Foreigners, Eh? Guess They’re All Right

I’m not a sophisticated guy.

I came to understand this about twenty years ago when I took a hot Italian-Australian chick on a first date to one of those huge multiplex cinemas. She seemed to find my jokes funny, was a good six or seven years younger, had a tiny waist and always wore cool, silver hoop earrings. Can’t remember her name, but let’s call her Rosalie.

Anyway, Rosalie really wanted to see the new Mel Gibson flick, Signs. Perhaps the first indication we weren’t destined to live happily ever after was on the way there when she asked about my favorite meal. I truthfully replied beans and cheese on toast with fried mushrooms, all washed down with full cream milk. There was this weird little flicker in her eyes and then a pronounced silence that suggested it wasn’t the best answer.

We walked into the movie theater and I endured what was on offer, chalking its basic absurdity down to the sort of undignified sacrifice you have to occasionally make when you’re chasing pussy. I’m pretty sure I dozed off about halfway through, figuring things would get better at the pub when alcohol was introduced into the equation. Maybe I could even say something nice about her cool earrings…

It wasn’t to be.

After we came out it took me nearly twenty minutes to find the car. At one point she was shouting at me to get the manager or the cops or anyone instead of leading us round and round the humongous car park for the rest of our lives. How could I tell her I was a man and therefore had to stick to the Man Code: namely, never ask for help if a desirable female is present because that undermines your manliness. And there’s nothing more likely to drive off a desirable female than an unmanly man.

I eventually found the car and tried to make a joke out of it by blaming her for stealing my keys and slyly moving it when I’d earlier nodded off in row G. Mutterings followed that may well have been Italian swear words. On the journey home she kept her arms folded the entire way. Suffice to say, I didn’t get a second date, but whenever I happen to see a girl in silver hoop earrings I guess I muse about what could have been.

Such is life.

On the plus side, I’ve never had to suffer another flick about rubber-suited aliens fucking about with crop circles.

So, anyway, I’m not a sophisticated guy. I’m uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and a T-shirt. And when it comes to movies, I have the same approach. I don’t like pretension, opaqueness, avant-garde shit and endless moping around. I’ve got very little interest in the likes of Fellini and Bergman and Shoah, a film that lasts almost as long as the actual event it’s about. That doesn’t mean I spend all day laughing my tits off at Porky’s Kim Cattrall doing her Lassie impression, but I definitely prefer meat and potato British and American flicks. You just can’t beat a bit of Withnail and Cuckoo’s Nest, you know?

Still, there are times when I’m cooking up my favorite meal and my mind drifts back to that less than perfect date with Rosalie.

And I think I’ll show her.

Sure, stylishness or quickly being able to locate my car might still be proving tricky, but I’m definitely capable of sitting through one of those fancy subtitled movies and only making one or two racist comments.

Well, less than five anyway.

And as the film plays with the bean juice drying at the corners of my mouth, I can pretend for ninety minutes or so that I’m a sophisticated guy who’s about to slip into a tux and head off to the opera arm in arm with an intriguing little signorina.

So here are six foreign flicks that manage to cut the mustard, even if they don’t feature a sexually aroused gym teacher impersonating a howling dog.

South Korea

South Korean cinema can be brutal, uncompromising stuff but it often fails to emotionally connect. The much-celebrated Old Boy and I Saw the Devil definitely contain cracking scenes of mayhem, but Memories of Murder is a nuanced, much more satisfying experience.

Taking its cue from the country’s first ever serial killer, it focuses on the chaotic police investigation. It’s 1986 and nothing is computerized. Relationships with foreign agencies familiar with the MO of such whack jobs don’t exist. There’s no attempt to get into the killer’s perverted mind or even connect the victims. Manpower is limited and forensics remains in its infancy.

In fact, these bone-headed cops are so out of their depth trying to snare the slick sex killer with their blunt methods it’s almost pure comedy. They fall over at crime scenes. Evidence is destroyed and then fabricated. Suspects are hung upside down and beaten while false confessions are duly recorded.

