Tuesday, May 29, 2007

13 Foreign Film Reviews


Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain is a nice contemporary movie that has managed to secure one of the top spots on IMDB.com, for some unknown reason.

Plot: Amélie (Audrey Tautou), who has a penchant for mischief and meddling, finds a book of passport photos. In the course of returning it to its owner Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), to whom she is tentatively attracted, she must overcome her fear of a real relationship.

This lighthearted comedy is told with a voice-over narration and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. In the course of their "courtship", the main characters play a series of games; Amélie so as to get further glimpses of Nino, and Nino in an attempt to finally contact Amélie in person.

Amélie's downstairs neighbor is a painter who plays the wise counselor, and helps her to break out of her shell.

I found the movie to be a pleasant diversion with many memorable scenes, but not one that would reach my list of "greatest movies of all time".

Orphée, or Orpheus, is an "art" movie based on the myth of Orpheus brought into modern times. Immortal characters, such as Death, interact with modern humans, in all manners of strange circumstances.

Plot: A poet (Jean Marais) obsessed with fame becomes obsessed with Death (María Casares), who, in turn, falls in love with him. She kills his wife (Marie Déa), and he must travel to Hell to bring her back.

In truth, the plot is only something upon which to hang the scenes and characters. The special effects, traveling through mirrors and misty halls of Hell, are primitive, sort of what you would see in a live stage production.

You don't go to see this type of movies for the plot or effects, however. You see it for the layers of symbolism and depth of meaning. In truth, the movie fulfills expectations, but does not exceed them. A lot of heart was put into the story and the movie details, with some memorable dreamy sequences. But overall, it lacks something of the timelessness and really revelatory experience that one finds in, say, a Bergman film. Many details seem to have specific meaning for the time period in which the movie was made.

Definitely on the list of movies to see, if you like this sort of movie.


An Austen-like comedy of manners in modern Taipei, Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu) is an enjoyable, often humorous modern movie.

Plot: A famous retired chef (Sihung Lung) spends each Sunday at home cooking the weekly family dinner, but he has lost his sense of taste. His three adult daughters (Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang) navigate their daily lives concerning work and men, as well as their aging father and the loud, ill-mannered woman apparently pursuing him.

Ang Lee does a wonderful job with this film, populated with a fun cast of appealing modern characters and a cornucopia of delicious food shots, used as an allegory of love between the characters.

Anyone who likes Jane Austen adaptations will most probably like this one as well.

Hero (Ying xiong) is a truly gorgeous, but slightly insubstantial, mythic tale about three enemies of the emperor, and the alleged champion who killed them. It contains the usual fantasy gravity-defying fight scenes and a simple story.

Plot: The emperor (Daoming Chen) is trying to create a united China, and as a result has a number of would-be assassins. A nameless hero (Jet Li) who allegedly killed his three most feared enemies arrives at the palace to recount how he overcame each opponent. But all is not as it seems.

This gorgeous movie is essentially told in five vignettes, each told in a different color. The color may symbolize something about the events of that scene, but whatever it was, it was certainly pretty, with the many flowing clothes and drapes casting an ethereal mood.

While the story tangentially deals with the right or wrong of uniting a country by force, this seems to be almost entirely beside the point of the visual direction. As a result, the movie is not an earthshaking revelation of any sort, but more of a director's exercise. It is a good movie, somewhat less of a movie than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even as it equals or even surpasses it in visual design.

You probably won't be bored if you like rich visuals and Zen like martial arts.


Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) is an incredibly beautiful animated tale of courage, perseverance, and understanding, with the pace and excitement of Star Wars and mythic depth.

Plot: Ashitaka (Billy Crudup in the English language version) encounters a boar-like forest spirit turned demon. He embarks on a quest to find what turned the spirit into a demon, hoping to prevent any reoccurrence. In order to do this, the wise woman of his village tells him he will need "eyes unclouded by hate".

He encounters warring clans, a village run by a strong woman of vision, various creatures and spirits of nature, and San (Claire Danes), a human feral girl. All sides seem poised to attack each other, but none seems wholly wrong or right.

This is the movie that made me realize how stultified and silly our American animated movies had become. Aside from the beautiful drawings, the story is a rich tapestry of adult themes, unknown to the usual Disney fare of "love conquers all".

There are no wholly bad and good characters here and no easy solutions. While sometimes anthropomorphic, the creatures act like creatures, not like little people. Dozens of different points of view and layers of myth and symbolism create an engaging and exciting story, tense with irresolution, an full of likable characters.

