This Shortlist was a hard one to write because I tried to think back to the films which got me into world cinema, and they’re often not the conventional choices – À bout de souffle (Godard, 1959), Chungking Express (Kar Wai, 1994) and Caché (Haneke, 2005) among them. But cinema is a visual art form and many films express emotion and story through camerawork and colour. These sorts of films are the best kind to introduce yourself to world cinema because you can focus on the imagery, and slowly let the subtitles seep into your mind, until it becomes a subconscious reaction to just see them as a part of the image. I have limited the list to just five selections, most of them genre movies. Together, they form the perfect weekend, and are presented here in no order.
The Killer (John Woo, 1989) [Main Picture]
Most kids grow up watching Van Damme and Schwarzenegger movies illicitly recorded from TV, and for kids in the UK during the 90s and early 00s there were plenty of opportunities, as these films were played nightly on Channel 5. Sudden Death (1995) and Terminator 2 (1991) were the films of my youth, and I learnt early on to stay away from Steven Segal (unless it’s Under Siege, 1992, of course). But some of my earliest heroes came on DVD, when I managed to get my hands on Woo’s 1992 thriller Hard Boiled. I was aware of his American work – Face/Off (1997) and M:I-2 (2000) were already firm favourites, but Inspector Tequila blew me away. The best, however, was to come in my Asian Cinema segment of Film Studies, when I saw The Killer for the first time; Woo’s cheesily romantic 80s actioner, crammed with super-stylized violence changed the genre forever. It’s absurdly silly and filled with continuity errors – people are thrown out of cars only to reappear driving them in the next shot, and thugs caught in the middle of explosions and machine gun fire usually live after having several rounds pumped into them. It’s unintentionally hilarious and definitely of its era (candle-lit montage? check), but The Killer is deeply in love with action and has a rather moving code of honour. The good guy and bad guy both have a sense of duty; they live by the gun but have strict ethics. It’s actually the central male relationship that proves the most beautiful, as it replaces machismo with respect, principle and loyalty. The dialogue doesn’t matter – this is a relentlessly exciting slice of action cinema that unfurls its story through set-pieces and choreography. Emotions are expressed through bullets, and that’s a language anyone raised on Channel 5 cinema can understand.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
Fairies, magic, monsters… Pan’s Labyrinth is just like the fantasy movies you watched as a kid, except that it’s not. The beautiful thing about fantasy films is that they’re visual and sensory experiences which appeal to the wide-eyed child that remains in all of us, even after our youth has faded. Pan’s Labyrinth is certainly not a kids film but it has all the trademarks of a classic fairytale, set in Franco’s fascist Spain of 1944, where a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is moving with her pregnant mother to live with stepfather Capt. Vidal, who is engaged in battle with the Spanish Maquis guerrillas. There’s not much dialogue in the film and although there is an interesting political sub-plot it never lectures or makes that more important than the story. The primary political content unfurls in the relationship between a brother in the resistance and a sister working in Vidal’s mountain post, and the lines between good and evil are better represented by the bond of family. Ofelia has an incredible imagination and she soon meets a mysterious faun who tells her that she is a lost princess. There are some stunning visuals in Pan’s Labyrinth and composer Javier Navarrete underscores them with beautifully lulling music. But the message of Pan’s Labyrinth is what’s most shocking and important: the idea that life is, in the end, bleak, and magic won’t solve that. You can’t escape into a fantasy world and make life better, because fantasy is all that it is. War is still ravaging the country. Death surrounds Ofelia and even if she could move away from the stepfather she hates, she’d still be within Franco’s oppressive regime. Pan’s Labyrinth is a bleak film, but one of universal truth and beauty, and a wonderful piece of contemporary fantasy cinema.
