Watch Subtitled Films — And See The World!

Posted 26 January 2018

our little sister

I went to Japan once, for a day, when I was three years old. So I can't say I know the country at all, but I feel I do have some knowledge of it, and I have cinema, specifically the Showroom, to thank for this.

I'm not talking about those classic, bloodthirsty, historical dramas — Throne of Blood and the like wonderful as they are, nor about Studio Ghibli animations, wonderful (if quite weird) as some of them are too. I'm thinking of the many excellent films I've seen in recent years about real life in real, present-day Japan. Films that, through great stories about engaging characters, tell you something about the country's very distinctive culture.

Yôjirô Takita's Departures is one of the first that comes to mind. An out of work cellist answers an ad for a job he thinks is in a travel agency but it turns out to be for a nokanshi, someone who prepares and dresses bodies for burial. Sounds grim but it's one of the most enjoyable, uplifting and satisfying films you could hope to see.

The intimate domestic dramas directed by Hirokazu Koreeda have drawn comparisons to the films of the great Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu, such as 1953's Tokyo Story. Regulars at the Showroom Film Discussion Group will be familiar with me rabbiting on about Koreeda's Our Little Sister, my favourite film of the last few years, about three young women who meet their younger, orphaned half-sister. His latest film, After The Storm, isn't quite so emotionally engaging but is every bit as beautifully observed, as thoughtful and as thought-provoking. Another recent Japanese film I really enjoyed was Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean, a lovely story about friendship built around a dorayaki (bean paste pancake) street stall.

If you are one of those who steer clear of films that are in a foreign language and subtitled, then those are just some of the brilliant films, from just one country, that you've missed out on. There are plenty of others. Take Iceland: closer to home but in many ways just as culturally (and geographically) different. There have been some fascinating, high-quality films from here that tell you much about life in its harsh but beautiful landscape whilst relating a really good story, none more so than Benedikt Erlingsson's Of Horses and Men. After a rather weak opening, last year's limited-release film Heartstone, written and directed by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson,turned out to be a really touching coming-of-age story with some heart-stopping moments. Power to the Showroom for being just one of four UK cinemas to show it.

Or take Israel/Palestine, from where several first-rate films have come in recent years, most recently In Between, about three Israeli-Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv. Or Iran, whose persecuted director Jafar Panahi made the wonderfully witty Taxi Tehran, starring his most agreeable self as a taxi driver. Or India (beyond Bollywood) and The Lunchbox, a beguiling tale set amidst the bustle of Mumbai life. Or Afghanistan and The Patience Stone, a shattering story about a woman tending her injured Taliban fighter. Or Russia and Andrey Zyvaginstev's superb, corruption-themed drama Leviathan. Or Zambia and Welsh/Zambian director Rungano Nyoni's I Am Not a Witch, her striking debut feature.

And I haven't yet mentioned any of the recent films from our near neighbours in mainland Europe, most notably François Ozon's French/German co-production Frantz, Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann (Germany/Austria), Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta (Spain) and Hannes Holm's A Man Called Ove (Sweden).

Subtitled films tend not to attract the biggest audiences. All too often, while American or British movies are given a second (or even third or fourth) week's screenings, the Showroom has to 'say goodbye' to some intriguing, non-English language films after just one week. It would be good if that could change, both for those who are missing such films, many of them real gems, and for the cinema and its commendable policy of screening them.

Perhaps it will change. Here are some foreign-language films coming up in the next three months that I'm really looking forward to and really should attract healthy audiences. In February, Andrey Zyvaginstev's latest, Loveless, nominated for a Bafta and Oscar foreign language film awards, will be showing. March will see two more Oscar foreign language nominees, Sebastián Lelio's Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman and, from Sweden, Ruben Östlund's The Square, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year. And a couple of April releases sound intriguing: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, from Indonesia, and another Russian film, A Gentle Creature.

Alex McMullen

Chair, Showroom Film Discussion GroupRead more posts by Alex McMullen

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