With Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite garnering so much attention recently (and deservedly so), we at Impact started discussing our favourite foreign films. And, well, the discussion turned into a debate, which turned into an article. Pretty nifty, right?
House of Flying Daggers (2004):
This ingeniously plotted, gorgeously palleted martial arts masterpiece by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou begins with a dance. Delicate and elegant, yet tense and foreboding, it sets the perfect thematic stage for all the impeccably choreographed violence that follows.
The dancer in question is the blind showgirl Mei, played magnetically by Zhang Ziyi (who researched her role by sharing her home with a blind girl for two months). She reveals herself to be a member of a secretive rebel group known as the House of Flying Daggers when she attempts to assassinate a police officer using (of all things) a sword suspended on a long pink sleeve. Romance and rivalry ensue when she’s released by dashing double-agent Jin, instigating a colourful cat-and-mouse chase across the forest to reach the rumoured rebel stronghold.
“I love Flying Daggers for its visual virtuosity, for its lavish command of colour and choreography, for its endlessly memorable – some would even say iconic – wide shots.”
Sounds like a simple enough setup, but the subsequent story is considerably spiced up by serpentine twists, a Shakespearean love triangle, and a healthy smattering of spectacular swordfights – not all of them obeying the laws of physics. Set in ninth-century China, it’s perhaps the most famous film of the wuxia genre of heroic historical-fantasy cinema, offering a fascinating critique of feudal Chinese gender roles. Showy without ever being shallow, the entire film plays like a moving painting where characters’ minds and moods are woven into the very fabric of their retina-ravishing costumes.
“With every re-watch, I invariably gain a fresh interpretation and a new favourite scene.”
Ultimately, it’s a timeless tale of rebellion against a corrupt government and patriarchal social norms. But that’s not why I love it. I love Flying Daggers for its visual virtuosity, for its lavish command of colour and choreography, for its endlessly memorable – some would even say iconic – wide shots.
It belongs to that criminally small subset of films that can be appreciated as both a piece of pure, adrenaline-propelled entertainment, and as a metaphor-rich allegory (Inception and The Matrix being other notable examples). An allegory for what, exactly? Those who haven’t seen it will have to decide for themselves. With every re-watch, I invariably gain a fresh interpretation and a new favourite scene – my current being the bamboozling showdown on and around a set of bamboo shoots.
If you’re lucky enough to have your first viewing of House of Flying Daggers still ahead of you, one glance at any frame from the film should convince you to make it the highlight of your next cosy movie night in. You certainly won’t regret it, nor will you soon forget it.
Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven invites us into her melancholic view of female oppression through the unwavering bond of five sisters in Northern Turkey. Nominated for an academy award for best foreign picture, this film focuses on the story of the aforementioned sisters as they reach the age of sexual exploration. However, as a result of their uncle, grandmother and the society they live in, such exploration is shut down very quickly, with uncompromising force.
“With what would appear to any western audience as pretty ludicrous, the treatment of women in this film is a reality for far too many around the world.”
In the opening scene, we are introduced to Lale (played brilliantly by Güne? ?ensoy), the youngest of the sisters, saying an emotional goodbye to her teacher who is leaving the school. We get the sense that the tutor represents much more than that to her, however we’re not privy as to what extent just yet. Back home, the girls are interrogated vigorously by their uncle and grandma (both now raising the sisters after an assumed death to their parents) after a neighbour had caught them frolicking with some boys by the water. Fearing the tarnishing of the family’s name, the girls have every fun-inducing object taken away from them and are put under house arrest by their Uncle. Turned into what Lale herself labels the ‘wife making factory’, the house becomes distanced from the outside world as the girls are put on the market for marriage and are not even allowed to go to school anymore.
“The acting from the cast – predominately consisting of non-professional actors – is superb and really gives us a sense of authenticity.”
