Foreign Films: South Korea

I suppose you could say that when I couldn’t get a Japanese film on DVD or I was running out of titles to pick up, I picked up some Korean ones. Actually, there are some really great Korean films. Korea have quite a few very good horror films influenced perhaps by the J-Horror of Japan.

I would say Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters from 2003 was one of the first films I got. That’s possibly the best horror film from South Korea that I am aware of. Like a lot of Japanese horror, it has real depth to its back story. This is not just some mindless gore or fright fest as a lot of American horror can be. Around the same I also came across Acacia. A film by Park Ki-hyung. This is an excellent, again family-based, horror film with great soundtrack and very creepy atmosphere throughout. Just like A Tale of Two Sisters, there is an important back story, not all of which is revealed until later in the film. It’s a crucial part of what makes it work. I think the cinematography in both films is also really good.

Now, back in 2007 when I was spending money like water on DVDs, I was also drawn to other genres. Not just horror but ones with a horror element to them. Natural City from 2003 is a good solid cyborg film. A little bit overcooked but memorable. Also, from this time, Lady Vengeance. That’s actually part of one of the most famous trilogies in Korean film history: The Vengeance Trilogy. This Park Chan-wook film is very good but really nothing compared to its predecessor Old Boy. By the way, that film has an American remake you can happily ignore. Old Boy is one of those films like The Host (2006) that reached a much wider international audience. Old Boy is messed up big time. It’s not for the squeamish but well-worth the watch. There isn’t another film quite like it.

Just this year, I watched two more Korean films and they were both so good that I knew I had to include this country in my rundown of foreign films by country. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil. The former is my favourite. It’s a fantastic film. A mix of horror and crime. It really takes you on a thrilling ride. Comedy and tragedy are also perfectly balanced. I Saw the Devil is quite different, having no supernatural elements just two men motivated to do horrific things. Both films incidentally have the theme of vengeance in them but proceed in an unexpected way. That’s part of the strength of these films. They keep you engaged totally for their duration.

So, there is my little critique of the best films I have seen from France, Spain, Japan and South Korea. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen outstanding films from other non-English speaking countries. There are many examples but those four countries definitely contain the bulk of them. I will surely be back with more thoughts and experiences of foreign films at a later date.

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Foreign Films: Japan

I have always been interested in Japan and Japanese culture. I don’t know exactly when or how this originated. It could be from my interest in Zen Buddhism in my late teens. Not sure. I do know that I started to love the sound of the language and still do. For a lot of Europeans, all East Asian languages sound the same or they don’t think they can differentiate between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and so on. The fact is that Japanese sounds SO different to Mandarin Chinese. It is possible, to neatly divide my exposure to Japanese cinema into two groups: Horror, which is often called J-Horror and Manga. The latter refers to Japanese comics and the films derived from there can be anime or real life.

One evening in 2002, while attending the University of York in England, me and my roommate from Cyprus sat down to watch a film called The Ring. A 1998 Japanese horror film directed by Hideo Nakata. The film opens with two girls talking about a cursed videotape. Almost nothing significant happens in the scene and yet… I remember turning to Evis and saying, I am really scared by this. I was and that wasn’t the scariest part of the film either. If one film really sparked a fascination with the horror genre, it is this one. I still rank it as the best horror film of all time that I have seen. There was an American remake and it is not bad but honestly, I find it unwatchable now. The unsettling atmosphere of the original, the very creepy and enigmatic nature of the threat is low key psychological horror at its finest.

A few years passed and I didn’t return to Japanese films as far as I can remember. Not until I was living in Dublin in 2008. In a tiny room I was renting on South Circular Road with a small portable TV and DVD combo, I watched a whole bunch of Japanese films. Particularly horror. I had to buy the DVDs which were often expensive. Back then I had no other way of seeing the films. I discovered The Grudge (Ju On) by Takashi Shimizu and its sequel, which I found more scary. Then there was Dark Water. An excellent film from the same director as The Ring. It seems that I loved the Japanese horror formula which tended to rely more on creepiness and the understated. There have been American remakes of most of these films and I would suggest avoiding all of them. I have no doubt that the foreign nature of the culture contributes a lot to maintaining the mystery. Added to this, a lot of these J-Horror films have a meaningful and peaceful resolution to them. In many cases there is a real catharsis at the end. It is not unusual in fact to feel sad by the end of the film rather than scared when you realise the truth behind the presence of the ghost.

