Best Foreign Films of 2016
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, John McAmis, Nathan Smith, Jessica Carr, Malcolm Baum and Lydia Creech
**NOTE** The films are not ranked and are set in random order.
The Mermaid (2016) by Stephen Chow
It was hard for me to decide exactly what canon I should place Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid in. After watching the film I can confirm by my aching sides that it is indeed a comedy. After doing box office research I can confirm that the movie became the first ever to gain more than half a billion dollars at the Chinese box office. And, if you are reading this wondering what is The Mermaid, then it most certainly fits in our future hidden gems canon. But I decided to go with the foreign canon because it both describes the Chinese origin of the film and also the ideas that the film presents.
If you’ve ever seen Kung Fu Hustle, then you know what Stephen Chow humor is like. It is a lot of downright silly slapstick humor. The Mermaid features his signature style while also giving us a message about the environment and what happens when corporations pollute someone else’s home.
The film follows Shan/Jelly Lin, the mermaid (Yun Lin), as she is sent by her family to assassinate Xuan (Chao Deng), the developer of a mechanism that would destroy ocean creatures. Of course, Shan falls in love with Xuan and that complicates things.
There are so many scenes in The Mermaid that I’ve fallen in love with. The hilarious date scene and the police interrogation scene are at the top of my list. Also, just the fact that Shan stays a mermaid the whole time and has to cut her tail to fit into shoes is insane. YOU are seriously missing out if you don’t watch The Mermaid. Where else could you find a human/octopus making sushi and roasting his own tentacles??? - Jessica Carr
The Wailing (2016) by Na Hong-jin
At the most recent presidential inauguration (a rainy affair), Reverend Franklin Graham explained that “in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing.” Stephen Colbert reminds us, however, that this wasn’t Noah’s experience.
The Wailing is a film of so much rain. Deep blue clouds constantly hang over the world of the film, an imposing presence that suggests the judgement of a higher power--and for what? Horror movies often possess a sense of punishment for wrongdoing, but The Wailing is an perplexing case of evil unbidden. The film’s protagonist, a rural policeman investigating a string of murders, commits no sin. He is bumbling and easily startled, but he is a good man: a kind father, a loving husband, a friendly neighbor, and a public servant. Yet, his world comes crashing down in more ways than one. He begins witnessing the aftermath of harrowing violence on a daily basis, he is haunted by demonic visions in his sleep, and, worst of all, his daughter becomes a creature of pure hate, ripping into the family unit with nails and teeth. For a stressed out police officer with a pre-teen daughter, each element on its own seems perfectly plausible and relatable in the real world. But all at once, the events of The Wailing feel like a catastrophe of cosmic coincidence, and the film ends up taking on a palpable supernatural undercurrent.
As a work of South Korean cinema, this is especially interesting, as Christian and Buddhist iconography coexist and intermingle in ways that can’t be easily articulated by an American audience. The film contains what is perhaps the greatest exorcism scene of all time--performed by a Buddhist shaman--but the whole narrative is also clearly a riff on the Book of Job, containing a harrowing vision of the adversary himself. Perhaps my favorite detail of the film is the fact that God shows up in a personified form as well, but chooses stays out of the spotlight, concerned but uninvolved--to the point where you’ll probably miss the deity if you aren’t on the lookout. As the great songwriter TW Walsh once sang, we’ve got “angels in the heavens and demons all around.”
At a smooth 2 hours and 36 minutes of slowly escalating tension (and a lot more humor than you would expect!), The Wailing is a demonic epic equal parts Zen and brimstone. If there has ever been a worthy follow-up to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, this is it. Watch Na Hong-jin’s film on Netflix and read my full review of it here. - Andrew Swafford
DOUBLE FEATURE: Elle (2016) by Paul Verhoeven // Things to Come (2016) by Mia Hansen-Løve
Starring Isabelle Huppert. I back-to-backed these at the NYFF in October this year, and they make a great double feature. Not just for the superficial similarities (of which there are many many, including, but not limited to, cats, mothers, and babies), but for the similar thematics as well. Huppert plays two women who are going through a traumatic period in their lives. One film, Elle, deals with an Event (in the least coy way of meaning that, but it is the jumping off point), while Things to Come is like a thousand little deaths (death by a thousand cuts?).
However, both characters Huppert plays weather their respective storms with serenity and dignity, and I think there needs to be more films about strong female characters (not the trope). Huppert has total command of the screen, and together these films showcase her enormous talent. Her ability to bring small touches to her characters is the gift that makes Elle work and elevates Things to Come to greater heights. If people want to argue that actors aren’t auteurs, I respectfully submit Huppert as a counterpoint. - Lydia Creech
The Handmaiden (2016) by Park Chan-wook
The Handmaiden is a film about untapped experiences and the freeing feeling of pursuing what truly makes one happy. Freeing is the key word as the story flows with such pronounced authority and elusiveness that you can’t help but to be swept up in its waves. Director Park Chan-wook may have crafted his second masterpiece of a film as it feels like a movie I want to be digging deeper and deeper into.
