Tag Archives: foreign language films

Live to Work, Work to Live

Between Two Worlds

by George Wolf

You’ve probably already guessed that Juliette Binoche is excellent in Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham). Her turn as Marianne is effortlessly human and engaging while she keeps the cliched trappings of a “brave” performance at bay.

The Oscar-winner doesn’t bother with her hair and makeup! And, she’s often seen scrubbing toilets as part of a “commando” cleaning crew. Earning only minimum wage, Marianne and her co-workers have only 90 minutes to clean rooms on the cruise ships that dock in the port city of Caen, France.

Marianne is the newbie on this crew, as her life of leisure ended when her husband left her for a younger woman, forcing her to return to the workforce after more than two decades. Marianne becomes a trusted member of the work family, forming an especially tight bond with the gritty Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert, excellent) a single mother with unwavering drive to provide for her kids, whatever it takes.

Chrystèle doesn’t have time for indulgences like the side trip to the beach that her new friend insists upon, which should have been the first clue that Marianne is not what she’s pretending to be.

She – just like French journalist Florence Aubenas, author of the source work – is an accomplished author, posing as a working stiff to conduct first-hand research for a book on the rising uncertainty of the French economy. That book became a best-seller, and director/co-writer Emmanuel Carrère brings it to the screen with a strange mix of empathy and tone deafness.

Carrère and his authentic ensemble make sure we feel the desperation of the workers, and share in their happiness when one of their own lands a better opportunity and leaves the nest. And though we also share in the hurt when Marianne is found out, the film itself never holds her truly accountable.

Sure, she’s sad, but mainly because her friend Chrystèle won’t forgive the abuse of trust. Credit Binoche for giving Marianne enough layers to make the question of “ends justifying the means” even plausible, but how the film works for you may ride on your own experience with both of the lifestyles.

Are the “invisible people” fair game as long as you feel bad about it? Even if Aubenas still thinks so, Between Two Worlds could have put a little more trust in the audience rank and file.

Look Down, Walk Fast

Chile ’76

by George Wolf

Chile ’76 is a stellar feature debut for director and co-writer Manuela Martelli. It’s assembled with the measured pace of a storyteller committed to her vision and confident in her approach.

And, as a native of Santiago who was a teenager in the mid-seventies, Martelli is clearly passionate about this very tumultuous slice of her homeland’s history.

The film is set less than three years into the dictatorship of Pinochet, when a constant layer of fear hung heavy in the air. Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is buying a can of paint for some home redecorating when she overhears a woman crying for help as local authorities take her away.

We don’t see the abduction, either, and Martelli’s focus on Carmen’s silent reaction is the first of many instances where the film gains heft from Martelli’s elegant restraint.

As the wife of a respected doctor (Alejandro Goic), Carmen enjoys a life of means and free time. She volunteers reading to the blind, and it is precisely Carmen’s standing, schedule and conscience that spur Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina) to entrust her with a sensitive task.

The twenty-something Elias (Nicolás Sepúlveda) was badly wounded by Pinochet’s forces, but escaped. Could Carmen nurse him back to health, in secret, at her family’s beach house?

Martelli builds a solid foundation to support this intimate political thriller, leaning on meaningful visuals and Küppenheim’s terrific performance to consistently elevate the stakes. While Carmen’s rich friends cling to familiar accusations of “lazy traitors” who only “want to get things for free,” Carmen’s life becomes a series of hushed meetings, secret passwords, and aroused suspicions.

It may only run 95 minutes, but Chile ’76 fills all of them with an impressive ability to change colors. Hints of a standard melodrama fall away to reveal tense political intrigue, becoming the centerpiece of a talented filmmaker’s somber salute to the spirt of revolution.

Cruel to Be Cruel

The Hole in the Fence

by George Wolf

The fence is meant to separate the proud and the privileged from the lawless and desperate. So the opening in it serves as a warning about who might try to come in, and a reminder about how important it is to protect your place on the “good” side.

The Hole in the Fence (El hoyo en la cerca) isn’t exactly subtle, or especially profound, but it does serve up a well constructed lesson in the roots of toxic masculinity, the twisted tenets of religious hypocrisy, and the casual cruelty that often accompanies both.

A group of rich Catholic kids is bused into Mexico’s Los Pinos integration camp for boys. The lessons they receive will continue their grooming as the next wave of the Mexican “elite,” and lesson one is a speech that reinforces how unworthy the “outside” people are.

