5 Non-English-Language Films You Really Need To See

Non, nous ne regrettons rien

So, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a feast for the eyes and the heart, and Parasite did some phenomenal things at the box office, proving (if such a thing ever needed to be proven, but… you know) that English-speaking audiences aren’t necessarily averse to reading a few subtitles when they go to the cinema. Plus, you get to bask in the warm glow of satisfaction when you realise how many cinephile points you get for going to see a subtitled movie, and the bragging rights at work the next day: Oh, you know. Went to the cinema – there’s this great little Belgian-language film out at the moment; have you heard of it? Won a couple of awards at Cannes

If that’s your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?) then, boy, have we got a treat for you. Because, you know, not to boast or anything, but we’ve seen a lot of subtitled movies. And some of them are legitimately phenomenal but haven’t quite done the kind of business they deserve. Amelie’s great and all (and we’re going to be chatting about it again next week, as it happens), but it doesn’t count if it had widespread Anglophone release, you know. You want the super-obscure stuff, and we’ve got you covered. Here are our five favourites.

1 A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

We talked about this one in our newsletter a while back (and if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that here) but we’ll never pass up the opportunity to give it a namecheck, because it’s criminally underrated. To quote from that earlier mention: “‘The first Iranian vampire western’ seems like such an unusually specific genre category that one imagines it will also be the last of its kind, but what an entry if so.” We said it and, by Jove, we meant it. Though it’s technically a US film (director Ana Lily Amirpour is a British-born American and the movie was shot in California), the film is set in the Iranian town of Bad City and all the dialogue is in Persian: the decision to use a stand-in locale was prompted by the film’s micro-budget (a princely $57,000, all raised through crowdfunding) and the Iranian government’s restrictions on the kind of content that can be filmed in the country. Adored by critics on its release, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, despite its Sundance premiere and spin-off graphic novel series, more than broke even on its modest production costs but hadn’t yet sailed north of £1 million at the box office two years after its release. If you like noirish, brutal, thoughtful and completely unforgettable vampire flicks, this one is for you.

2 Only Clouds Move the Stars (dir. Torun Lian, 1998)

Get ready to ugly cry, folks: your emotions are about to be played like a violin concerto, and you’ll weep yourself hoarse and thank us later. Eleven-year-old Maria has just lost her little brother to leukaemia, and her grieving mother can’t bear to be around her. Packed off for the summer to her grandparents in Bergen, Maria befriends a local boy, Jakob, who helps her come to terms with her loss. And, yes, it’s every bit as heartbreaking as it sounds… but in a good way, you know? You’ll leave this film feeling wrung out and cleansed. It’s cathartic, in the way that only the very best tearjerkers can ever manage to be.

Norway’s second biggest film of 1998, Only Clouds Move the Stars attracted critical adoration on its release, a whole bunch of awards, and even a write-up in Variety. But the public appetite for Norwegian-language cinema is mercurial at best, and these days this absolute gem of a movie is largely unheard of in the English-speaking world. Go ahead and change that. You’ll be glad you did.

3 Train To Busan (dir. Yeon Sang-Ho, 2016)

Another alumnus of our newsletter (actually, the same month as A Girl Walks Home At Night; it was clearly one hell of an issue), Train To Busan takes a bunch of familiar zombie movie conventions – tortured hero who needs to have an emotional epiphany, adorable little frightened moppet, pregnant woman and her worried husband, a bunch of jocks, and that one arsehole that you can’t wait to see get his face eaten off – and manages to make them feel fresh and ready to take on the undead hordes once more. It is, effectively, zombies + train AND GO, but director Yeon Sang-ho knows all the right buttons to push in the service of scaring the pants off his audience at the appropriate moments, and, though the subject matter might not be about to win any prizes for originality, the same can’t be said of the movie itself, which went on to be nominated for just about every film award in existence (and won a whole lot of them, too). If you really, really can’t bring yourself to do subtitles, an English-language remake is set for release in April 2023 but who knows what that one’s going to be like? You should probably play it safe and watch this one instead.

4 Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

You know how in some films you almost don’t need dialogue, or action, or anything other than the spectacular visuals? That’s Timbuktu. Ostensibly, the movie is an exploration of the titular city’s occupation by Islamic extremists and the repercussions for its inhabitants – and, don’t get us wrong, it does a hell of a job capturing the casual horror of living under that regime – but the location is as important a character as any of the humans on screen, and Sissako, a multi-award winning writer/director with a three-decade career in making stunning and critically acclaimed movies about globalisation and population displacement, knows exactly how to weave both the scenery and the narrative’s chilling storylines into a seamless, unforgettable tapestry. Against vast, sweeping, glorious landscapes and a vertiginous sense of the city’s many centuries of history, we watch human tragedies emerge, step by inescapable step, and Sissako defies us to look away. Make no mistake: this is not Sunday afternoon, popcorn-munching, easy-watching cinema. This movie demands things of you. But it’s all the more powerful for that.

6 I Am Not A Witch (dir. Rungano Nyoni, 2017)

Inspired by Nyoni’s travels in Ghana and Zambia, where she spent time in a real-life witch camp, I Am Not A Witch tells the story of Shula, a young girl who’s accused of witchcraft by the authorities in a small Zambian town. She’s sent to live with a group of elderly women similarly accused, who’ve been cast out to live in a rural settlement (where they’re each tethered to a long spool of ribbon to keep them from flying away), and tourists come to view them from time to time – when they’re not being carted off to the fields to work as manual labourers.

Nyoni says that the film “came from a place of anger”, and that’s visible throughout  – from the hypocrisy of the surrounding community, to the spectacularisation of women (and particularly independent women), the casual misogyny, and the heartfelt, ambiguous ending – but what’s remarkable is the thread of dark humour that lifts the narrative and draws out both Maggie Mulubwa’s magnificent performance and the cast of supporting characters that surround her in a way that tempers our outrage with a sense of humanity in all its absurdity, fallibility and self-aggrandisement. Ambitious, mighty, and unfailingly beautiful, this is a film that defies easy categorisation and makes you work for your viewing pleasure, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.

Go on, then. Out-boast us. We know we’ve left off a metric tonne of absolutely cracking films, but we only had five spots; it was rough. Which films have we shamefully omitted?

* For the purposes of this list, we’re taking the definition of space opera as “story set in space.” Yes, we’re going that wide. Look, there were just some things that we really wanted to include, okay?

** Robert loves it. Rachael hates it.

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