One by one, they are married off, but our heroine, Lale, has other plans. This leads to a pulsating climax as we see rebellion in the grandest way. All through the film, with the application of the sometimes-overused voiceovers, intimate details over the type of relationship each hold to one another is revealed. With what would appear to any western audience as pretty ludicrous, the treatment of women in this film is a reality for far too many around the world. It is depicted expertly, and this adversity offers us the best thing about the film – the sheer unwillingness of these young sisters to comply with any of the societal norms.
Story aside, the technical aspects of this film hold firm too. Shot expertly by the duo David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, the cinematography has a very old European feel to it, almost as if the film could’ve been set in the 80s. Perhaps it even was – time is frivolously played around with by Ergüven. The acting from the cast – predominately consisting of non-professional actors – is superb and really gives us a sense of authenticity. There’s a certain rawness to it.
Drawing parallels to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, it’s impossible not to feel emotionally connected to these girls as they have their freedom decimated. Although depressing at times and providing a deeper social commentary on the subordinate treatment of women in certain parts of the world, there is still enough for you to feel optimistic about from this film.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989):
Since a young age, the animated Studio Ghibli projects have consistently been amongst my favourite films. Hayao Miyazaki’s storytelling, in my opinion, (both as a fan of his work and as a Creative Writing student) is unrivalled. The film Kiki’s Delivery Service stands out in my mind as an all-time favourite.
“I consider Kiki to be a fantastic example of a female protagonist that young children should be exposed to. She remains diligent and resilient in the face of adversity whilst also embracing her differences.”
The film, a sort of bildungsroman, follows a young witch as she grapples with life away from her family in a new town. Watching as a young child, it perfectly combined the elements of fantasy with my own desire at that age to express individuality and independence. The film is as much about navigating new relationships, platonic or otherwise, as it is centred around self-discovery and self-acceptance.
I consider Kiki to be a fantastic example of a female protagonist that young children should be exposed to. She remains diligent and resilient in the face of adversity whilst also embracing her differences. I strove to be just like her when I was younger, and I like to think the lessons that this film taught me have brought me to where I am today.
Either way, I won’t be taking down the film’s poster for a while.
For us English viewers, Amélie is perhaps the quintessential modern French film, and one that propelled composer Yann Tierson to fame with his whimsical soundtrack. Were it not for references to the death of Princess Diana and an air-hostess friend travelling the world, the film might not feel as though it were set in the late 1990s at all. Amelie feels at once modern and akin to a bygone era, with its highly stylised characters reminiscent of archetypes belonging to fables.
Perhaps these caricatured characters are to place the viewer in the mindset of Amélie – a woman with her head perpetually in the clouds. There is a near innocence to Amélie; her strong sense of right and wrong compelling her to punish or help acquaintances in her life.
She is the French equivalent to Austen’s Emma, though far more earnest and better-intentioned. Amélie’s unique and unusual perception of the world around her steers the film away from banality. It is impossible not to revel in Amélie’s imagination and sympathise with her actions, even when morally questionable.
” I believe Amélie is a fantastic film in its heartfelt yet creative manner, replicating the protagonist’s realisation that to truly live one must take risks.”
But like Emma, she learns that her meddling in the lives of those around her does not always have the hoped-for conclusion. And, for all her secret involvement in the lives of others, Amélie is profoundly lonely. Her bildungsroman progression from an isolated dreamer to allowing others into her life is the real crux of the film. One of my favourite moments is when Amélie watches TV, and the actual speech fades away, her thoughts voiced by the character on-screen: “If Amelie chooses to live in a dream and remain an introverted young woman, she has an absolute right to mess up her life!”
Although the film risks banality in moments, Amélie’s unique and unusual perception of the world allows it to merge psychological development with imaginative flair, creating a perfect mix of almost surreal realism. Though one might question whether the film itself would have become such a cultural icon without its famous soundtrack, I believe Amélie is a fantastic film in its heartfelt yet creative manner, replicating the protagonist’s realisation that to truly live one must take risks.
Image use license here.