Tag Archives: foreign language films

The Umbrella Academy


by George Wolf

There was a brief interruption, but we now return to the usual mastery of Yimou Zhang.

While 2016’s The Great Wall (Zhang’s first English language film) stood less than tall, the return to his native tongue results in yet another rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.

Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.

After generations of warfare, the cities of Jing and Yang have been peacefully co-existing in an uneasy alliance. Now, thanks to a brilliantly devious plan for revenge that’s been years in the making, that fragile peace is threatened.

While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.

Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.

But seriously, you will never look at an umbrella the same way again.


Polish Romance

Cold War

by Hope Madden

Set against shifting political and musical environments and spanning at least four countries and 15 years, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a gorgeous and mournful ode to star-crossed lovers that feels equally sweeping and intimate.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) share names and characteristics with Pawlikowski’s own parents, though their story certainly differs a bit. As the film begins in post-war Poland, Wiktor is recording the songs of the people—folk songs handed down by peasants, which will become part of a new arts program aimed at celebrating Poland’s authentic voice. Until, that is, the program is co-opted and the songs become tributes to Stalin and agricultural reform.

Zula is unphased. A pragmatist, a survivor and a bit of a con artist, she wiled her way into the company by enchanting Wiktor with a song she’d learned from a Russian movie—not exactly a peasant’s lament.

As the film follows this very different and yet somehow connected pair, Pawlikowski casts a spell—with an assist from Lukasz Zal, whose black and white cinematography here is as glorious as it was in his Oscar-nominated 2013 collaboration with the filmmaker, Ida.

Together they capture an evolving tone and changing rhythm as folk ballads become jazz tunes, as Poland becomes East Germany and then Paris. In everything, Pawlikowski holds those melancholy, wistful notes just an extra beat. It’s a melody Kulig and Kot dance to beautifully.

Kulig impresses most as the ingénue who is master of her own future. Her performance is unpredictable and unapologetic, emphasizing the will of a character who does what she feels she must do, although that is rarely what anybody else expects.

Kot’s gentle, smitten but equally tortured character offers a fascinating, sometimes frustrating counterpart. It makes sense that these two creatures are based at least somewhat on living people. It would have been far too easy for them to fall into stereotypes, but instead they are as authentically confounding and beautiful as any committed and self-destructive couple.

Pawlikowski uses music to inform a shifting relationship; he uses a relationship to illustrate changing global politics; he leans on an impossible political situation to articulate insurmountable challenges within a relationship. The result is poetry.

The Judgement of Paris

Memoir of War

by Matt Weiner

So a screenwriter, the president of France and a spy walk into a café… have you heard this one? If so, you might have read the book La Douleur (War: A Memoir for the English translation), an autobiography by Marguerite Duras based on diaries she allegedly wrote during World War II.

Duras rose to fame as a writer, garnering a screenplay nomination for the Alain Resnais-directed Hiroshima mon amour. That film’s novel treatment of memory and chronology echoes throughout Memoir of War, adapted from Duras’s book and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel.

Mélanie Thierry plays the film version of Marguerite, whose recollections span the waning days of Vichy France through the Liberation of Paris, the end of the war and the immediate aftermath of Europe reckoning with news of the Holocaust.

If this sounds like a lot of history to cover for one movie, it would be—except Marguerite’s reflections are unconcerned with straightforward chronology. Her diaries and narration compress time and memory into one long, all-consuming reverie for her captured husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu).

It makes for a deliberately disorienting experience, one that Finkiel pulls out a few tricks to heighten: there’s the nauseatingly atonal strings of the soundtrack, as oppressive as a horror score. But most effective is the way Marguerite’s memories of these monumental years unfold so frequently in claustrophobic interiors.

We get the entire moral arc of world war by way of smoky Parisian rooms. As the war winds down and Robert’s fate seems more and more dire, Marguerite retreats both mentally and physically. And we experience the two most triumphant moments—the Liberation of Paris and what should be another happy occasion after the war—through Marguerite’s furtive glances out the window, like gossamer filters keeping the reality of the world at large a step removed from ever being something she can attain herself.

It’s a demanding role, and it rests almost entirely on Thierry to hold everything together even as her character seems to slip in and out of time. She pulls off resolve with gusto, and even tempers it with a haunted uncertainty that feels completely natural as the enormity of the Holocaust becomes clear.

Memoir of War is a difficult film to get a handle on. The Resistance intrigue is discarded as quickly as it starts to take shape. The historical romance is mostly MacGuffin. And the war barely leaves the cafés, let alone the city.

The slipperiness is apt though. Marguerite’s memories are their own fog of war, and the author’s real-life diaries play coy with authenticity vs. artistic liberty. Finkiel pieces together a fitting adaptation, and if the parts never hold together long enough to say some cohesive whole, at least he can say he makes us feel something Marguerite would recognize.

Crouching Tiger


by Cat McAlpine

When you recommend this film, do not lead with “French, subtitled.” Though an accurate description on both counts, the association of moody cigarette smoking would do little to represent the raw heart of Dheepan.

Dheepan is a Tamil freedom fighter (called Tigers) who flees as the war begins its bloody close. Having lost his own wife and daughters, he must travel with Yalini (26) and Illayaal (9), posing as family to secure asylum in France.