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
This may seem like something of a triple whammy for those who are only acquainted with contemporary English-language cinema – a black and white, silent, German Expressionist sci-fi. But the fact that it’s silent means there’s no subtitles, and in a way Expressionist films are the perfect place to start because they solely rely on visuals – they are the art of light and shadow. Key plot points are revealed on title cards which means that the viewer can focus entirely on the Art Deco utopia (with a corrupt authoritarian government oppressing the workers) that influenced popular films such as Blade Runner (1982) and Star Wars (1977). Karl Freund was lead cinematographer on the picture, and his camera informs much of the mood – bringing all of the techniques he innovated on Der Letzte Mann (1924) with F.W. Murnau, he perfectly understands how to engage the audience through shot composition and lighting. The underground is shot in bleaker tones and the imagined Moloch monster is all the more fearful for being cast in darkness. Evil exists in the shadows of this metropolis, and the sets, designed by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Bollbrecht and Edgar G. Ulmer are absolutely astonishing – reaching way above the dirty streets this sprawling landscape is made up of industrial skyscrapers (influenced by Lang’s visit to New York) and transit systems which wrap themselves around buildings on sky-high tracks. Indeed, the trains in Metropolis commute 1000ft above the ground. The art direction is also hugely impressive, with the lavish interiors looking like something out of a lucid dream – they’re inviting, but corruption lies behind the walls of the epic architecture. The narrative is sprawling even in the recently restored version (adding 25 minutes of previously lost footage) but on a design level this is probably the best film ever made, and its visuals remain untouched 84 years on. Essential viewing, for anyone.
Terror At The Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)
As I said in my capsule review for his 1977 art slasher Suspiria, Dario Argento can’t tell a story on paper to save his life. His narrative arcs are always disjointed; the editing seems to be emotional rather than logical, evolving to the rhythm of fear. Suspiria – a Dalí-esque killer thriller – is the best example of his visual storytelling, but is far less exciting than this film, and is less accomplished on a genre level. Argento’s cinema is a rare case of the style being the substance, and he informs the emotional state of a character through camerawork and sound even when they’re tied up and gagged. For example, there’s a terrific scene in this film where the camera aggressively zooms at the sound of a heartbeat, which is rapidly increasing as the threat of violence draws nearer. We feel the protagonists fear as the sound jabs at us like a knife. An extended riff on The Phantom Of The Opera, Argento’s finest giallo thriller opens on the eye of a crow, reflecting the interior of an opera house. It’s a stunning shot set to crescendoing classical music, and that sets the tone for a flourishing psycho movie which uses camerawork and colour to tell its story. The film mostly consists of set-pieces, as the killer teases his victim by pinning her eyes open (you won’t want to blink) and making her watch as he kills other people. Expertly crafted, the slick shot composition ensures we are on the edge of our seat, and continuity doesn’t matter so much as what the scene makes us physically feel. It’s a tour de force of cinema, employing every visual trick possible to amp up the excitement. And of course, as with most giallo films, you can always just watch this one with a dub… performances were never the strong suit of Argento’s cinema either.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (Kim Ji-woon, 2008)
The Western is an iconic genre in American cinema, and as such is instantly identifiable. Tumbleweed, saloons, horses… its tropes, including vast landscapes painted with blood, are visual. So The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which could fairly be described as an Eastern (it’s set in 1940s Manchuria), works within a framework that most viewers can easily identify with. It’s an all-action rollercoaster ride directed with kinetic flair by Ji-woon, one of the masters of contemporary Korean cinema. There’s a needlessly complex plot and much of the dialogue (delivered at a rapid pace) is exposition, but it plays second fiddle to the numerous set-pieces, including a madcap desert chase which reportedly got a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival. It’s outrageously silly, blending slapstick comedy and stylized violence for its rousingly goofball action sequences, and they’re a complete riot. Korea is pretty much making all of the best action cinema at the moment, and there’s really no better way to access foreign cinema than through the East’s unapologetic brand of ultra-violence. This film has flaws but its hyperactivity will keep you glued to the screen for every second of its protracted 130 minute runtime, and it has considerable charm to gloss over any plot holes. It grabs your attention with a classic train robbery setup, which quickly evolves into a tense gunfight. The ending is a winkingly deadpan Western showdown which tries hard to tie the plot strands together, but ultimately this is a film paying homage to the cinema of Sergio Leone. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the last ten years, made with zero pretensions but oodles of energy and passion, and you owe yourself at least one viewing – but I can guarantee you’ll want more.