The Korean Keystone Kops

Lead cop Park Doo-man, however, thinks he’s the real deal, believing he only has to look at people to know if they’re guilty.

“If I keep staring at them, it’ll hit me,” he says. “Instinctively. My eyes read people. It’s how I survive as a detective.”

Not that such self-confidence stops him from consulting a shaman after his idiotic, self-defeating methods continually run into humiliating dead ends. When a junior female colleague comes up with a genuine lead involving a song being repeatedly played on a local radio station he dismisses it and tells her to make him a cup of tea instead. At one point he even tries to convince his boss that the killer is leaving behind no forensic clues because ‘he’s a total baldie down there.’ Cue shots of Park checking out the genitals of naked men in saunas.

Part of Memories‘ strength is the way it paints such a colorful picture of this incompetent investigator. Yes, he’s uneducated, narrow-minded, violent and none too smart, but he’s committed to the job and genuinely wants to catch his man. Even when he’s being a complete fuckwit we’re basically still on his side, especially when the movie eases away from black comedy and starts morphing into something a good deal more profound.

Its achingly poignant coda is haunting.

Sweden

The lack of good vampire movies has always puzzled me. They’ve been a mainstay of horror since the 1920s but overall I’m disappointed. From the spotty brilliance of Salem’s Lot and the sexed-up lezzer antics of Vampyres to the big budget, star-studded mediocrity of Interview and the excruciatingly stupid ways Christopher Lee was revived and dispatched in all those cheesy Hammer flicks, not one has ever seized me by the jugular.

Until 2008, that is.

Let the Right One In is a gem. Boasting an unusual snowbound location, the film has little interest in genre cliches and instead concentrates on an unconventional friendship in the early 1980s.

Twelve-year-old Oskar is a loner, prone to dark fantasy. He’s getting bullied at school but doesn’t seem to consider telling his mom or a teacher. Things begin to change when he meets Eli, the newly arrived girl next door. Straightaway, he knows she’s a bit unusual. For a start she’s ‘forgotten’ how to feel the cold and doesn’t know when her birthday is, but at least she can do the Rubik’s Cube.

Everything about this wonderfully unpredictable flick gels. It’s confidently put together, unfolds at an unhurried pace, and is genuinely intriguing. Of course, it’s always brave hanging a horror film on kids, but when such a move comes off (e.g. The Omen, Sixth Sense) it can take things to a whole new level.

And although Let the Right One In is often sweet and touching, it doesn’t forget the horror either, delivering in memorable spurts.

France

Presenting capitalism at its profits-before-human-lives worst, The Wages of Fear is built upon a dynamite idea.

Or a nitroglycerine one, anyway.

A bunch of European expats are eking out a living in a stinking hot South American town. To keep them company are disabled beggars, naked street kids, malaria, spiders, leprosy, vultures, and locals riding donkeys over water-filled potholes. People amuse themselves by tying cockroaches together or throwing stones at dogs. Even if someone has a legit job, it will ruin your health. In other words, it’s the sort of place that Donald Trump, that colossus of diplomacy, would describe as a ‘shithole’.

Suddenly a chance to earn big bucks arrives when a nearby oil well explodes. The company bosses decide the only way to put out the resultant fire is to blow it up with nitroglycerine.

But first they need four drivers to get the stuff there, a perilous road journey that may well end in atomization. Knowing this, they look to employ desperate men that lack both a union and a family.

“With a ton of that stuff under you, the slightest bump and you’re a goner,” the American boss tells the clamoring volunteers. “There wouldn’t even be enough of you left to pick up.”

The fraught expedition affects the four men in different ways. One crumbles under the psychological pressure. “I’ve died fifty times since last night,” he tells his co-driver. “Every pebble and hole is a risk.”