These three strangers become dependent on one another for the facade that protects them. Unfortunately, fleeing Sri Lanka makes only minor improvements in their livelihoods, and the makeshift family discovers that war comes in sizes great and small.

Writer/director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is hyper-aware of light, using both color and shape to carve out living, breathing moments. Dheepan battles his monsters in a red-lit basement room. An elephant sways slowly in the dappled light of the forest. Yalini leaves the door open while she showers, and the blue light from the bathroom flickers teasingly.

This is the vision that truly guides the narrative, finding those quiet moments in-between the gruesome truths of war, gangs, poverty, immigrants, and trying to love someone you do not know.

The camera work, too, defines these moments. The close-up seems to be a favorite of Audiard, but it is not misused in context. The camera betrays when Dheepan’s world feels small and when it feels large. The watcher often feels like they are peering into rooms where they were not invited.

Jesuthasan Antonythasan’s Dheepan is stoic, contemplative, and yearning. You can feel his need for anything simple and real. His violence is believable and earned. Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Yalini builds a curious fear of the world and people around her. She is rarely likable, but always enthralling. That’s the humanity in Audiard’s characters, they are more real because they are less likeable, but this can make Dheepan harder to watch.

The film could lose 20 or 30 minutes, or at least appropriate it to the more aggressive scenes. Beautiful and real though it is, there are long periods where not much happens. Its pinnacle violence is gruesome and triumphant, leaving you wanting more. But a lust for violence is precisely what Dheepan and his family have been running from.


Keep Digging

The Treasure

by Hope Madden

Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film The Treasure is just that, if you have the patience to wait for it.

The Romanian director is a master of the deadpan comedy of manners, setting his films firmly in the conflicting values and strapped economy of post-Communist Romania. Dry, that’s what I’m saying, but no less than wonderful.

In The Treasure, he is once again braiding historical ideas with workaday sensibilities to create the driest kind of treasure hunt.

The ripe ground for this comical examination is a chance to escape the paycheck-driven world. The stage is set when Costi (Toma Cuzin), an office worker with a bland if contented life, is offered a sketchy opportunity to find riches buried in a neighbor’s crumbling family property.

Like Porumboiu’s excellent 2009 film Police, Adjective, The Treasure uses its low key approach to turn the minutia of daily existence – administrative red tape, day to day boredom, bill paying – into understated yet absurd comedy.

Cuzin’s performance – much of it simply the expression on his face – offers so much with so little. As boringly adult as his life has become, there is a childlike quality to the character that gives his every choice a sweetness. Is he naïve, even ignorant, to buy into this clearly desperate scheme?

His quietly likeable good guy is perfectly counterbalanced by his griping neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu). Adrian’s sense of entitlement and bitterness come out most strongly and most humorously when a third treasure hunter – just an interested party with a metal detector (Corneliu Cozmei – a non-actor and actual metal detector technician) enters the picture.

The banter as the three men tediously sweep the property, gain and lose hope, bicker over the situation, exposes the social commentary about Romania’s political landscape in a way that is familiar, believable, and uncomfortably funny.

Porumboiu’s consistent use of stationary, wide shots exacerbates the film’s sense of inertia, which is used to generate the tension that fuels the comedy.

It can feel like a long set up for a surprisingly lovely climax, followed by the most inspired use of music. When the final, surprising but fitting image rolls against the death metal band Laibach’s cover of the 80s pop hit Live is Life, the absurd clash of reality and fairy tale is complete.


A Bountiful Harvest

by Hope Madden

It’s 1992 in what had recently been the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians of western Georgia have declared independence and Civil War has broken out. The battle is almost at Ivo’s door, but even as natives kill for the land under his feet, the Estonian immigrant tends the Tangerines. He and a neighbor – also Estonian by birth – hope to harvest the crop before it is lost to the war.

It’s a lovely central image: two elderly men with no dog in the fight working against the clock tending to the region’s natural bounty. Unfortunately, the fight comes knocking. Gunplay between three Georgians and two Chechen mercenaries leaves two wounded men – one from either side of the battle – in Ivo’s care.

Writer/director Zaza Urushadze’s elegant film garnered nominations for best foreign language film from the Academy, Golden Globes and others, and rightly so. His succinct screenplay relies on understatement and the power in silence and in action to convey its pacifist message. The timeless ideas embedded in this intimate setting become potent. While the theme is never in doubt, Urushadze’s unadorned film never feels preachy.

A great deal of that success lies in Lambit Ulfsak’s powerful performance as Ivo. He has an amazing presence, inhabiting this character with weary wisdom. Resolute and morally level-headed, Ivo is impossible not to respect. He’s the film’s conscience and through him we quietly witness a powerful humanity – one that the film would like to see infect us all.

There are three other principals – Giorgi Nakashidze as the Chechen, and Misha Meskhi as the Georgian, and Elmo Nuganen as neighbor Margus. Each brings something muscular but tender to their role. Their work benefits from the dry humor and melancholy tone of Urushadze’s screenplay. The quiet evolution beneath their boisterous clashing feels more inevitable than predictable, which allows Urushadze’s point more poignancy.

We don’t get to see a lot of Estonian filmmaking over here, and that appears to be a shame. Ulfsak was recently named the country’s male performer of the century. It’s not hard to see why.