Fancy a more sophisticated slice of entertainment to lighten up the last few weekends of lockdown? Here’s our pick of the best foreign language films you might not have seen yet:
Minari, Amazon (to rent)
The extremely moving Minari triggered a bit of a debate when it was first nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Golden Globes, with various Hollywood luminaries protesting that the (largely) Korean-language immigrant story, set in rural Arkansas, deserved to be considered for the main prize. And in many ways, they’re right: you’d be hard-pressed to find a more stirring portrayal of the American dream. Hopefully Lee Isaac Chung, the film’s Colorado-born writer and director, can take some solace in the fact his semi-autobiographical effort at least scooped the prize at hand.
Like a feminist companion to Le Haine, Houda Benyamina’s full-length debut Divines explores the gritty reality of life in Paris’s immigrant-dominated banlieues from the perspective of two teenage girls. In a step-up from shoplifting (including making ingenious use of a burqa) and loitering, the duo end up working for a ruthless local drug dealer (female, of course) whose cash-rich life-style seems like everything they ever dreamed. There’s an irresistible swagger to this film, and a refreshing sense of humour, which more than makes up for the slightly Hollyoaks ending.
Let the Right One In, Shudder (including via Amazon)
The first of two vampire films in the list, Let the Right One In is perhaps the greatest piece of art to come out of the much-maligned emo era. The story of a bullied Swedish teenager who begins a clandestine friendship with a female vampire, the film is blessed with rich emotional dialogue that plays your heartstrings like a fiddle. As for the scenes where the school thugs get served their just desserts - well, you’ll struggle to find a more heart-warming slasher-scene in cinema history. No wonder it received the ultimate accolade for a foreign film: a completely superfluous American remake (Let Me In) pumped out two years later.
Leviathan, Amazon (to rent)
Unapologetically weighty in its style and scope, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s story of a humble car-mechanic ending up at the mercy of the Russian state is perhaps the greatest Slavic language film of the decade. Filmed just on the northernmost tips of Murmansk, the film lures you in with its luscious scenery before leading you down an epic trail into pure darkness. That the film was part funded by the Kremlin’s Ministry of Culture seems almost unbelievable. Still, it certainly does its motherland proud. Its lead man, Aleksei Serebryakov, now an emboldened Putin critic, has since appeared in BBC’s McMafia.
Fill the Void, Amazon (to rent)
The first film to be directed by a female member of Israel’s super-conservative Haredi community, Fill the Void tells the story of an 18-year-old Hasidic girl, Shira, whose life is upended - in more ways than one - following the death of her older sister. In ultra-orthodox tradition, Shira is now expected to marry her brother-in-law and make her sister’s family whole again. If you’re expecting this new husband to be an uncaring brute, you’ll be wrong-footed immediately. Instead, the film soon evolves into a tender and compassionate human drama that leaves its mark on you.
Festen, BFI Player (available via Netflix)
The best film to spawn from the purist Dogme 95 movement (which certifies films that follow its strict commandments to eschew flashbacks, voiceovers, montages and other examples of superficial editing), Festen is a rip-roaring black comedy about an upper-class birthday party that descends into chaos when one family member makes an earth-shattering accusation during a routine toast. Billed as a black comedy, Festen isn’t afraid to offer its audience the occasional light relief along the way, sending up the more ludicrous members as the weekend evolves. A superbly savage piece of cinema.
The Handmaiden, Netflix
Old Boy director Park Chan-wook delivers another serving of excellence with The Handmaiden: a stylish Korean thriller which borrows its plot from Sarah Waters’ steamy Victorian page-turner Fingersmith. Set in the 1930s, during Korea’s period of Japanese-colonial rule, The Handmaiden looks absolutely stunning, possessing an arresting aesthetic which simultaneously boosts the film’s creepiness and sex appeal. Sit this next to fellow Cannes-conqueror Parasite, and you can see why film aficionados are increasingly touting Seoul as Asia’s new cinematic capital.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amazon (to rent)
Another foreign language film made in America, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was promoted back in 2014 as ‘the first Iranian vampire Western’. Despite being entirely in Farsi and loaded with Orientalist chic, the film is full of nods to classic Western cinema. From the whistling Sergio Leone-esque score to the exquisite shadow-work that pays homage to Nosferatu, you’re never more than five minutes from another cinematic easter egg. More importantly, the film is a firmly satisfying main course in its own right. Just wait until you the first time you see those fangs...