And right on cue, ringleader Jordi (Valeria Lamm) and the rest of the boys begin singling out any sign of weakness in the ranks. Diego (Eric David Walker) is hampered by casts and a neck brace, Eduardo (Yubah Ortega) is a scholarship kid, and Joaquincito (Lucciano Kurti) might be gay.

This will not do.

We’ve seen these themes and metaphors before, but director and co-writer Joaquin del Paso does score some compelling moments by narrowing the focus to the teachers and students interacting in one confined space. And the pupils learn quickly about how well cruelty can work for them, especially as a means to decrease your own suffering at the expense of someone else’s.

Slowly, the priests and instructors begin moving from the periphery to the center of the narrative. One camper goes missing, hints are dropped about the history of the camp, and del Paso engineers a truly unsettling extended take sequence set by the side of a highway.

Who is more dangerous here, those outside the fence, or those inside? The Hole in the Fence has answers that are not soft-pedalled, but still too hard to be ignored.

Merely Players

The Innocent

by George Wolf

With The Innocent (L’innocent), director/co-writer/co-star Louis Garrel takes Shakespeare’s declaration that “all the world’s a stage” to some clever and literal ends.

Or, he mines madcap laughs from a man trying to catch his mother’s new husband in a lie.

Or, he builds tension from a “sure thing” heist sure to go wrong.

Or maybe he’s just trying to comment on the needless games we sometimes play for love.

Really, the film’s biggest hurdle is keeping the whiplash at bay as it juggles all of these tones for just over 90 minutes. And for the most part its balancing act is successful, crafting a breezy and amusing take at all the untrue stories we tell.

Sylvie (Anouk Grinberg) teaches drama to prison inmates (as Garrel’s own mother did for many years), and falls in love with the incarcerated Michel (Roschdy Zem). They marry, which doesn’t thrill Sylvie’s adult son Abel (Garrel, who you may remember as Theo from The Dreamers), and once Michel is released, Abel sets out to prove to his mother that Michel is still up to no good.

Meanwhile, Abel and Clémence (Noémie Merlant, so good in Tár and Portrait of a Lady on Fire) stand delicately on the last rung of the friend zone, each seemingly waiting for the other to jump off.

Garrel blurs the line between acting and lying (to others and ourselves) with a slyly comical hand, amid pauses to remind us how crucial sincerity is to successful relationships.

Okay, that’s enough, now back to this zany caviar robbery!

American audiences may find The Innocent to be more of an acquired taste than those in Garrel’s native France, but anyone who dives in shouldn’t bail too quickly. Give this splendid cast time to pull all the threads together, and they’ll build a stage big enough for comedy, drama, romance and heart.

Grown Up Girl and Boy Land


by George Wolf

The feature debut from director and co-writer Saim Sadiq unveils an assured and often masterful technician, one able to convey a deep affection for the lives of his meaningful characters.

Joyland is a smart and deeply human drama, a treat for both the eye and the heart.

Haider (Ali Junejo) is the youngest son in a traditional Pakistani family. After a long period of unemployment, he finally lands a job. But while this seems like good news, it signals a seismic shift in his multi-generational family dynamic at home, starting with the family’s decision for Haider’s wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) to give up the salon job she loves so she may stay home and assist with keeping house and children.

Haider will be joining the backup dancers in a Bollywood-style show led by the strong-willed Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman. The pay is good, but Haider will have to tell his conservative father (Salmaan Peerzada) that he’ll be managing the theatre, not dancing in it, and avoid any mention of the star of the show.

But Haider’s biggest secret is his infatuation with the magnetic Biba, and the relationship that is budding between them.

Sadiq’s camera moves slowly and confidently, filling frames that are frequently static with mesmerizing dances of color, shadow, and light. Just what he does with a decorative light fixture’s effect on the room where Haider and Biba grow closer is a thrilling wonder of shot choreography.

Similarly, Sadiq’s script (co-written with Maggie Briggs) often speaks loudly through the silence of things left unsaid. Haider isn’t the only one here keeping secrets, and the film begins to ache with the longing for lives that seem hopelessly out of reach.

And yet somehow, the gripping conclusion arrives without any of the melodrama you might expect. And when it does, Joyland leaves a mark that also signals the arrival of its visionary and insightful filmmaker.

Seoul Searching

Return to Seoul

by George Wolf

“Your birth name is Yeon-Hee. It means ‘docile’ and ‘joyous.'”

