By Jeremy Mauser || Staff Writer
Bong Joon-ho, acclaimed director of the Academy Award’s most recent Best Picture, Parasite, caught the country’s attention when he offered the following comment at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Although I had already seen Parasite at this point in time, I experienced a sense of guilt, of a missed opportunity when Joon-ho made this comment. I called myself an avid film lover, yet I rarely dabbled in films not in the English language. I felt like I was doing myself and filmmakers from other countries a disservice by not watching too many films that would truly expand my horizons.
After Parasite won the top prize at the Academy Awards, I witnessed spiteful and ignorant comments from random Internet users, certain Facebook friends, and even the President of the United States of America—all questioning whether it deserved this illustrious title because it came from South Korea, with some even claiming that they refused to watch any movies that would require them to read subtitles.
Once the quarantine started, I used my expanded free time to catch up on some recent foreign language films that have received high praises. These movies, each beautiful in its own way, moved me in ways that very few English language films have in the past—and they all came out in the past year. If you have any interest in expanding your film palate, here are my top five foreign language films that have been released in the past year and are available through mainstream streaming services:
5. Les Miserables (France; Amazon Prime)
No, this is not an adaptation of the famous Victor Hugo novel-turned-musical. Although it adopts certain thematic elements from the timeless story (any sort of explanation of which would spoil some of the movie’s more powerful moments), the movie is completely original and tells the story of a police officer who moves to France and joins the area’s Anti-Crime Brigade. Told over the course of a couple days, it explores the tensions between his trio of police officers and several groups that they encounter regularly, with a drone capturing footage of an accident setting an intense narrative into effect.
What I love most about this film is the respect it shows all of its characters: they make mistakes, they make abhorrent decisions, but the filmmakers make you understand them and sympathize with even the most egregious characters, cop or otherwise. It sews multiple threads, then ties them all together in the end for an emotional punch to the gut.
4. Honeyland (Macedonia; Hulu)
The only documentary in this list, Honeyland follows Hatidze, a Macedonian bee hunter, as she struggles to keep afloat and care for her ill mother in her stone village. After a Turkish family arrives in town with a father who tends to his own bees, Hatidze watches her way of life fall apart.
As I reflect on this movie, the first thing that comes to mind is the gorgeous scenery, with enormous mountains and masterful cinematography keeping you engaged, despite the slow-moving plot. I also marvel at the humanity that they show the human subjects, documenting the indigenous people’s daily lives without infringing on their more private moments. And I’m still reeling from Hatidze’s story, her joyful smile and commendable compassion leading to careful reflections of our relationship with each other and our natural resources.
3. Monos (Colombia; Hulu)
Substituting Macedonian mountains for Colombian jungles, Monos tells the story of eight child soldiers, each armed with his or her own gun, watching over a hostage and a cow as warfare follows them like a shadow. The film shows us the innocence and youth within these children, passing time with one another and exploring their sexualities, occasionally making us forget about their tragic situation. The hostage, Dr. Sara Watson, maintains a fascinating dynamic with the children, letting them braid her hair at one point and fighting them for a chance to escape in later scenes. With suspenseful action, a gorgeous score, and psychological warfare, the film is absolutely stunning and deserved much more love this past awards season.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France; Hulu)
This film stuck with me for days after watching it. The plot starts out relatively simple, with a female painter arriving at a remote island to paint a wedding portrait for the wealthy woman who lives there. However, complications arise when harbored secrets come to light and their relationship evolves into a star-crossed romance. I’ll admit that I wasn’t completely sold on it at first, but halfway through the movie, the tone shifts significantly as a hauntingly beautiful song and fire spark a greater passion within the protagonists. From there, it’s emotional explosion after emotional explosion. The film offers a sophisticated critique of the art world’s notion of the female gaze and takes its time following the lovers’ developing relationship. It’s the perfect film for the poet within each of us.
1. Parasite (South Korea; Hulu)
The only film on this list that I watched in theaters, it hooked me so effectively that I returned to the theaters for it and re-watched it again on Hulu. Bong Joon-ho deserves every accolade that his directing and writing have earned, as every frame exhibits nothing short of mastery in telling the story of an impoverished family that infiltrates a wealthy family through deception and manipulation—and each time I watch it, I’m rooting for a completely different set of characters while viewing others as the “bad guys.” The film boasts one of the greatest montages I’ve ever seen (it involves a peach, you’ll know it when you see it), perhaps the most shocking plot twist I’ve ever witnessed, and a criminally underrated cast and score. I haven’t stopped recommending this film to friends and family since I first watched it, and I beg you to do yourself a serious favor and check it out. I’ve pressured a lot of people into watching it, and they’ve all praised it immensely.
The year 2019 was phenomenal for film in general, with artists from numerous countries producing outstanding work that will hopefully sustain long, well-deserved legacies. I beg you not to shy away from films that will challenge your beliefs, push you out of your comfort zone, and make you read, because Bong Joon-ho is right: there’s a beautiful world of films out there, all within reach. You just might need to read a little.
Sophomore Jeremy Mauser is a Staff Writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.