Sometimes humorous, sometimes intense, always wise, this movie is really for everyone, except those who might be scared by squirming worm like things and some violent encounters (not too bloody, but there is some blood).

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) follows the same strengths of Princess Mononoke, albeit on a grander and somewhat looser scale. As a result, while still a great story and full of interesting mythic elements, the whole lacks a certain cohesion.

Plot: A 10 year-old girl and her family on their way to their new house take a "short cut" and find a strange and empty fair filled with wonderful food. The girl is cautious, but the parents indulge, and subsequently turn into pigs, while the fair turns into a meeting ground of spirits as night falls.

In order to rescue her parents and find her way home, the girl takes a job in a bathhouse for these spirits, and encounters many strange characters and events.

This movie is also filled with marvelous visual elements and storylines, but, in my view, a tad too many. Characters and events appear and then disappear, which may make for good symbolism, but a rather disjointed sort of story. While the girl gains strength and exhibits pluck, a great many more things happen to her than she makes happen.

Still, the film, even if disjointed, is engaging and fun. Once again, Hayao Miyazaki (same director as Princess Mononoke) provides a fascinating movie that explores the limits of what animation can tell. The pace is rather slower then Mononoke.

It is highly probable that my negative feelings stem from the fact that I watched the dubbed version, rather than the original, which is rumored to be much better.


Festen, or The Celebration, is a powerful avant-garde film about a family gathering that results in the revelation of a dark secret. An excellent film, maybe not for the squeamish.

Plot: Family and friends are gathering for a traditional Swedish celebration of Helge's (Henning Moritzen) 60th birthday, many years after his daughter committed suicide. But one of Helge's sons, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), opens the party celebrations by toasting his father for raping him and his dead sister when they were children.

Almost no one believes him, and the celebrations continue, but things are going to come to a head by the time the party's over.

The film is done in so-called "Dogme" style, which precludes any specific props other than found props, special effects, or added music or sounds, other than those of the actors or occurring at the scene. All shots are done with a hand-held camera, which can be dizzying and takes some getting used to. In truth, unlike in some other pretentious films, the hand held camera works well here, adding to the tense and charged atmosphere of the script, where you're never sure what's going to happen next.

But the power of this film is in the script, the characters, and the actors, all of which are superb, beyond any expectations. All the characters have good and bad sides, albeit some quite more than others, and the multiple relationships between every character are explored several layers deep.

This movie contains exactly what it needs and no more. While I was a little confused by one contrived aspect of the plot (the hiding and discovery of the suicide note), the result is simply a stunning movie that covers a few very difficult subjects.


Show Me Love, also known by its more colorful title F***ing Åmål, is a bittersweet and honest look at the universal story of teenage angst, conformism, and loneliness.

Plot: Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) has live in Åmål for three years now and essentially still has no friends, partially due to the persistent rumor that she's a lesbian. Erin (Alexandra Dahlström), on the other hand, is popular at school. As usual, popular seems to imply being mean to anyone who isn't. Erin kisses Agnes on a dare, and realizes that the experience wasn't that bad. She immediately takes up a heterosexual relationship as cover, but must deal with her confused feelings.

There's nothing more to this story than any other story about teenagers, except for the sheer honesty about the loneliness and cruelty of modern children. It's a universal story, one that just about anyone of any age can relate to. Actually, it's not incredibly deep, but what it tells it tells well.

This was an enjoyable, pleasant, and simple sweet movie.


Blackboards (Takhté siah) is a fascinating piece on culture, hopelessness, and futility along the Iran-Iraq border told in a visually stark style

Plot: Two poor teachers desperate for students walk the border between Iran and Iraq, but all they find are equally desperate children smuggling through dangerous territory to earn their daily bread, and elderly people trying to find their way back to their homeland to die, having left it to escape chemical attacks. No one, it appears, has any time for education.

This is a stark allegorical film about despair and futility. But, even as the players walk where they have to walk to stay alive, and talk what they have to talk in accordance with their traditional values, life remains, in flashes of humor, personality, smiles, and the occasional game of chance.

In truth, each day is a game of chance for them. The children smuggle back and forth across the border under gunfire, sometimes with tragic results. Meanwhile, a group of elders try to find their way back to their village which was burned out by chemical weapons, trying to survive chronic medical problems and near starvation.