I also need to mention Battle Royale (2000). What a great film again. I think the Hunger Games books owe a lot to this one. It is however far more brutal and exhilarating. It is not right to categorise this as a horror film. I think it is in a world of its own with elements of different genres. I highly recommend this film.

Around the same time, in my hunt for Japanese films on DVD, I came across Azumi. This is a 2003 film directed by Ryûhei Kitamura and based on Yu Koyama’s manga of the same title. This film totally won me over. This was my entry into the world of samurai but actually nothing I have seen since in that genre quite compares with it. I also bought the sequel and I have seen both many times. The battle scenes are so beautifully choreographed. The way the katana is wielded, the stylised held positions after an adversary has been struck. It’s amazing. Plus the music is a very particular mix of styles that is hard to define but is a feature of a lot of Asian cinema. We have got used to hearing the same soundtracks from a lot of American movies. This one has a kind of almost 80’s nostalgia to parts of it. It is sweet and brutal and empowering. I like films where the hero is a woman. There is a battle in a cotton field that is outstanding visually and musically. If there is ever a case that violence can be dealt with beautifully. This is it.

I didn’t follow this film with many more samurai films but Sky High from 2003 by Ryuhei Kitamura was one. Not to be confused with the American Sky High movies! This has a rather over-the-top story-line but is entertaining and again made me want to have my own katana. Actually, I would still like one.

Another DVD I bought during that time in Dublin was of a very different film that perhaps had the deepest impression on me. Honestly, thinking of it now, it almost has mythic status. I haven’t seen it since that time and I don’t know if I will ever watch it again. It’s All About Lily Chou-Chou from 2001. This is a drama that is very moving and deep in its vision. The piano music of Debussy pervades it. I believe that in the opening sequence there is a voice-over where there is an explanation of ”the ether” and how some music comes from that place. Being spiritually-inclined myself, this took hold of me and never let go. I have used the word ”ether” to describe a kind of dream place or state. A place that I have been aware of my whole life. A place that seems somehow more real than reality. At once new and familiar. I won’t or maybe can’t get into more specifics here but let’s just say it spoke to me.

During my time living in Prague, I came across another film which effected me. Again, this one is almost mythic in its status, not least because it is not so easy to find online especially with subtitles. It’s an anime film called Voices of a Distant Star. It’s a short film by Makoto Shinkai. Only 25 minutes long but beautiful and powerful in its sentiment. It mightn’t be good to watch this if you are missing someone or, on the other had, it might be exactly what you need to watch.

I am not a big fan of anime but I have to also now mention Ghost in the Shell from 1995, which I watched the other day. The visuals, the atmosphere and the music of this one are wonderful. It’s understandably a classic and I think required watching for all anime and/or sci-fi fans. There is a Hollywood live action remake with Scarlett Johansson in the cinema at the moment. I don’t expect much but it might be entertaining.

Our final port of call in my current round up of foreign films will be South Korea…

Foreign Films: Sweden

Funny that Swedish films used to be associated with porn or ”blue movies” as they were known in the past. I am not sure why. Maybe there was an industry I am unaware of. Anyway, I don’t have a lot of films to talk about here but they are significant enough to merit a post of their own. Incidentally, last night I watched Persona, the Bergman classic. Fascinating film but didn’t grip the way I thought it might. My loss perhaps.

One of the first Swedish films I remember seeing, and also one of the best, is Show Me Love, originally titled Fucking Åmål, directed by Lukas Moodysson. I guess I saw this when I was in university in England. Now as a whole the film didn’t impress me so much apart from one particular scene. I don’t want to give spoilers because I would highly recommend this film but it is a scene where one of the two lead actresses throws stones at the window of the other girl to get her attention just at the point where she really needed someone. It is unusually to shed a tear midway through a film but this scene really got to me. It’s a very real and raw film. A kind of search for identity and freedom in a cruel or indifferent world.