None of those things apply to Frédérique (Park Ji-min), whose name was changed after a French couple adopted baby Yeon-Hee and moved her from Seoul to Paris.

25 years later, she’s back.

In Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), the trip “home” becomes a catalyst for one woman’s search for identity, as director and co-writer Davy Chou crafts a relentlessly engrossing study of character and culture.

Now 25, “Freddie”‘s planned vacation in Japan is diverted by a typhoon, and she lands in Seoul “by surprise” – or so she tells her adoptive mother in France. But it isn’t long before Freddie is visiting the agency that handled her adoption, and reaching out to her birth parents to gauge interest in a meeting.

And from the minute we meet Freddie, she is purposefully upending the societal expectations of her heritage. When Freddie laughingly explains it away to her friend Tena (Guka Han) as “I’m French,” Tena quietly responds that Freddie is “also Korean.”

Freddie’s birth father and mother have very different reactions to her outreach. Chou moves the timeline incrementally forward, and Freddie’s two-week holiday becomes a new life in Seoul, one that’s fueled by restlessness and unrequited longing.

In her screen debut, Park is simply a revelation. Her experience as a visual artist clearly assists Park in realizing how to challenge the camera in a transfixing manner that implores us not to give up on her character. Freddie is carrying a soul-deep wound and pushes people away with a sometimes casual cruelty, but Park always grounds her with humanity and restraint.

As the narrative years go by, Chou adds flamboyance without seeming overly showy, and manages to toe a tricky line between singular characterization and a more universal comment on Korean adoptees.

Freddie begins to embody the typhoon that pushed her toward this journey of self, and Return to Seoul becomes an always defiant, sometimes bristling march to emotional release. And when that release comes, it is a rich and moving reward for a filmmaker, a performer, and all who choose to follow.

There Will Be Blood

No Bears

by George Wolf

Even if you know nothing of acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, No Bears (Khers nist) should be an absorbing and compelling experience.

But when you consider that Panahi (This Is Not a Film, Taxi, Closed Curtain) not only shot the film in secret, but currently sits in a Tehran prison, and is barred from writing, directing, giving interviews or traveling outside Iran until 2030, his continued commitment to agitation through artistic expression grows immeasurably inspirational.

With No Bears, Panahi uses the parallel lives of two Iranian couples to comment on the struggles of that expression, and on the powerful forces that conspire to restrict free will.

Panahi plays himself, arriving at a small village near the Turkish border to set up a base where he can direct his latest film remotely, joining the set through internet connection. While two actors in his cast (Mina Kavani and Bakhtiyar Panjeei) are trying desperately to land fake passports and flee Iran, Panahi quickly becomes a person of interest in the village.

Word has spread that Panahi may have unwittingly snapped a photo of a young Iranian woman (Darya Alei) with a man (Amir Davari) other than the one who has “claimed” her. Villagers are demanding the photo as proof of a grave misdeed, while the woman in question fears the bloodshed that will come from the photo’s existence.

Despite numerous reassurances to Panahi about “honorable” intent, the pressure from the villagers only increases, much like the desperation of his actors looking to start a new life.

Panahi films in a style that is understandably guerilla, but stands in sharp contrast to the dense, and thrillingly complex storytelling at work. He is deftly calling out both the oppressors and the enablers, while he weighs the rippling effect of his own choices amid a deeply ingrained bureaucracy of fundamentalism and fear, superstition and gossip.

No Bears is a brave and bold blurring of fact and fiction, with Panahi embracing the gritty authenticity of the most urgent first person documentary and the layered storylines of a political page-turner. It may be his most daring project to date, accentuated by a defiant final shot that teeters on the line between ending and beginning.

Self Defense

Saint Omer

by George Wolf

“I am not the responsible party.”

Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) admits that she deliberately left her 15-month old daughter on the water’s edge to die, alone at the mercy of the tide. But Mlle. Coly tells a court in Saint Omer, France that she is not to blame.

Rama (Kayije Kagame), a literature professor and novelist, has made the trip from Paris to attend Coly’s trial. Rama’s plan is to adapt the case into an updated version of the ancient myth of Medea (calculated revenge against an unfaithful husband). But Rama is now four months pregnant, and like Coly, she is a woman of Senegalese descent in a mixed-race relationship. And the more Coly defends herself, the more Rama feels a deepening kinship.

After a string of documentaries, writer/director Alice Diop moves into narrative features for the first time with her eye for authenticity intact. Coly’s case is based on an actual trial that Diop felt moved to attend in person, and she wrote Rama’s character to reflect her own experience.

