In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won the Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. In his acceptance speech for Best Director, Bong challenged attendees and viewers alike to expand their horizons and explore the wide world of film, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” So let’s do just that, let’s overcome the one-inch barrier.
But first, a quick definition of what I’m considering a foreign film. As a Canadian, by the strictest, most literal definition, any movie made outside of Canada could be considered a foreign film. For the purposes of this series, I will be using the standard definition of foreign films which is generally any film made outside of North America and in a language other than English. It’s worth acknowledging the fact that there are many issues with this definition as it comes from an americentric point of view and boils down the many and varied film traditions across the world into a single category.
Parasite (2019) dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea
(CW: Parasite contains depictions of violence and a relationship between a college-age tutor and his teenage student)
A Best Picture and Palme D’or winner (one of three films to win both of awards), Parasite holds up to the hype. Clocking in at 133 minutes, Parasite never feels like it drags, every scene is there because it needs to be there.
Each of the three acts of Parasite feel distinct both in genre and atmosphere with the movie gaining a progressively darker tone as it goes on and as the Kim family falls deeper and deeper into their deceptions. There is a reason why Parasite is as awarded as it is and that reason is because it’s one of the best movies of the last decade. A must-see.
Dead Pigs (2018) dir. Cathy Yan, China
(CW: Dead Pigs contains footage of dead pigs)
Despite premiering at Sundance in 2018, Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey)’s directorial debut wasn’t widely available until February of 2021 when it was released on Mubi. Mostly in Mandarin with a few scenes in English, When compared with Birds of Prey, Dead Pigs makes a case for Yan to be considered an auteur.
Intertwining multiple storylines featuring an incredible ensemble cast, Dead Pigs is an exploration of late-stage capitalism in China and the people it affects. Combining true events (like a 2013 incident in which tens of thousands of dead pigs floated down the Yangtze River towards Shanghai) with a fictional narrative, Dead Pigs is as stylish and fun as it is meaningful and is well worth taking a look at if you enjoyed Birds of Prey.
Gojira (1954) dir. Ishiro Honda, Japan
(CW: Gojira contains scenes of Kaiju destruction)
Perhaps the most famous monster movie of all time, Gojira is the film that launched the Godzilla franchise and created a pop culture icon. A truly harrowing warning of the dangers of nuclear testing, Gojira is a direct response to the final journey of the Lucky Dragon No 5, a japanese fishing boat that was caught in the radioactive fallout of the Castle Bravo test nine months prior to the movie’s release.
Gojira is considered a masterpiece for a reason. From the story to the special effects, everything about it is absolutely incredible. After watching the movie, the Criterion Collection’s commentary track by David Kalat is well worth checking out for the way it both expands on the themes and offers behind the scenes details. Alongside being a masterpiece in its own right, Gojira essentially created the kaiju genre and continues to have an impact to this day.
Raw (2016) dir. Julia Ducournau, France
(CW: Raw contains gore and depictions of cannibalism)
Not for the squeamish, Raw combines a coming of age story with a horror movie. Following a hazing ritual that leads to her eating meat for the first time, life-long vegetarian Justine (Garrance Mariller) is struck with a craving for meat that intensifies over time, eventually leading her to develop a taste for human flesh.
I’ll admit that Raw is a movie that I have a personal connection to as it was the first foreign film I ever saw. I remember hearing about this new french horror movie about a girl who becomes a cannibal and how it was a must-see and then, about a year after first hearing about it I remember sneaking downstairs late at night and turning the TV to the lowest possible volume setting to sneakily watch it as it was broadcast on The Movie Network, desperately hoping that my mom wouldn’t walk down the stairs and catch me in the act of watching a movie she would disapprove of. Raw is not for everyone, but if you think it might be for you, by all means check it out.
Woman in the Dunes (1964) dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan
(CW: Woman in the Dunes contains depictions of sexual assault)
A masterpiece of Japanese New Wave based on Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel of the same name. Woman in the Dunes follows an amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) as he is tricked by villagers he encounters on an expedition into living with a widow (Kyoko Kishida) in an ever encroaching sandpit, helping her dig sand to be sold by the villagers. As the story plays out, the film explores themes of societal pressure to fulfill set roles and isolation. Throughout the film, Hiroshi Segawa masterfully utilizes both wide angled shots and extreme close-ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that allows you to feel as trapped as the protagonist does.