During the time I lived and worked in Dublin. That’s 2008. I spent a lot of my money on DVDs. There was sadly no chance of streaming films back then with the tech I had. People were downloading films of course but you needed the right set up for it. Actually, now that I think about it, I am not sure I even had a computer. I guess I didn’t really need one in general. Haven’t times changed. Well, one of the many DVDs I risked buying was a film called Lilya 4-ever. Yes, the 4 is ”for” and that’s not an accident. I am not sure I was aware at the time but the film was by the same director as Show Me Love. This is a dark and powerful film about a neglected Russian girl who turns to prostitution to survive. It is not easy to watch and quite bleak but so moving that it deserves to be seen and is unforgettable. I remember meeting a guy from Sweden in a bar a long time ago. His name was Ericsson or… he worked for Ericsson. Not sure which. We talked about those films. He became silent. He said that just thinking about Lilya 4-ever made him emotional.

Fast forward to 2012 and having watched the Swedish crime series Wallander every Saturday evening in the meantime. I was looking for good international horror films and I came across one called Let The Right One In. This is the most beautiful film of the ones I have mentioned so far. At least, for me. It is a story about friendship and loyalty. Just like Show Me Love. Two very different characters find some connection and change the course of their lives. The film by Alfredson is based on the 2004 novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I mention the novelist because the film I impressed me enough that I read two more of his books. I am not much of a reader either. There is an American remake yet again but surprisingly not bad. It could actually be the best remake of a foreign horror film that I know about. It is called simply Let Me In and features a stellar performance from Chloe Grace Moretz. I’d still recommend seeing the Swedish original first.

And that’s it. Only three films but three very significant ones. No doubt there is more to come. That particular Swedish atmosphere has a kind of magic to it that is hard to define but compelling.

Next we leave the home continent and move East to the country which produced the best horror of all and had me spending a small fortune on DVDs so I could quell my fascination with it. It’s Japan.

Foreign Films: Spain

Continuing my round up of films that I love from various non-English speaking countries as well as my small experience of what each country has to offer.

I was obsessed with Spain when I was a teenager. I am not sure why but I do remember hearing Spanish on the AM radio and thinking it was beautiful. Only beaten by French. Mention of the AM radio makes me sound like I grew up in the 1940s, I know but before the internet and decent cable TV, radio figured much more. Also Spanish students would come to our small town in the summer. I think for me it was like a view to another world far from where I was. I started learning Spanish and naturally sought out Spanish films. Most of the ones I saw were mostly Latin American ones shown late at night on TV. I do remember Jamón Jamón from this time but that’s about it.

When I was in university in England in 2004, I sat down one gloomy winter night to watch Open Your Eyes. A 1997 film by Alejandro Amenábar. I can still clearly remember how I felt when it ended. I was totally blown away by it. It quickly became my favourite foreign language film ever. Maybe the elements of dream and of unrequited love resonated with me. The emotion of the final scene stayed with me for days. I highly recommend this and do yourself a favour. Don’t watch the American remake Vanilla Sky.

During the time I was exploring European horror, I came upon REC and The Orphanage. Two very different films but both excellent. REC (2007) is the best non-American found footage film I have seen. (The Blair Witch Project has the edge on it). There have been a plethora of dire found footage horrors and it is rare to find one of real quality. This is intense, claustrophobic gem with a realism to it that is very convincing. Google will tell you it is a zombie film but don’t be put off by that. Normally I would be myself. I love horror but more into ghosts, demons and witches.  There is an American remake of this too called Quarantine. Best avoided.

During my first year living in Prague in 2011, I watched Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. I was again really effected by this. I remember a Greek girl who I was once very close to counted this amoung her favourite films. Again I can remember the moments after the film ended. I stood staring out the window of my room feeling like something profound had happened. When I moved to Barcelona to live for a few months in 2016, I watched a few of Almodóvar’s films. The standout one for me is The Skin I Live In. That’s a great film. Very human although kind of twisted and amusing in its touch of melodrama and family. It has Almodóvar all over it and in a good way.

