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
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
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
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
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.