It's pretty bleak, but it's wonderfully told, beginning and ending in the middle of the narrative, which only enhances the feel that no one has any solutions to offer. A very good film.


Walk on Water is an interesting character study movie, well acted, written, and directed. It dabbles in politics and morality, trying to navigate between the two.

Plot: A successful Mossad assassin, Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), recently lost his wife. His new assignment is to take out a lost and now aging Nazi war criminal, for which he has to befriend his target's adult grandchildren. He hates Arabs - news reports of Arab terrorism are heard on the radio with frequency - but his myopic view of the world gets challenged.

Coming before Steven Spielberg's Munich, about which I hear was fairly unbalanced, I found this movie to be fairly balanced and fair. Of course, balanced means that either side of the political spectrum isn't going to be happy with some of the story. And the ending reveals the director's ultimate bias. Nevertheless, aside from the opening sequence which is told without background and therefore an unfair picture, the rest of the story presents Eyal's profession as both necessary and dehumanizing.

A number of memorable scenes and sequences elevate the movie. I haven't found many Israeli movies that I really enjoyed, so I am happy to see Israeli cinema headed in the right direction.

Worth viewing, even if you disagree with the ultimate message.


Before the Rain (Pred dozhdot) is an excellent movie, playing with time and space to tell the cyclical hopelessness of conflict.

Plot: The movie is divided into three parts. In part 1, a monk (Gregoire Collin) in Macedonia who has taken a vow of silence finds himself harboring a young Albanian girl being chased by Christians who claim she is a murderer. Part 2 appears to follow from part 1, and is about a pregnant photo-editor in London (Katrin Kartlidge) who sets in motion a divorce with her husband right before a tragic event occurs. Part 3 appears to follow part 2 and is set back in Macedonia, where the photo-editor's lover, a photo-journalist (Rade Serbedzija), returns to his native village and tries to ignore the tensions between the Christians and Albanians, only to arrive before a precipitous event. Part 3 then appears to lead back into Part 1.

The essential allegory about the cyclical nature of conflict is beautifully done. Everything else about the movie is also superb, and it straddles the line between a straight movie that you can just watch and an art movie with layers of meaning and symbolism. It's not an action packed movie, but neither is it ponderous and bloated with self-importance.

This is a real gem, and worth seeking out.

New Zealand

Whale Rider is a modern fairy-tale about the Maori people, about love, rejection, and magic, beautifully filmed and acted, if a trifle trite.

Plot: The Maori people have a tradition of a "Whale Rider" direct male descendant from the founder of the tribe. But the current tribe leader (Rawiri Paratene) has only a granddaughter, her twin brother and mother having died in childbirth. The granddaughter, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), wants nothing more than to be loved by her grandfather who rejects her as a disappointment and begins a search for a new, male, leader. Meanwhile, Pai is convinced that she will be the new Whale Rider, and, apparently, so are the whales.

It's a sweet story about love and rejection, overcoming bias and confronting change. It's a magical story as well, but they story suffers, just a bit, in that regard, as the ending is pretty much certain throughout the film, and apparently everyone knows this except the grandfather.

Overall, it's well acted with moving performances and lovely cinematography.

South Korea

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) is a mythic story, pure and simple. While I wasn't thrilled with some of the camera-work, it's a very simple allegory and generally beautiful work.

Plot: An old monk (Yeong-su Oh) lives on a floating platform on a river in the middle of seemingly nowhere. He raises a young boy in the ways of Buddha. As the boy grows into a man, he follows temptation and strays from the path. After facing up to his acts and suffering the consequences, he eventually returns to the now empty platform to purify himself and take the old man's place.

I wasn't too thrilled with the morals implied by the film, but they're not my morals, after all, so not for me to judge. The tale is very simple, and the entire cast is around 10 people. This story, covering one of each season, but over a period of many years, is a story of rebirth, reincarnation, and revelation.

While most of the shots are beautiful, a few of the shots, especially early in the film, were framed a little strangely. For that reason, I walked away from the movie a bit unhappy. However, with time, the work has grown on me, and I find myself wanting to see it again.

It's a very calm movie, without much dialog and with only a few sudden bursts of activity. A treat for a contemplative evening.



Reel Fanatic said...

You've got xome wonderful selections here ... Amelie is, to me, simply a timelessly charming movie .. I'll watch anything by Miyazaki, but my two favorites of his would have to be Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Thanks for stopping in, RF. I also liked KDS, but it's definitely more a kids movie.