Saturday, May 19, 2007

HEY! THAT AIN'T ENGLISH (PART DEUX). Concluding the list of fave foreign language films, we pick up again with the second half of the alphabet.
M (1931).
Country of origin: Germany. This is the one that catapulted Peter Lorre to world fame. Lorre gives an absolutely stunning performance as a child murderer hunted by both the police AND the criminal underworld. His final speech is devastating. One of Fritz Lang's best films.
Matango (1963) aka Attack of the Mushroom People.
Country of origin: Japan. The American title is stupid; disregard it. It's also hard to believe the Matango was made by the same people who thrilled the kiddies with all those Godzilla movies; this one, however, is very adult in theme and execution. A group of rather unlikeable people is shipwrecked on a mysterious island with black sand and creeping parasitic fungus. One by one the starving castaways eat the fungus and. . .well, let's just say the film is something akin to a Japanese "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Spooky and suspenseful. The dynamics between the survivors is fascinating.
Meng gui da sha (1987) aka Thunder Cops.
Country of origin: Hong Kong. OK, how to describe THIS one? Well, police set up a sting operation in an apartment building. Trouble is: the building's haunted. This is a horror comedy that never lets up. Particularly memorable is the disembodied (and homicidal) flying woman's head which chases (and IS chased) all over the apartment building as if jet propelled.
Odishon (1999) aka Audition.
Country of origin: Japan. Takashi Miike hits a hammer blow with this one. The first half is a total romantic drama with a lonely widower seeking a woman to marry. Suddenly, without warning, the film takes a full 180 in the second half into gut-wrenching horror. This is one where I actually looked away from the screen. "Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri."
Onibaba (1964).
Country of origin: Japan. Absolutely beautiful black & white photography graces this haunting tale of two women (a young girl and her harpy of a mother-in-law) who have to survive by waylaying soldiers, bumping them off and stealing their armour and personal possessions. The story takes place in 14th feudal Japan among the mysterious swaying swamp grasses which are taller than a man. This sea of reeds almost becomes a character itself. Fear and mistrust run rampant through this almost Hitchcockian psychodrama. Oh yes, and then there's that mask which seems to have a will of its own.
Ringu (1998).
Country of origin: Japan. This is really the one that started the whole Japanese horror boom of the late nineties-early aughties. The American remake "The Ring" was only about 10% as scary as the original Japanese film concerning the haunted video tape that, once you watch it, will kill you in 7 days. It's because of this film we all know to be uneasy around pale women with long black hair. Overfamiliarity may have blunted some of the startling power of this film but the spooky suspense is slowly built up throughout the picture beautifully. Then the final scary payoff STILL packs quite a punch.
Siu nin Wong Fei Hung ji Tit Ma Lau (1993) aka Iron Monkey.
Country of origin: Hong Kong. Here we have a wonderful martial arts fantasy featuring a Robin Hood-type vigilante named Iron Monkey who battles injustice. Spectacular martial arts stunts. A nice treat for Chinese martial arts fans is the fact that the little boy kicking major ass in this film is actually Wong Fei-Hung: the legendary (but actual historical personage) who was sort-of a Chinese Robin Hood character. Wong Fei-Hung appears in many Chinese martial arts films; most notably the Jet Li "Once Upon A Time in China" series.
Terrore nella spazio (1965) aka Planet of the Vampires.
Country of origin: Italy. Maestro Mario Bava directs this movie which gave me the shivering willies when I first saw it as a kid. The ending floored me. And so did those cool black leather space suits (which seem to be echoed slightly in the costumes of the X-Men movies. . .just a thought). Here we have a crew of space explorers (headed by token American actor Barry Sullivan for marquee value back in the States) crash landing on a planet which just happens to be inhabited by vampires. One by one each crew member is "vampirized" as the dwindling human crew members desperately try to get off the planet. I'm slightly cheating here because the DVD I own of this film does NOT contain the original Italian language track but only the English dubbed one. So sue me.
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) aka The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse.
Country of origin: Germany. Evil criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse (played by demonic looking Rudolf Klein-Rogge) can still control his underworld empire from his prison cell -- with the power of his mind. The first half has strong 30's-era horror overtones while the second half is a fairly straight ahead crime thriller. However, there are still one or two spooky occurrences toward the end of the film. Quite reminiscent of Fritz Lang's "M", this is one of a series of Dr. Mabuse films. . . and a bizarre one at that.
Thomas est amoureux (2000) aka Thomas In Love.
Country of origin: France. Thanks to Ernest for supplying me with this one. The film takes place in the near future. Thomas (whom we never actually see; we experience the whole film from his point-of-view camera) has agoraphobia and has not left his apartment in years. He conducts all his human contact through his computer internet connection. What first seems like a mere gimmick film soon reveals some real depth as Thomas' yearning for human contact (and love . . . and lust) battles with his refusal to leave his apartment. Which side of Thomas will win? His seemingly endless (and seemingly doomed) tries at on-line dating are particularly fascinating.
I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) aka Black Sabbath.
