10 Hidden Gems of International Cinema

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I don’t know about you but I’m so bored of movies with obvious potential never really reaching the punch line. Just the other day I watched The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, which sounded like a weird mix of stoner galore and social commentary. It had its moments and the ideas were definitely there: A team of janitors cleaning the offices of a food lab end up getting addicted to chemically produced cookies, the side effects of which are different for men and women: While women tend to get extremely horny, men suffer from severe abdominal pains which eventually result in them giving birth to—you guessed it—a little dizzle. Playing with emotions and trippy visual effects, the film kept reminding us of what it really was—a middle finger pointed at the food industry in all its chemical glory. But somehow it failed in delivering the story, and I was left feeling as though I had just watched an episode of some crappy day-time show with no ambition.

I figured The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle would be a great choice for some down-time Sunday movie-watching. Who wants to get all tripped out on a Sunday, when Monday’s paranoias are already lurking in the not-so-distant future? Had I been looking for something dark and impactful, I would have gone for something new by the directors of Requiem for a Dream or Mulholland Drive, but when was the last time David Lynch or Darren Aronofsky surprised us with something mind-blowing?

The anti-climax I experienced thanks to Little Drizzle lead me to consider a whole list of disappointments in recent American cinema, so I took it upon myself to root around the world’s dingiest corners for the best in foreign cinema. And lo and behold—the treasures I’ve found! Did you know ze Germans are masters at portraying the effects of catholic guilt in eerily black-and-white segments? Were you aware that some of the most disturbing characters surfaced from the underground density of Dutch forests? And have you ever experienced the finesse of a French one-man-show? If your answer to any of these questions is a puzzled “no,” then strap in tight and join me on world tour in search of international cinema’s hidden gems!

1. The White Ribbon (2009)

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Yes, the Germans do have a very strange take on what constitutes a children’s story. I was fortunate enough to grow up to the tales of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, and let me tell you—I’m still traumatized. While the Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter) dealt mainly with disciplining a child through hard-core moral-story-telling, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is focused on, in his words, “the roots of evil. Whether it’s religious or political terrorism, it’s the same thing.”

The White Ribbon is set in the fictional village of Eichwald, just before the outbreak of World War I. Eichwald is reined by Protestants, all of which answer to the baron, the local pastor and the village doctor. The pubescent children of the village are led to believe that the physical changes and sexual longing they are experiencing should bring forth a guilty conscience—a punishment for their indecent thoughts and behaviors. The puritanical pastor (Burghart Klaußner) gets his students to wear white ribbons to remind them of their former innocence and purity which is slowly fading under a storm of hormones and unidentified sensations. When the pastor’s son admits to “impure” touching, his hands are tied to the bedpost every night in an attempt to tamper with the boy’s natural instincts.

Strange acts of violence start to occur in the village—the doctor has a horrific fall off of his horse when it trips over a wire that is spanned between two trees; the farmer’s wife falls to her death when the old floorboards of the sawmill give away beneath her feet; her husband hangs himself shortly after her death; and the baron’s young son is found bound and viciously caned. The pastor, who has a soft spot for his caged parakeet, finds it has been violently killed and finds his daughter holding the murder weapon: a pair of scissors.

Fingers are pointed, and suspicions arise between the villagers as the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia. The White Ribbon studies the roots of evil and fascism in repressed households devoid of the harboring sentiments most directors tend to burden themselves with. In July 2009, Michael Haneke told Time Out: “I want to show how all sorts of suppression can make you open to an idea when someone comes along and says: ‘I can save you.’ It’s like the story of the Pied Piper…It’s the war that takes place between people that makes them receptive to such ideologies. The civil war between groups of people.”

2. Fickende Fische (Fucking Fish) (2002)

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While we’re still on German grounds and the subject of shame, Almut Getto’s 2002 drama Fickende Fische definitely deserves a mention. Initially, it was the title of this film that attracted me; it seemed quirky and I wanted to know what these fucking fish were all about. Little did I know this story is far from funny…

The last film to have discussed HIV amongst teenagers in an authentic, relatable manner was Larry Clark’s Kids in 1995. Fickende Fische takes a different approach to the subject, in that it illustrates the fear and accompanying disgust surrounding HIV prior to introducing intercourse and conflicted relationships. The film tells the story of the adolescent Jan (Tino Mewes), who tested HIV-positive after a blood transfusion. His parents are overprotective of him, and offer no realistic outlet for his pent-up anger and frustration other than a regular go on his father’s punching bag.

