Worth Watching: These 5 Foreign Films

Many people in English-speaking countries shy away from watching foreign-language films because they don’t want to have to read subtitles for 2+ hours. While this is an understandable reason, they are missing out on many excellent movies from throughout the world.

Here are five foreign-language gems that are worth seeing. Their country of origin is in parenthesis.

Battle Royale (Japan)

“No one is going to save you. That’s just life.”

In a nightmarish alternate version of Japan, one class of ninth grade students is annually chosen by random selection to participate in a deadly game. The students are transported to a remote island and forced to slaughter each other until only one survivor remains. Before you dismiss this as a rip-off of the “The Hunger Games”, the film was released in 2000, eight years before the first “Hunger Games” novel was published.

The gloriously over the top violence will please fans of gory horror movies. The students stab, shoot, poison, blow up, dismember, and even castrate their classmates in a desperate struggle to survive. One scene features a live grenade being inserted into the mouth of a severed head. The head is then thrown through a window, where it explodes.

Despite its gruesome content, the film has been acclaimed by many critics. It has been interpreted as a satire of Japan’s cutthroat education system. The movie doesn’t have much time to develop its characters, but we do get to know the final few survivors quite well. If you enjoyed “The Hunger Games” but are looking for something that is less mainstream and more hardcore, this is a great choice.

Downfall (Germany)

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“You must be on stage when the curtain falls.”

Based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s last personal secretary, “Downfall” is a fascinating film that chronicles the final days of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, played brilliantly by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, is hunkered down in an underground Berlin bunker accompanied by his hopelessly delusional wife Eva Braun and an array of fanatical and sycophantic military advisers, including the vile Joseph Goebbels. The film’s most haunting scene occurs when Goebbels and his wife murder their children in an attempt to “save” them from living in a post-Nazi world.  “Downfall” is an unforgettable look at the insanity of fascism.

The film features a famous sequence in which Hitler goes on an extended rant and finally admits that the war is lost. Although it is a very serious scene, it has been the subject of countless hilarious parodies on You Tube in which the subtitles are changed to have Hitler ranting about X-box Live, Miley Cyrus, his pizza being late, and countless other things.  

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Iran)

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“If there was a storm coming right now, a big storm, from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?”

A seductive female vampire dances to British indie rock music, scares little kids that annoy her, and sucks her way through a small Iranian town in this black-and-white Persian oddity that became a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. Far too strange to achieve mainstream commercial success, it nonetheless launched the career of filmmaker Ana Lily Amanpour, who directs the film with Quentin Tarantino-esque flair. Amanpour is attempting to break into the mainstream with her next project, “The Batch Batch”, an American cannibal film starring Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey. It is set to be released later this year.  

Most recent horror movies feature the same old stale clichéd crap. Original ideas have become almost as rare as sightings of Bigfoot. If you are ready for something that is genuinely different, this movie is for you.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)

“Everyone has secrets.”

The most famous movie on this list, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was a major worldwide sensation when it was released in 2009. Based on the first book of a bestselling trilogy of novels, the film introduces Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a clever but disturbed young woman who is a brilliant computer hacker. Lisbeth teams up with a journalist to investigate a cold case involving the disappearance of a young girl. Their search for answers eventually leads to a terrifying encounter with an evil and sadistic serial killer.

An American remake starring Rooney Mara as Lisbeth was released in 2011. In terms of plot, the remake is virtually identical to the original. However, the Swedish version is the better film, mainly because Noomi Rapace beats the pants off of Rooney Mara in the title role. Rapace’s version of Lisbeth is tougher, feistier, and more fun to watch.

The Swedish version of “Dragon Tattoo” is followed by two sequels, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”.  Plans to make American remakes of the sequels were scrapped.

The Virgin Spring (Sweden)

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“God, forgive me for what I have done.”

Directed by the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingrid Bergman, “The Virgin Spring” stars the seemingly immortal Max Von Sydow as Tore, a successful farmer living in medieval Sweden with his wife and teenage daughter. His daughter leaves the farm to bring some candles to a nearby church and is tricked into stopping to have lunch with two men, who lure her into the woods and then brutally rape and murder her. The two thugs, who are accompanied by a traumatized young boy, make a haphazard attempt to cover up the girl’s body and then embark on a desperate search for shelter. In a remarkable coincidence, or a karmic twist of fate, the trio find themselves at the home of Tore and his wife. Once Tore figures out what has happened, he unleashes hell on his daughter’s murderers. In the film’s final scene, Tore, who is a devout believer in the Norse god Odin, expresses horror and bewilderment at everything that has occurred and prays for forgiveness and understanding. A virgin spring then miraculously appears in the spot where his daughter died, signifying that Odin approves of, or at least forgives, Tore’s vengeful actions.

If this storyline seems familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen the controversial 1973 West Craven classic “The Last House on the Left” or its sordid and dreary 2009 remake. Those films strip away the religious subtext and change the setting to the contemporary United States. “The Virgin Spring” is better-made and classier than either version of “Last House on the Left”, but the rape/murder sequence is not for the faint of heart, even in black-and-white.

If you don’t mind reading subtitles (and have a strong stomach) then these films are well worth your time. There are plenty of other great foreign-language films out there, so perhaps I will write a sequel to this article at some point.