(Welcome to Pop Culture Imports, a column that compiles the best foreign movies and TV streaming right now.)
In this week’s Pop Culture Imports, we have quite a collection of international movies, from the critically acclaimed to the wildly controversial. The latter of which was a controversy that I was reluctant to wade into, but this is a column sharing the best in international titles, and that film at the center of the controversy falls into that category. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and didn’t click on this column just because of one of the films in the headline, well, you’ll find out soon enough.
So fire up those subtitles, and let’s get streaming.
Best Foreign Movies and TV Streaming Now
#Alive — Netflix
Country: South Korea
Genre: Zombie horror
Director: Cho Il-hyung
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Park Shin-hye.
Zombie movies (and shows) are all the rage in South Korea right now, and while the country has managed to put effective spins on the genre — ranging from medieval dramas to claustrophobic class commentaries — even one of the most exciting film industries on the international stage can experience a bit of genre fatigue. But Alive should wake you right back up again. It’s a simple premise: a video game live streamer (Burning‘s Yoo Ah-in) becomes trapped inside his apartment during the outbreak of a deadly zombie disease, forcing him to take refuge alone and try to survive until rescue arrives. But as we saw with Train to Busan, a simple premise is often the best one. The best thing about #Alive is that it’s actually a taut survival drama, which gives more focus to dwindling supplies than to the hordes of zombies waiting just outside the door. The tension ratchets up when another survivor (Park Shin-hye) appears in the opposite apartment complex, kicking the film into high gear. #Alive is not high art by any means, and it’s got a somewhat gimmicky relationship with technology, but its depiction of a survivor living in total isolation makes it an all-too timely horror movie for lockdown times.
Watch This If You Like: Night of the Living Dead, The Purge, A Quiet Place, a survival thriller inside your zombie movie.
Bacurau — Criterion Channel
Genre: Weird western
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Cast: Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Karine Teles.
In the hilariously pitch black Bacurau, directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles imagine a post-Bolsonaro country where a group of foreign mercenaries try to (literally) wipe a small rural town off the map. Proudly wearing its Weird Western label on its sleeves, Bacurau is a mish-mash of genres that include magical realism meets western with a splash of Chinatown neo-noir. The film takes place in the desert town of Bacurau, an isolated community in the “backlands” of the North East far removed from the urban congestion of cities like Rio. What starts as a small-town drama featuring a close-knit community unfolds into a surreal Twilight Zone-esque thriller as the townfolk discover that their cell phones and satellites have stopped working, and that their town no longer appears on any maps. It seems a strange glitch at first, until the residents discover something much more sinister at play. Bacurau a brutal, slow-burning conspiracy film that descends into a blood-soaked finale so ridiculous you have to laugh a little. But it’s just the kind of bold genre storytelling that you won’t be getting in the States.
Watch This If You Like: Westerns, but weird.
Great Pretender — Netflix
Genre: Crime comedy anime
Director: Hiro Kaburagi
Cast: Chiaki Kobayashi, Junichi Suwabe, Natsumi Fujiwara.
There’s a subgenre of conman anime that I haven’t been able to explore much, but at least I know that Great Pretender is a great place to start. A series already featured in our anime column, Great Pretender is — unlike its scamming lead characters — everything it promises to be: a brisk, breezy heist comedy series that is as full of plot twists as it is full of hilarious antics. Great Pretender follows Makoto Edamura, a small-time con man in Japan who gets swindled by a world-class confidence man named Laurent Thierry into working for him, pulling heists all over the globe with a crew of messed up yet skilled swindlers. An anime with a decidedly international angle (there are some fun gimmicks with dubbing and translating, as the characters move from Japan to Los Angeles), Great Pretender would be a great gateway anime for those looking to get into the rich medium.
Watch This If You Like: Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky, Baby Driver, con men.
Cuties — Netflix
Genre: Coming-of-age comedy/drama
Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Maïmouna Gueye, Medina El Aidi.
A lot of ire has been directed at Cuties on the internet over the past few weeks. The French coming-of-age indie drama debuted at Sundance to little reaction outside of the critical community, which praised director Maïmouna Doucouré’s thoughtful depiction of preteen girls’ first fumblings with adolescence and gave her a directing award. But thanks to horrendous bit of misguided marketing from Netflix — which actually promoted the very societal problems that Cuties is criticizing — Cuties has somehow become the straw man for the alt-right, who have accused the film, and Netflix, of promoting pedophilia. It’s gotten so bad that film critics who gave it a positive review are being targeted en masse and calls to cancel Netflix dominated social media — all by people who haven’t seen the movie and, in most circumstances, would be unlikely to watch a French-language film of their own accord anyways.
The film follows 11-year-old Aminata (Fathia Youssouf), with the Anglicized nickname Amy, who is struggling to adjust to her new life in France after leaving Senegal. Amid struggles with her strict Muslim upbringing and family troubles, Aminata becomes drawn to a group of rebellious, crop top-wearing girls in her class who call themselves “the Cuties,” a dance troupe who are determined to win a local dance contest and prove to everyone that they are “grown-up.” Amy eagerly joins them and to fit in, teaches them dance moves she learned from YouTube which are much more promiscuous than the Tik Tok-level dances they had been doing before. But in her eagerness to break out of her shell, Amy crosses a line that is to far even for the Cuties.
Much pearl-clutching has been done over the dance scenes, seen out of context in the marketing, but the film clearly shows that the girls don’t understand sex or their own sexuality which they so confidently wield, only copying what they have seen others do. Cuties intentionally makes its audience uncomfortable, to make them grapple with how society shapes these young girls to think that wielding sexuality is the only way they can be empowered. But Doucouré’s direction is admittedly a bit clumsy at times — there is never a clear connection between the discomfort of the dance scenes to her message, which is probably why it’s been so easy for critics to take the scenes out of context. Still, it’s sad that the controversy has overshadowed what is a remarkable debut from Doucouré, who based the film off her own life and observations, in a shrewd commentary on the hyper-sexualization of pre-adolescent girls.
Watch This If You Like: Eighth Grade, Thirteen, Bend It Like Beckham, finding out what the discourse is about.
Children of the Sea — Netflix
Genre: Fantasy anime
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
Cast: Mana Ashida, Seishu Uragami, Win Morisaki, Sumiko Fuji, Hiiro Ishibashi.
There’s a common theory that the deepest mysterious of the ocean are more infinite than space. Children of the Sea posits: what if they were the same? Directed by Ayumu Watanabe, Children of the Sea is something of a baffling anime movie — breathtakingly beautiful and stunning, but frustratingly cryptic in its exploration of the cosmos. The fantasy film follows schoolgirl Ruka, the sullen daughter of an aquarium employee who meets a young boy named Umi, a strange boy who, like his foster brother Sora, were raised by dugongs. Because of this unusual upbringing, they’ve spent much of their life underwater, which has significantly shortened their lifespan. Drawn in by Umi and Sora’s mysterious ways, Ruka joins them in their gleeful exploration of the ocean depths as the aquatic world readies for a mysterious “festival” that could change the fabric of reality. STUDIO4°C’s animation renders the underwater world in incredible detail, turning every droplet of water and every dorsal fin into a piece of art. But there are drawbacks to this hyperrealistic art style, which somewhat extends to the heavily detailed eyes and faces of the characters — everything looks beautiful, but a little hollow. Children of the Sea is a very artful, very cold, very baffling film that descends into one of the weirdest third acts in anime history.
Watch This If You Like: Your Name, The Tree of Life, cosmic weirdness.
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