One day, the young, flippant and pretty girl Nina (Sophie Rogall) runs him over on her rollerblades. The fall leads to an open wound, and he is taken away in an ambulance. He worries he may have infected Nina. Although Jan is burdened by his secret, Nina gives him new hope in life. They believe to have found perfect partners in each other, perfect distractions from their otherwise troublesome lives.

Circumstances bring them together again and their relationship tenderly blossoms. Jan still can’t get himself to bring up his HIV and instead the two of them spend many hours in his room dedicated to his favorite past-time: Watching the fish in his aquarium. This is where Nina first raises the question: “Do fish actually fuck?” Soon enough, their first time sleeping together becomes inevitable, but Jan backs out at the last moment, paralyzed with the fear of possibly infecting her. His rather harsh reaction causes Nina to think he does not desire her and they go separate ways again.

They lose touch of each other until a mistakenly shocking discovery leads Nina to a crematory where she sees Jan again. Jan finally shares his secret with Nina and realizing they belong together they set off on their final journey.

3. Borgman (2013)

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Alex van Warmerdam is a Dutch actor, film and theatre director, writer, poet, painter and sculptor based in Haarlem. In 1980, he founded the theater company, De Mexicaanse Hond (The Mexican Dog), with his brother Marc. All of his plays have been appearing under this name since 1989, including Broers (Brothers), Welkom in het Bos (Welcome to the Forest) and De Verschrikkelijke Moeder (The Horrible Mother). He has directed eight movies so far; his 2009 film De laatste dagen van Emma Blank (The Last Days of Emma Blank) was nominated for four Golden Calf awards.

In 2013 Alex came back to haunt our bourgeois lives with the seemingly plotless yet deeply intriguing Borgman. Birdsong and the tranquility of a forest in Bloemendaal are interrupted when a group of men stumble through the woods with their hounds, in search of several mysterious men living in trenches underground. The first to escape his humble lodgings is Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who warns the others of the approaching threat.

Running through the woods, Camiel finally ends up in the drive way of a modern villa and rings the doorbell. A woman opens the door, obviously puzzled by Borgman’s presence. He talks to her as if he knows her, trying to bring her non-existent memories to the surface, when her husband appears and beats Camiel up and down the driveway in a fit of irrational jealousy. The next morning, as soon as her husband leaves the house, Camiel appears again, asking for a bath and a place to stay. As much as Marina tries to fight it, she is intrigued if not drawn to him. Camiel ends up staying in the family’s shed unbeknownst to the husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval).

Without the use of many words, Camiel manages to infiltrate the family; Marina finds herself getting more and more desperate over wanting to “play” with him, whilst Camiel keeps her at arm’s length, too focused on his own masquerade: along with two other strange characters who appear from the woods, Ludwig (Alex van Warmerdam) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere), they slip in and out of different roles to complete their purposes. In the eyes of Richard, they are gardeners reconstructing his perfect garden; to the maid they are doctors; to Marina and the children Borgman is a magician. Without working any kind of charm or psychological manipulation on Marina, Camiel holds a strong power over her, the kind that forces itself into her dreams and plants violent thoughts about her husband into her.

4. Turks Fruit (1973)

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Based on one of my favorite books of all times by Jan Wolker, the film Turks Fruit managed to pass the ultimate test: It portrayed the protagonists and the overall storyline beautifully without losing any of the written story’s intensity. You probably know director Paul Verhoeven from films like Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, but this 1973 film starring the delicious Monique van de Ven and Rutger Hauer in the lead roles is a work of art.

Eric Vonk (Hauer) is a struggling sculptor living in Amsterdam. Hitchhiking his way home from a disastrous art residency, he is picked up by the red-haired Olga (Van de Ven). Obviously aware of his instant attraction to her, she turns on her charms. She pulls over and they have passionate sex which is interrupted by her begging him not to “make her a baby,” and the tip of his penis getting stuck in his zipper. They set back out on to the icy road and crash. The police pick them up and are suspicious of Eric whose tortured, bloodied member is still visible through his zipper.