Country of origin: Italy. This time I'm NOT cheating with this Mario Bava film because it is INDEED in Italian. The only minus to that is the fact that Boris Karloff's voice is dubbed in by an Italian voice actor so we miss out on the King of Horror's melifluous tones. Everything else about this film is a near-masterpiece. It's an omnibus/portmanteau horror film consisting of three stories: the first story (A Drop of Water) and the final story (The Wurdalak starring Karloff) are bona fide classics with only the middle story falling flat. Possibly Bava's best film.
El Vampiro (1957) aka The Vampire.
Country of origin: Mexico. The granddaddy of Mexican horror films; this is the one that started it all with German Robles as the title vampire in a film which takes inspiration from the classic Universal monster movies of the 30's and 40's. Incredibly atmospheric and more adult than the Mexican monster movies to follow, this one can stand shoulder to bat wing with Universal's or Hammer's vampire movies.
Wild Zero (1999).
Country of origin: Japan. Totally indescribable; you have to see it to believe it. Briefly, this horror/science fiction/comedy is a cross between The War of the Worlds meets Dawn of the Dead meets The Wild One meets Pulp Fiction meets The Crying Game meets The Three Stooges meets Goodfellas meets the Ramones meets. . .oh geez I don't know. You JUST have to see it. Motorcycles! Flying Saucers! Zombies with exploding heads! Transgender confusion! Rock and Roll! Hey, the movie poster alone described it as a "Rock & Roll-Jet Movie" (whatever THAT is), "Trash and Chaos", "The Great Psycho of Them All" as well as "Thrill, Speed and Stupid Zombies"! All this. . .and SHIM too!
Wo hu cang long (2000) aka Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Country of origin: China. Sure it won 4 Oscars and sure it's got magnificent & magical fight sequences but the REAL heart of the picture is the achingly unrequited love story between Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat. The picture also looks stunning, of course. The fantastic wire work may have been something new to American viewers at the time but it actually went back years and years. In fact, it was just this type of "magical" martial arts movie that Bruce Lee was fighting against with HIS films; he wanted "real" martial arts without trick photography and wire-work. I, however, am free to love BOTH kinds. You may also be asking why I don't have any Bruce Lee films in this list. Firstly because I love them ALL and can't really pick one above the others and secondly because those films are usually available in English language versions.
Wong Fei-Hung ji yi: Naam yi dong ji keung (1992) aka Once Upon A Time In China II.
Country of origin: China. I didn't really like the first "Once Upon A Time in China" but this one turned me around. I've only seen the first 3 (there are 6 so far) but this is my favourite. Chinese folk hero Dr. Wong Fei-Hung faces the deadly nationalistic organization "The White Lotus" who plan on driving all foreigners from China -- by killing them. Whereas the first film was rather disjointed and uninvolving, this sequel hold your interest from beginning to end. . .especially after the bizarre opening scene involving the strange quasi-cult performance of the White Lotus. Lots of laughs (intentional) accompany many fine martial arts sequences by Jet Li.
Yokai daisenso (2005) aka The Great Yokai War.
Country of origin: Japan. Takashi Miike surprises once again with something completely unexpected: a remake of an old 60's series of children's monster/ghost movies (seen in the next entry below). Who would've thought the perpetrator of "Odishon" would be equally at home with this appropriate-for-all-ages movies where a young boy becomes embroiled in a war between 100 goofy-looking folklore-based ghost-monsters. This movie is every bit as fun as the earlier films upon which it was based and the modern special effects improve things while keeping the "look" of the yokai EXACTLY the same. Yes, there is the return of the Umbrella Monster; my personal fave.
Yokai hyaku monogatari (1968) aka Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters.
Country of origin: Japan. Here is the first movie in the Yokai Monster trilogy from back in the 60's featuring all the fairy tale spirits we know and love. This one concerns an evil land developer whose machinations anger the Yokai spirits and cause them to take a hand in his defeat. The sheer number of Yokai (obviously the number given in the title is one hundred) and their visual diversity stems from Japanese folk tales and art so you get the feeling that each one of the 100 monsters has a backstory to tell. But yes, my favourite (how can you NOT love him) is still the Umbrella monster (called kasa obake) who is the trickster ghost and likes to play.
Ying xiong (2002) aka Hero.
Country of origin: China. Jet Li as the Nameless warrior who has to defeat the assassins out to get the warlord leader of his ancient province. Visually sumptous with scenes corresponding to individual colours (i.e. the "red" scene, etc.); the movie also boasts spectacular special effects and fight sequences in the "Crouching Tiger" tradition. Wonderful to look at with a surprising amount of heart.
Yume (1990) aka Akira Kurosawa's Dreams.
Country of origin: Japan. Not really up to Kurosawa's best but the movie itself is a feast for the eye. The dreamlike quality is matched by masterly shot composition and colour photography. You can lose yourself in this movie. The film itself features a group of stories; each one based on actual dreams experienced by Kurosawa. This makes the film very personal and the viewer can experience that feeling as well.
Of course, there are other foreign language films I've seen and liked but these are just a handful of favourites. I'm sure I've missed some and, naturally, there are a great deal I haven't seen as yet. I WILL say that it breaks my heart NOT to include "Dellamorte Dellamore" aka "Cemetery Man" in this list but, despite being made in Italy, the language is English. So there ya go. So, the next time someone wants you to "read" a movie; don't fight it.