We’re heading up north for the next post. Sweden is on the menu.

Foreign Films: France

I like on those film groups on Facebook when someone asks the question of what people’s favourite foreign film is, there is always someone who names an American film. You look at their name and realise that the person is from another country so American is foreign to them. This leaves us wondering what to call them? Non-English speaking films? A bit long-winded.

Anyway, I just wanted to crudely outline my experiences with these non-English films. Which ones have impacted me the most. Easiest way to do this is by country. For the sake of convenience, I am only going to concentrate on a few key countries. Ones that I have seen the most movies from. These are: France, Spain, Sweden, Japan and South Korea. Today’s post is on French films. Notice I put the titles in English. Not because I think this is right but it is easier to find the films this way if you are looking for them and in some cases the names are not even the same as what they are in the original language.

France 

The French story starts with the very well-known, Three Colours: Blue.  Although my sister was learning French in school so I had seen French films before that. Probably too young to see some of them. It’s not untrue to say that the French were much open as regards nudity. Happy days for a teenaged boy. Honestly, I suppose my experiences with French cinema in the beginning were focused on how pretty the actresses were. My favourite was Irene Jacob, who was in Three Colours: Red. It became a favourite of mine. I haven’t seen it for a long time. I must rewatch it. I remember it was one of the first films I recorded from television with our brand new VCR player which recorded in stereo. Wow. I guess soon after I discovered one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen in my life The Double Life of Veronique which is a 1991 French-Polish-Norwegian drama film directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski who also directed the Three Colours trilogy. There were a few more films but I don’t remember them well. I guess I will think of them when I have finished and published this post. In any case, none had the impact as of the ones mentioned.

That was in the 90’s. Around 2011 I got into a phase of watching a load of subtitled films. Realising how much I was missing. I was into horror and French cinema had a new or recent brand of extreme horror. Very graphic and brutal stuff. Being told something is extreme when you are into horror just makes you want to watch it. I will talk more about why I like horror in another post. Anyway, I subjected myself to Martyrs, High Tension, Frontiers, In My Skin and Inside. Martyrs from 2008 is the most disturbing but maybe the best since the concept behind the story and the ending are very memorable. In My Skin had the biggest emotional impact. It is more a drama really where a woman struggles with anxiety. The others were good but not so meaningful. More about gore and scares. Now I should also mention Irreversible. I watched it a few years before that and then rewatched it. It’s dark and hard to watch but quite brilliant. It’s also hard not like Vincent Cassel and Monica Belucci. These are probably not the kind of films you watch many times unless you have something wrong with you.

In the last year I have seen two more French films that both stand out. Betty Blue (1986) which I think is a masterpiece. I loved that! And Blue is the Warmest Colour. It seems I returned to the colours again. That latter film is such an involving and honest film. That moment when Adele and Emma first go to the park and almost kiss while saying good bye. How to do intensity in film. Note to my photographic self: Using the evening sun to backlight a tightly-framed kiss, definitely works.

In my next post I will talk about my experiences of Spanish films, which includes one of my favourite films of all time, in any language.

Friday, I’m Not So Much In Love

Friday-13th-6-Jason-Lives

Recently, I watched a few of the Friday the 13th movies. I did this a few years ago too when I got easy access to films online. I wanted to see if I would like them. People talk about them so much and I do like a good horror although I tend towards ghosts and demons than psychopaths and zombies. Back then, I watched the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and the Halloween movies too. Well, the first installment of both of those two are better than Friday the 13th. It’s pretty poor. I don’t think it stands the test of time well. Critics at the time didn’t think much of them but they certainly gained a cult base. The name of Jason is up there with Michael Myers in the pantheon of horror villains. Perhaps not quite a household name as Freddy Kruger but Freddy does have a better name.

By even broadly dissecting what makes up a classic slasher, I am obviously echoing the Scream franchise too. Where, particularly in the first film, the ”rules of horror” are laid out.