Eric and Olga lose touch, but he can’t get her out of his mind. He tracks her down in her parents’ shop but receives hostile treatment from Olga’s mother (Tonny Huurdeman), whom he soon refers to as “the witch”. Despite her mother’s disapproval, Olga moves in with Eric and marries him only weeks later. Their relationship is intense, extremely sexual and tumultuous. Eric is completely infatuated with her childlike innocence, her strange traumas and habits, and is happy to spend every single second of the day with her. Olga’s mother is appalled by their lifestyle, and wants better for her daughter than a struggling artist. She goes out of her way to get between the lovebirds and finally succeeds when she manipulates Olga into spending more time with her parents’ business associates, alienating Eric in the process.

When Olga finally leaves, he spends months pining over her, confused between his hatred towards her cheating manners and his unconditional love for her. He masturbates to fantasies of killing her and the slimy business associate she ran off with. He also tries to find solace in other women, all of which share similar features to Olga, but he never finds satisfaction.

5. Holy Motors (2012)

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If you’re looking for a film that will keep on surprising you and captivates you in a dream-like manner, Holy Motors should be on the top of your “Must-Watch” list. Inspired by the short film Merde which director Leos Carax created for the omnibus Tokyo!, the director wrote Holy Motors with his regular collaborator Denis Lavant in mind. Lavant’s performance is spectacular and many a scene from this surreal film will stick with you forever more.

Oscar (Lavant) spends his days attending numerous appointments for which he disguises himself as different characters using elaborate costumes, make-up and props. His first “appointment” sees him walking the streets as an old female beggar; next, Oscar steps out of his trusted white limousine in a motion-capture suit, jumping into an action and sex scene directed by an invisible man. In a small interlude, he plays accordion with a whole group of other musicians—a scene of brilliance, musically as well as cinematographically.

The best role Oscar plays is that of Monsieur Merde, whom some of you may already know from Tokyo!. A violent little man with a shock of red hair, dressed like a ’70s style leprechaun, Monsieur Merde kidnaps a model from a photo-shoot and takes her underground. He’s obscene, eccentric and dirty, yet somehow lovable.

Oscar continues to transform from appointment to appointment, which are detailed in a dossier informing Oscar about his next expected “performance.”

But who is the real Oscar?

6. Blue (1993)

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Using the colors blue, white and red as a focus on his “The Three Colors Trilogy,” Krzysztof Kieslowski manifests the ideals of the French Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity—through zealous accuracy. The atmospheres presented in each film are highlighted by the musical scores written by Zbigniew Preisner, Blue probably being the most important of all, musically. Blue and Red are French spoken, while White is primarily Polish.

Each film is filled with symbols representing different emotions and storylines. In Blue, the viewer is introduced to Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche), the sole survivor of a car crash in which her husband and daughter were killed. Her husband was the famous composer, Oliver Benôit (Benoít Régent), who had been working on a score to celebrate the European unity at the end of the Cold War. Following her family’s death, she destroys the score, rids herself of all her possessions and moves to Paris, avoiding all memories of the past. The only thing she takes is her daughter’s blue chandelier.

In each film, the protagonists carry one object that links them to the past, in Julie’s case the blue chandelier; in White it is the bust of the protagonist’s lost love, and in Red it is a fountain pen which plays an important role. In Blue, Oliver’s music accompanies Julie’s daily struggles, taking on different tones depending on the circumstances surrounding her. A reoccurring image seen throughout Blue is that of people falling, which suggests Julie’s coming to terms with the process of letting go.

7. Mientras duermes (Sleep Tight) (2011)

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Jaume Balagueró is mostly known for his films Fragile (2005) and the horror saga REC (2007-2014), but the one that had the most impact on me was Mientras duermes, a splendidly psychotic movie about a common fear: The unwanted flat-mate.

Cesar (Luis Tosar) is the concierge of an apartment complex in Madrid, who feels he is incapable of happiness, causing him to hate—or perhaps envy—all the smiling people around him. He dedicates his life to agitating the tenants of his building, but has a hard time getting to the sweetly understanding and uncomplicated Clara (Marta Etura).