Diop’s approach is strictly observational, and mostly anchored in the courtroom where Coly’s story is told, rebutted and debated. And though films with more tell and less show often suffer with emotional connection, Diop mines two impressive lead performances for resonance that comes from the things that are not being said.

Perspectives shift frequently, and an emotionally complex conversation emerges that begs for humanity in the midst of an unthinkable act. But no matter who may be speaking, or what side they may be on, we feel the bond growing between Rama and Coly, which makes Diop’s one overt camera move in the finale all the more worthy.

There is a judge in this French courtroom, but Saint Omer invites us to sit on the jury. It is a thoughtful and sensitive discussion that may surprise you. And it is one worth having.

Found in Translation

Decision to Leave

by George Wolf

“Congrats, it’s a murder case!”

Or maybe more than one. But does detective Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, Memories of Murder and The Host) really want to bring the killer to justice?

Decision to Leave (Heojil kyolshim) unveils a playful, seductive mystery of longing and obsession, masterfully layered and gorgeously framed by acclaimed director and co-writer Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Thirst).

Jang is an insomniac, often plagued by memories of unsolved cases and so driven by his work that he keeps a separate residence closer to the precinct, only seeing his wife on weekends.

The distance between them becomes greater once Jang meets the mysterious Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei from Lust, Caution), a smoldering beauty who doesn’t seem very sorry that her husband is dead. His fall from a mountaintop appears to be a suicide, but Jang is compelled to dig deeper.

Song is quick to point out that she is Chinese, and conversing in Korean can leave her confused in translation. But is this just a ploy so Jang will underestimate her, or is she truly the sympathetic victim she claims to be?

Both Wei and Hae-il are wonderful, wrapping themselves around the delicious dialog and intertwining threads of murder and romance in totally engaging fashion. We hang on the hushed potential of the relationship along with each character, and their choices often alternate between compelling, confounding, and darkly funny.

As the time setting shifts ahead to when Song has remarried and yet another twist is introduced, the narrative air becomes even thicker with neo-noir style. Park (Best Director at Cannes this year) and cinematographer Kim Ji-young create a sumptuous visual palette, full of modern innovation and classic homages in equal measure.

It is a truly intoxicating atmosphere that rarely lets up, and a perfect compliment to the yearning that erodes boundaries between detective and suspect. Decision to Leave attack those barriers with tantalizing precision, leaving a breathless trail of crime and passion that is guaranteed to linger.

Tricking the Scales

The Good Boss

by George Wolf

For awhile, The Good Boss (El buen patrón) seems to reflect that elusive uncertainty principle the characters often discuss. The more we try to pin it down, the less we know of its nature.

And then writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa reveals his hand in a delightfully satirical manner, only to end up tipping the scale in the opposite, obvious direction.

And that would cause a furrowed brow from Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem), head of the Blanco Industrial Scales corporation. Blanco’s life – and work – is about perfectly equal measures.

“Hard work, balance, loyalty” is the company motto. Employees are family. Their problems are Blanco’s problems. And just when he’s a finalist for a prestigious business excellence award, Blanco’s got plenty of problems.

A longtime worker’s son is in trouble with the law. His production head’s wife might be banging another employee. And that new young intern (Almudena Amor) is returning Blanco’s frequent glances.

But worst of all, a guy he “had no choice” in firing (Óscar de la Fuente) is camped out across the street, protesting Blanco with signs and a bullhorn. And the guy will not leave.

As de Aranoa ticks off the days of the week, there are some glimpses of playful humor in the drama. But when Thursday rolls around, and Blanco’s security guard starts complementing the bullhorn guy’s rhyme schemes, The Good Boss starts having finger-wagging fun with the myth of benevolent “job creators.”

Bardem, no surprise, is a wonder. He slowly reveals cracks in Blanco’s facade of ethical bullshit, while never causing us one moment’s doubt about Blanco’s firm belief in this image he’s created. For Blanco, as long as the scales appear balanced, they are, regardless of the tricks it took to get there.

And anyway, he needs that award and the government subsidies that come with it. We don’t want “those artists” to hog the award money, do we?

Yes, the satirical fruit can hang pretty low, and de Aranoa’s subplot juggling skills start to waver as his narrative becomes more madcap. But right to the bitter end, Bardem can be trusted most when Blanco deserves it least, making sure The Good Boss is a satisfying day at the office.