If you’ve been enticed by Parasite into exploring films that lie outside English- and Chinese-speaking offerings, we applaud this wise choice! A lot of the most innovative cinema comes from beyond western borders, and there’s much to explore. As director Bong Joon-ho so poetically puts it, it’s merely the inch-tall barrier of subtitles standing between most viewers and a whole new world of amazing films. Get the popcorn ready; we’ve gathered 10 fantastic foreign-language titles that everybody should see.
If this is your first foray into foreign films, Amélie is a great place to start from. Audrey Tatou’s titular leading lady is infinitely lovable, making her way around her neighbourhood of Montmartre on a self-imposed mission to make those around her happier. She comes up with elaborate schemes to elicit joy from strangers, until she realises that she is the one in need of an emotional booster. This film is an unrealistically beautiful depiction of Parisian life served with a heavy dose of fancy (and possibly happy pills), but its whimsical nature has captured hearts worldwide.
The beautiful Penelope Cruz plays Laura, who returns home to her Spanish village for a family wedding with her children. Her daughter Irene is told that Laura was once deeply in love with Paco, a local, and broke his heart when she eventually left for Argentina. Irene then gets kidnapped, and the only clues left behind are clippings of another kidnapping that had occurred four years ago. Suspicion brings up plenty of deep-rooted resentments and grudges, exposing all sorts of secrets, lies, and weaknesses.
Alfonso Cuarón has taken the Hollywood road trips and coming-of-age tropes and given it a sensual spin. Set on the road between Mexico City and Huatulco, bored hormonal teenagers Julio and Tenoch go on a road trip to a distant beach with a glamorous but troubled older woman, Luisa. As unapologetic as the film is about sex, it is also similarly obsessed with death, a recurrent theme which runs underneath all the romping. Overall, it’s a tender journey in loneliness, eroticism, and social commentary.
This Czech New Wave title follows the 13-year-old Valerie as she navigates life on the cusp of womanhood. Director Jaromil Jires takes the strange and confusing feelings coursing through teenagers to the next level, populating Valerie’s experiences with a sinister priest, a policeman who looks like a polecat, vampires, and a pair of pearl earrings that keeps cropping up in unexpected circumstances.
It’s never made clear whether the surreal dream-like states are real or otherwise, and it’s not a film that can be described much in terms of plot. Rather, Valerie is a graceful experience enhanced by stunning images and an excellent score, weaving a spell that will stay with you long after the film ends.
By now a legend in the genre of fantastical cinema, Pan’s Labyrinth combines fantasy, horror, the supernatural, and a war film into a visually stunning masterpiece. Fauns and fairies appear to the 11-year-old Ofelia, claiming her to be their princess, while she’s also confronted by Franco-era fascists. Both sides of her universe are potentially life-threatening to her, and the faun in the middle of the labyrinth seems to supersede such earthly concepts as good and evil, simply offering Ofelia choices with their own consequences.
As Guillermo Del Toro often preferred make-up and old-school cinematic tricks instead of relying on special effects, his fantastical creatures are all the more nightmarish, ageing much better than other effect-loaded films.
A spoof of overly produced Hollywood musicals, 8 Femmes sees the titular eight women gather in a snowbound cottage where a murder mystery unfolds. All eight of them have some connection to Marcel, who has been found with a knife sticking out of his back. Eight women, one murder, and six song-and-dance numbers. This is basically an Agatha Christie book in musical form. While none of it is taken seriously, there’s no denying that there’s plenty of fun to be derived from the plot, stylish presentation, barbed wit, and, of course, the musical numbers.
A title which paved the way for Western interest in Japanese cinema, Rashomon is a psychological thriller, presenting four characters’ accounts of one gruesome murder. The first spoken line in the film is “I just don’t understand.” Apt words, because the character who said it has heard the same murder described by all three participants in three different ways—what’s more, all three claim to be the killer.
The use of flashbacks and points of view that don’t match with reality was completely new in film; nobody had seen anything like it. As passive viewers, audiences tend to trust what they see as the truth, but Kurosawa highlights the human tendency to lie and embellish in an early depiction of unreliable narrative.
Inspired by a true story, this Polish film follows an ex-convict named Daniel, now reformed, who by mistake gets appointed to the post of the parish priest in a small town. He carries on the con, hides from his past, and attempts to help his adopted flock, who are also struggling to get over a recent tragedy. Bartosz Bielenia presents a tortured and charismatic performance as Daniel, winning sympathies even though there are clear moral transgressions at play.
This stunning film is quietly subversive in its handling of faith—the very cornerstone of Christianity which inspires a sort of herd mentality and backfires on its own believers when a black sheep is introduced into the mix. It’s also an observation into how people—or at the very least, the Catholic community—want to believe, despite the hypocrisy and corruption apparent in the system.
Ada is in love with a young labourer, Souleiman, but is forced to marry Omar instead, who is much wealthier. On their wedding night, Omar’s bed bursts into flames, and witnesses say they saw Souleiman set it. But this shouldn’t be possible as Souleiman has already left Dakar, Senegal, for better prospects. What happens next is a mix of genres, superstitions, modernity, and mysteries that is entirely unpredictable. The result is an openly political and supernatural story rooted in Dakar’s lower classes, one which also carries more than a hint of being unreal.
Focusing on the hidden threads that weave our boring everyday lives together under the surface, this two-part film follows three girls on their trip to Kangwon, a popular province for Koreans to vacation in. One of them hooks up with a local cop as a rebound after a break-up. Then the plot switches focus seemingly randomly to an adulterous college professor, but the viewer slowly realises that the two stories are linked.
Even though it deals with the themes of ennui and being emotionally uprooted, it doesn’t fall into the trap of being tepid and boring. This was the film that kickstarted the South Korean New Wave cinema, eventually giving rise to masterpieces such as Park Chan-wook’s cult favourite Oldboy and recent Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho’s previous work The Host.