So the original Friday the 13th, from 1980 is directed by Sean S. Cunningham. (He sounds Irish enough). It is one of the first of the cabin-in-the-woods-type slasher movies where a group of carefree (or careless) young folk are picked off one by one by an unseen or masked killer. What gets old pretty fast about these movies is the fact that the same things keep happening. It’s all about who dies next and how. The how element is perhaps the most important part. Novel ways of killing someone seems to get a chuckle from time to time. I would say that most people watching these movies find them amusing more than terrifying. Aside from obvious cliches like the spooky location, a dose of coitus interruptus, the ”I’ll be right back”, and the shower scene, the most tired component is the use of the jump scare. It is all over the place in these movies. It is obviously a kind of cheap thrill but maybe nonetheless a staple of the quintessential slasher movie. I would say, that half the time their is a jump scare in one of these movies, it turns out not to be the killer but one of the other camp counselors goofing about. Maybe this was something different in its time. Mostly though, I could predict which it was going to be. I don’t know how. It seemed obvious in spite of the ominous music.

The influence of Bernard Hermann’s score is all over this one too. Granted many horror music composers knew that they there was something special about the score for Hitchcock’s Psycho. Apart from Jaws, it’s the only horror music I can think of that has made its way into popular culture to such an extent. The repeated shrieking strings in the iconic shower scene killing of Marion Crane. Most of us have imitated that once in our lives, complete with the downward stabbing mime. The other noticeable motif of the Friday the 13th soundtrack is the panting sounds, if you could call them that. ”The ooh ooh ohh ah ah ah” sequence. Not wanting to be too poetic about it. These sounds must have been unnerving in the cinemas in the early 80s.

One of the best things about the first movie is the reveal of the killer who turns out to be the mother of Jason. The boy who drowned at camp because the counselors weren’t paying attention. There is more than a hint of the notion that promiscuity will get you killed. This is a common theme in teen slasher movies. It’s not good to be a the slasher movie slut. The mother wants revenge. Played by Betsy Palmer, she is one of the best things about the movies. Particularly creepy is when she impersonates the voice of her son, Jason telling her to kill. It’s pretty effective stuff.

Kevin Bacon has a part in this first movie too and is nice to watch but unfortunately he doesn’t survive very long.

There is also a notable amount of skin on display and a lack of underwear too which was less to do with fashion and more to do with distraction. No doubt this helped to sell the movies. Neither would it be quite the same if Jason or his mum showed up in an old folks home to their worst. Honestly, I wouldn’t rule that out as a sequel.

The next day after watching the first one, I watched Friday The 13th Part 2 and actually enjoyed it a lot more. I thought it was sharper and quicker. Within the confines of the genre, script and actors of course. They did have twice the budget to play with than the first one, which can help. I could somehow relate to the characters more but, let’s not get carried away here, it’s not like we explore the depths of their complex psyches. Still there are levels of connectedness with individuals. The dialogue is perhaps a little better too. It was a ”fuller” movie in general.

The next day, I started watching the third part and got bored after twenty minutes. I half-watched it til the end mainly cause I wanted to see Jason don the iconic mask. Yes, it doesn’t happen until the third movie. The third does try to incorporate more of the world outside of camp and a greater mix of characters but that doesn’t really help it. There are no less than 9 more movies in the franchise! I can’t even imagine looking at any of those. Although, perhaps one of the recent ones might be interesting.

When you watch these movies it is natural to wonder who the final girl will be. Who will make it to the end. Incidentally there is a decent horror called Final Girls from 2015. Which is a kind of meta-slasher. Worth a watch. The engaging Taissa Farmiga is in it too (the exceptional actress Vera Farmiga’s younger sister). And other good slasher movies? Well, I would still recommend giving the first two movies a watch. They are short and easy to digest. The Burning (1981) is a totally respectable addition to the summer camp slasher and Sleepaway Camp (1983), in similar vein, is underrated with a good twist. Obviously don’t expect Fellini.

If we want more recent movies set in the woods. Cabin in the Woods from 2012 is probably the best. Second to this would probably be Evil Dead (2013). A real rarity. A remake that actually works.