But another remains ice-cool to the point of only wanting to leave a good-looking corpse. “The Nazis had me working in a salt mine for three years,” he says. “When I came out, I was half dead. Compared to that, what’s nitroglycerine?”

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot expertly ratchets up the tension as the ‘coffins on wheels’ edge past everything from landslides to crumbling bridges. A sequence set in a crater rapidly filling with gushing oil is particularly gripping. William Friedkin’s 1977 American remake (the bizarrely titled Sorcerer) is also worth checking out.

Holland

Starting with the telling image of a stick insect blending into its environment, The Vanishing effortlessly establishes all its themes in the opening fifteen minutes.

Rex and Saskia are driving from their native Holland to take a cycling holiday in France. As they enter a tunnel, the darkness causes Saskia to recall a recurrent nightmare of being trapped inside a golden egg floating through space. “The loneliness is unbearable,” she tells her husband before realizing her latest dream also contained another egg floating close by. “And if we were to collide, it’d all be over.”

Seconds later they run out of gas in the tunnel, leaving the car dangerously positioned. They argue about what to do as other vehicles flash by. Rex grabs a jerry can and strides away, leaving a panicking Saskia looking for a flashlight. It’s a small yet vivid scene that throws up all kinds of worrying issues from abandonment and guilt to mind games and the fear of death.

Slowly but surely another man enters the picture, a working, educated man with a family and no obvious flaws. A man who blends in. I would argue it’s one of the most convincingly quiet depictions of a sociopath ever put on film.

Japan

Few movies exploit their location as well as the 1964 black and white classic, Onibaba. It’s set in medieval Japan during a civil war with virtually every scene taking place in an enormous field of thick, soughing reeds.

A mother and daughter-in-law struggle to survive after their son/husband has failed to return from the ongoing conflict. However, the resourceful pair takes full advantage of their jungle-like surroundings, hunting and killing any disorientated samurai who’ve blundered in. They then dispose of the bodies in a deep pit before selling the warriors’ armor and weapons on the black market to buy rice.

Great set-up, eh?

Into this knife-edge situation comes an earthy, newly-returned neighbor, who tells them he saw their loved one get killed. Things quickly turn sexual, resulting in the middle-aged mother fearing she will starve to death if he runs off with her hunting partner.

This is a tremendous drama with a blunt emphasis on sex. Indeed, the gorgeous, frequently topless daughter-in-law is enough to induce Yellow Fever in many a red-blooded male viewer. Chuck in some creepy supernatural undertones and superb cinematography and you’ve got one for the ages.

Spain

The 1936-39 civil war and its aftermath formed a bloody nasty time in Spain’s history, although unlike conflicts such as World War Two and Vietnam, this atrocity-filled period doesn’t get anywhere near the same screen time. Director Guillermo del Toro does his best to put that right with this beguiling blend of imaginative fantasy and harsh reality. The movie is Pan’s Labyrinth.

Set in 1944, it begins with the book-loving Ofelia and her heavily pregnant mother being sent to her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. The captain is a smart, disciplined, brave man who also happens to be a fascist of the first order. He will not hesitate to do the worst things if that offers the slightest leverage in defeating the remaining Republicans hiding out in the woods.

Meanwhile, Ofelia soon meets a fairy, who leads her into a nearby labyrinth. Once inside, a faun explains that she is the reincarnation of a long-lost underworld princess. Ofelia’s mother, however, is less than impressed with her odd behavior and childish outbursts.

“You’re getting older,” she tells her. “Soon you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. Magic doesn’t exist.”

In the wrong hands, this 2006 movie could have been a twee mess. Amazingly, it never fails to convince, boasting some excellent CGI while somehow marrying fairy tales, a child’s imagination and a secret supernatural world with the slaughter of innocents, torture and a deep absence of sentimentalism. Captain Vidal, played by Sergi Lopez, is certainly among the great 21st Century villains.

Dave Franklin has set the odd novel in foreign climes.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of the post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of the 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.