Cesar sees her as his most important project and thinks up various strategies to accomplish his goal: to break her joyful spirit. He hides under her bed at night, tampers with her shampoos and creams (causing her to break out in a horrific rash) and plants an infestation of cockroaches in her apartment. When Clara’s boyfriend, Marcos, returns (Alberto San Juan), Cesar takes his plan to the next extreme.

8. Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) (2000)

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Amores Perros is the first in a series of three films by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu revolving around the theme of death, preceding 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). The film has similarities to Crash (2004) in that several people who would be unlikely to meet in any other circumstance are brought together in a car accident, and it has also been dubbed “Mexico’s Pulp Fiction.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it?!

Octavio (Gael García Bernal) is in love with his brother’s wife, Susanna (Vanessa Bauche). Her husband, Ramiro (Marco Pérez), treats her badly and tops up his salary with robberies. Octavio sets up a dog-fighting business, puts money on the side and asks Susanna to take off with him. Unfortunately, she has other ideas; she takes the money and runs off with her husband. Octavio keeps his business up until his dog is shot by a rival. His attempt at revenge, however, comes to a crashing halt.

Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) and his supermodel girlfriend, Valeria (Goya Toledo), are in the other car involved in the collision. Valeria is left crippled. Undercover hitman El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) is about to work his next job when he witnesses the crash. He steals Octavio’s money and takes his dog, nursing it back to health. However, one day he comes back to his warehouse to find that the newly adopted dog has killed his other mutts.

The characters connected over this crash share a lot of differences—their economic and social statuses—as well as common ground. And they all have dogs that reflect their respective personalities perfectly.

9. Kokuhaku (Confessions) (2010)

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Spectacular cinematography and a storyline that will have you sick to your stomach—that’s Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kokuhaku in a nutshell. Granted, we’ve gotten used to some of the harsher aspects of Japanese cinema ever since Ichi the Killer, but that was visually challenging; Kokuhaku works on the psyche.

The film opens up to the camera focusing on a classroom filled with children sending paper airplanes flying across the room. The lighting is very dull and grey. The teacher, Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), informs the children that she will not be returning after spring break due to her husbands’ illness. She tells them how she used to bring her daughter, Manami (Mana Ashida), to school with her because her husband was too weak to care for her. But one day, Manami was found drowning in the school’s swimming pool. She believes that two students in her class are responsible, “Student A” and “Student B.”

Yuko knows that informing authorities will have no effect because they are minors. Instead, she informs her students, she took matters in her own hands: She spiked Student A and B’s milk cartons with her husbands’ HIV virus. Suffice to say, the effect this information has on Student A and B is beyond intense…

10. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

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Chan-wook Park originally intended to be a film critic but was so blown away by Vertigo (1958), he decided to give film-making a shot instead. His first two films, The Moon Is…the Sun’s Dream (1992) and Trio (1997) flopped miserably. It wasn’t until he directed Joint Security Area (2000) that he earned greater success, which allowed him do direct Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) more or less independently. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance became the first part of a trilogy, followed by Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005).

Moving away from the topic of revenge and visiting the inner-workings of twisted minds instead, Chan-wook Park explores the patients of a mental institution in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. The story centers on Young-goon (Im Soo-jung) and Il-soon (Rain), two disturbed souls who make a strange connection. Young-goon is convinced she is a cyborg. In order to recharge herself, she cuts her wrist and tries to connect herself to a power cord; she feeds herself by licking batteries and refuses any other food. She will only communicate with electrical appliances. Il-soon can often be seen wearing a rabbit mask and believes that he can steal other people’s souls. The only thing that relaxes him is brushing his teeth.

Young-goon’s health is slowly deteriorating due to her refusal of food. But Il-soon, who has taken a shine to her, comes to the rescue: By convincing her that he is in possession of a “rice-megatron” that converts food to electrical energy, he finally gets her to eat. Throughout the movie, Young-goon is haunted by a reoccurring dream in which her grandmother informs her that Young-goon is really a nuke-bomb and needs to be detonated with a bolt of lightning. Determined to put this theory to the test, Young-goon and Il-soon set out on a stormy quest.