Another language is an open window, not a closed door. It's a way into understanding other people, not a barrier preventing you from empathising with them. Movies often take us to other worlds but stop us from hearing what those places sound like, like standing in the centre of a Tokyo crossing with the people around us on mute. Foreign-language films are a way to turn the sound back on, allowing you to hear the dialects of these places as they authentically sound.
Earlier this year, Bong Joon Ho's satirical horror Parasite became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, a feat that will hopefully usher in a new age of openness and curiosity amongst audiences when it comes to international cinema.
As the film's director said this year on stage at the Golden Globes: "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." Let that insight be your guide through some of the best foreign language films on Netflix right now.
This Israeli drama from promising filmmaker Elite Zexer previewed at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016 and won directing prizes at Sundance in the same year. The Hebrew film focuses on a teenage girl named Layla who is constricted by the beliefs of her Bedouin parents and the forbidden romance which pulls her from this world. The film is bookended by two wedding ceremonies and is punctuated throughout by revealing the misogyny which is rife in the traditions Layla has grown up in: a world where women are constrained to repeatedly sweeping desert dust off the floor and unable to say or do so much.
A tale of two sons, one prodigious the other a disgrace, and how this tears a family apart is the central tension in Taiwanese director Chung Mong-Hong's masterful and moving A Sun. The film, which played at festivals in Toronto and Tokyo, is visually stunning as well as being a character study which feels almost documentary-like thanks to exacting performances from the entire cast. As it's title suggests, A Sun, is about the golden child whom the other has had to live in the shadow of, and how facing the light and darkness that brings can be hard to see.
Depicting the life of Gela, a traveling trader living in poverty in the rural life of the Republic of Georgia, this short documentary won a prize at Sundance film festival in 2017. The 23-minute documentary manages to compress the harsh realities of poor rural life without sensationalising, following Gela as he trades clothes for potatoes in a place where money is often useless but potatoes keep people alive. The Trader makes for hard watching, but at a time where wealth inequality continues to grow it is vital we don't look away.
Netflix's Oscar-winning masterpiece from Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma is a black and white portrait of an indigenous domestic worker in Mexico City and the family she works for. The director handpicked unknown actors to bring the story to life, including Yalitza Aparicio, who makes her astonishing debut as lead character Cleo. Shots of a floor being washed with the reflection of a plane overhead, a sweep across a department store to show a riot outside and – honestly – some genuinely stunning shots of dog poo are just a few of the memorable sights in this film that has its fair share of devastating moments.
I'm No Longer Here
The steady beat of Cumbia music provides the undercurrent to this story about teenagers living in the Mexican city of Monterrey. The Spanish film from Fernando Frias follows a misunderstanding between a young man and a local cartel which forces him to leave behind his family and friends in fear. Visually engrossing, with scenes in hazy bars almost fogging the screen and shots sweeping over the twinkling lights of the city as dark clouds loom overhead, I'm No Longer Here explores the communities and families which gangs break rather than glorifying their violence.
Based on the conflicts of director Alejandro Landes's native Colombia, Monos is a mind-bending story of war and loss of innocence. The film has earned comparisons to Apocalypse Now for its unflinching portrayal of conflict, but in Monos Landes turns the team of adolescent guerrillas fighting an unknown war in an unknown place into a saga that feels primordial and hallucinogenic.
Bong Joon Ho's colourful fable explores the crisis of overpopulation, the ethics of raising animals for slaughter, the villainous greed of corporations and the ability of childhood innocence to speak truth to power. For the most part, however, it is just the story of a girl's love for her giant pig-hippo friend. Featuring excellent performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton and Paul Dano, Okja is a feel-good movie that will also make you feel very bad.
You may well have watched the Studio Ghibli films, which include gems such as My Neighbour Totoro, Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke, dubbed into English. But watching them in their original Japanese – just change the audio on Netflix – grounds them in the context they were written in. If you haven't explored any of the back catalogue, Spirited Away follows little girl, Chihiro whose parents are turned into pigs and finds herself is trapped in a dark realm when trying to free them.
A Twelve-Year Night
Uruguayan filmmaker Alvaro Brechner here looks at the 12 years of imprisonment in solitary confinement which members of Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group active in the Sixties and Seventies, were subjected to. One member of the group was José Mujica, the man who would go on to become the country's president after the torture he endured. The story focuses on the unending captivity and their moment of freedom rather than shooting forward into the happy ending resolution, underscoring how gruelling and slow those years were.
The President's Barber
Parasite actor Song Kang Ho leads this Korean-language film which catalogues the political turbulence in the South Korea over four decades. In it he plays a barber living and working in Seoul's Hyoja-dong district – the same area neighbourhood as the president – which allows him to witness history unfolding and leads to him eventually becoming the president's barber.
The Cannes Jury prize-winning feature debut from director Mati Diop is a supernatural love story told between two different sides of Dakar: the wealthy suburbs and the dusty building sites. When young Ada and construction worker Souleimane fall in love while she is promised to someone else it begins a sensual but forbidden romance. A modern kind of Romeo and Juliet which turns into a ghost story as their romance goes wrong, Atlantics offers a dark social commentary on inequality and difference.
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