It is a movie about feeding our passions and following through with them. Sook-Hee follows her growing passion and devotion to Hideko, who seems to feel the same for Sook-Hee. Fujiwara follows his quest to gain comfort in finances after growing up poor while Kouzuki follows his deep-welled desire to sink into an erotic and painful world.
If The Handmaiden is our vice, we have to explore that and allow ourselves the freedom to be engulfed by its beauty. - Zach Dennis
HyperNormalisation (2016) by Adam Curtis
Adam Curtis’ 2016 effort HyperNormalism takes on the large task of elaborating how we got where we are in modern society. It’s a film essay that tackles subjects such as Donald Trump, Brexit, the war on Syria, Qaddafi, Putin, and neo-liberalism in order to give context to the confusion that impeaches on modern living. Curtis’ ability weave all these stories together in a coherent way that ends in a simple yet revelatory matter.
While Curtis does a great job explicating the matters, his solutions to them can seem oversimplified. This satisfies in a cinematic sense, but leaves little room for nuanced problem solving. Either way, it’s important in it’s powerful act of trying to make sense of things from a leftist perspective. - Malcolm Baum
Chevalier (2016) by Athina Rachel Tsangari
The newest addition to one of the most exciting film movements in recent memory, the Weird Greek Wave, Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier raises questions about what masculinity actually means and how its defined by other men.
Set on a grand yacht in the Mediterranean Sea with an all-male cast, the film gets underway quickly. During a late night card game, the group begins to argue who is best at this, best at that, and the competition to determine the "Best in General" ensues. A rating system is devised, and the men begin to rank each other not only talents and skills, but also thoughts, actions, and sleeping positions. The grand prize: bragging rights and a glorious Chevalier ring (a traditional symbol of nobility, often associated with knights).
The film dives into absurdity and hyperbole in order to make its point, but it doesn't feel heavy-handed. Rather, it's hilarious and surprising and dark - much like its Weird Greek sibling The Lobster (2016). Tsangari raises an interesting question, but she answers it in an even more interesting way. - John McAmis
Mountains May Depart (2016) by Jia Zhangke
Between Moonlight, Things to Come, and Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, 2016 was a great year for the passage of time. All three films use unconventional story structures to tell not just the stories about events, but stories about people and places drifting through time and space. It’s funny, isn’t it, that 2016 was a year characterized, among other things, by our desire for it to end? Here’s to a brighter future--no promises.
Mountains May Depart is a film in three acts connected by ellipses: Act 1 is 1999, Act 2 is 2014, and Act 3 is a speculative vision of 2025. At the film’s center is a woman named Tao, who is pursued by two men: one, a narcissistic heir to his family’s fortune; the other, a humble coal miner. In the 1999 section, Tao makes the wrong choice (two guesses), and the film ruminates on the ripple effect of this decision and its temporal moment.
Tao’s arc is deeply affecting and sentimental, but there is a second story being told in the world around her. Specific pieces of Northern Chinese architecture, geography, and communal space recur in each of the film’s three time periods, and care has been taken to show the gradual effects of entropy and westernization. The things we take for granted as constants--people, culture, language, mountains--can become unrecognizable (both destroyed and born anew) while traveling into tomorrow.
This sounds bleak, but I promise it isn’t. Caught in the moment of a terrible year, Mountains May Depart filled me with a warm, reassuring feeling unmatched by any other 2016 movie. The film begins and ends with lead actress Zhao Tao dancing to “Go West” by The Pet Shop Boys (a song with lyrics at once melancholic and optimistic, summing up the tone of Mountains entirely), and I promise you’ll want to join in with her. - Andrew Swafford
Shin Godzilla (2016) by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
I got kind of serious in my longer review, but Shin Godzilla is making my list of best foreign films for the sheer amount of spectacle it is, too. I can’t praise it enough for the midpoint battle, but each set pieces is pretty astonishing if you think about it. Somehow Anno puts awesome destruction onscreen, in both senses of the word. Though Godzilla as a character is actually pretty silly (in the original, it was a guy in a suit, and here the budget sometimes comes through in the dodgy CGI), the trail of ruin he leaves in his wake actually feels like it matters, a feat Hollywood hasn’t pulled off in years.
People like the Godzilla franchise for all sorts of different reasons; I responded to the political subtext in particular, but there’s plenty of plain monster text for people into that aspect. The design(s) (spoiler?) of this version of Godzilla are interesting and fun and terrifying, and Anno doesn’t play coy with showing his monster off. Additionally, this Godzilla is no friend of humanity (no eye-contact-connection between him, and, say, Aaron Taylor Johnson), so if you’re missing ineffable-force-of-nature Godzilla, Shin may be for you! - Lydia Creech