least, through the view of the two protagonists) is clever. Its sound design is one of the most technically impressive I’ve seen of the era and location, especially given that it was made on a budget of $ 30,000, mostly secured from the Senegalese government. Mambety does a lot with a little, engaging a visceral combination of sight and sound over plotpoint criticality. It’s a hero’s journey, but the tribulations aren’t as distinct as the time spent between them.
I like this movie’s ending a lot, too. I think one of my biggest failures as a viewer was not being more knowledgeable about the time frame, as it’d been only thirteen years since Senegal obtained its independence from France, and letting the animal blood get to my head and distract me from its intention. I clearly have a long way to go with properly evaluating the progression of the African film scene, but this was a good start.
The Second Mother (2015)
Director: Anna Muylaert
I had zero expectations for this movie and I ended up adoring it. Anna Muylaert dissects the idiosyncrasies of class interaction, intergenerational conflict, and decisive lineage in this charming and very relatable story of a mother, Val, reconnecting with her daughter, Jessica, under the roof of the mother’s distinguished employers. Both Regina Case and Camila Mardila deliver two of my favorite performances in recent memory as the fundamentally mismatched mother daughter duo. They are hilarious together and their exchanges are pointedly accurate for any two people with wildly different upbringings- let alone, a mom and her child by blood who she did not have the privilege of instilling certain values that she deems critical.
It’s difficult to articulate precisely where the success is derived when so many relationships are on display: Jessica with her service-oriented mother, the cold woman of the house, the big-hearted son that Val has raised as her own, the knowledgeable Dr. Carlos- and then, in contrast, Val’s self-inflicted sense of inferiority to all around her. I was rapt by both the said and the unsaid, the underlying tension feeling so concrete and reasonable even while I sympathized with nearly every character. It’s a modest blend of comedy and drama (without the thriller element so masterfully incorporated by Parasite in its class conflict conundrum), which I believe contributes to its ubiquity. It operates like a simple bottle episode in which limits are tested, wits clash, and strength of status is questioned.
At the end of the day, this is also a very endearing mother-daughter movie that reminds us to acknowledge our own flaws and not go looking for fault with others. I very much enjoyed it and it is probably my certified Favorite of this 10 film series.
Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)
Director: Felipe Cazals
This is the only historical film in the series. I had a Criterion postcard collection with this film’s poster, which prompted my curiosity. It is a dramatic re-enactment of a 1968 instance in which several employees of the University of Puebla were beaten and lynched after a right wing priest claimed that they were Communist influencers, thus inciting a mob.
Canoa won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It has been praised by Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro for depicting the tone of the country during a particularly tumultuous time. The strange thing to keep in mind is that when the film was made, the incident had only happened seven years prior. The eeriness of the massacre is all the more disturbing when seeing how quickly it was able to be recreated on film.
What’s quite unique about the movie is how it semi-operates as a documentary. Talking heads with key individuals sharing their perspective intertwined with topographical context, and the actual narrative, in which you get to meet the young men who will later be the victims of violence. There is no hiding the truth: everyone knows how it’s going to end. It’s just a matter of anticipation- does the film build up the drama well enough while still staying grounded in reality? Is it consistent with its efforts to heed a message of warning?
I’d say there’s more of a resounding yes for the latter than the former, just because the talking heads- which I believe to be the coolest parts of this examination of mob mentality- disappear towards the end of the movie. When that’s lost, there’s more of a campiness to an angry mob banging on the door then a frightening realism. I think more could’ve been done with how it was shot, even if this was very typical of the era before shaky cam, to bring you in on the chaos. With no disrespect to the lives lost in this horrible event, there was something missing to bring these everyday guys down to earth.
The mob mentality represented is, nonetheless, extremely alarming, and I think that all in all Cazals achieved his principle goal. Don’t let fear drive you mad, and certainly do not go without questioning authority- governmental and religious alike.
Fox and His Friends (1975)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Finally, a Fassbinder movie. This was not last for any specific reason, I just happened to procrastinate the longest runtime.
Fassbinder was a busy man. He completed forty feature length films (and a couple television series, short films, stage plays, radio plays, etc.) in less than fifteen years. That is insane. He had a tumultuous personal life, due to his tight bonds with many of his key actors and crew members that continued over onto each new project. He was a critical component of the New German Cinema movement, alongside contemporaries like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Harun Farocki. He hated the bourgeoisie, flexed his bisexuality frequently, and fervently opposed the monotony of everyday life. He died in 1982 at the age of 37 after a lethal overdose, leaving behind a massive legacy in his wake.
Fox and His Friends is a bit of a downer. It revolves around Fox, a poor man who suddenly finds himself flush with cash after winning the lottery. He falls in love with an industrialist's son, Eugen, and a whole bunch of upper-class friends who wish to show him the proper ways that one must conduct themselves in high society. Fox, played by Fassbinder himself, is easily the most sympathetic- although the weakest in terms of resilience. The slew of supporting characters range from cruel to evil, and Fassbinder sure does milk his pessimism about wealthy people.
It’s an odd bird of a film, especially seeing as Fassbinder himself is in the lead role. Fassbinder contested that Fox’s homosexuality was meant to appear normal and totally aside from the main issue of the film- exploitation of love was the real thing at stake. Fox’s journey from poor man to rich man to poor man once again is stereotypical of a lot of films depicting the pitfalls of excessive wealth, many of which go out of their way to paint the decadent ecstasy of being at the top. I find it interesting that, in this film, the cynical payoff in this movie is so much more striking than the journey. A lot of it is manipulation, disappointment, and observing that Fox is out of his element. Sophistication tends to be a facade!
Plus, this movie has opening/closing parallelism which I absolutely adore. Worth a watch.
There you have it! Thanks to all who bothered to read to the end. I intend to do one of these challenges again sometime, because I discovered some really cool filmmakers that I will probably end up following up on and completing their filmographies. Hope I inspired one of you to branch out too!