Another Round (Denmark) (4 Stars)
Better Days (Hong Kong) (3.5 Stars)
Collective (Romania) (4 Stars)
Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia) (3.5 Stars)
Quo Vadis, Aida (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (4.5 Stars)
(“International Features” isn’t a genre of films, but it is an Oscar Category. And this year two of my editors, I guess because they couldn’t publish all five reviews, asked me to write up a comparison of the five in one essay. So here it is.)
As I’ve commented in a couple of reviews, watching and reviewing foreign films poses some additional challenges over American and British films. For one thing, you usually have to navigate sub-titles, which means shifting focus back and forth from the central part of the screen to the bottom section where the text lives. And then there’s the problem of interpreting differences in meanings that, ultimately, have to do with cultural variance – cultures different from ours (meaning American/British/English-speaking), have different histories, geographies, and – most importantly – values that make the nuances in movies more difficult to understand. Almost always, these challenges are worth the effort – we learn more about what makes up our humanity as well as, often, learning a bit of humility about our own culture.
Sometimes, though, I just have to say ‘enough is enough’. And such was the case with the Chinese production “Better Days”. Although the movie itself was really very good, for some reason the Chinese production people (can we say “censors”) seemed to have to layer on a bit too much social propaganda. The film itself dealt with universal themes of bullying, pressure to succeed, and the violence that can erupt in high school kids. And it was executed well, but it could have been all that much better if the ‘producers’ had lightened up on the propaganda scale.
There was a similar problem with the entry from Tunisia, “The Man Who Sold His Skin”. There really was a very interesting movie here all about a man, driven by his love for a woman that he couldn’t really have, ended up selling his back, literally, to an artist and had to live with the consequences for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, for me, the message was overly complicated by making the man a Syrian refugee. Now I have nothing but sympathy for Syrian refugees (and have, in past reviews, totally condemned the Assad regime). But it seemed to me that layering on the political element was unnecessary – there was a terrific movie there without all that. And adding that element just kind of diminished the potency of the film.
“Collective”, from Romania, was also an entry in this year’s Documentary Feature Oscar. (That double entry also happened last year with Macedonia’s entry “Honeyland”). It was an extremely well done documentary, exploring the corruption in the Romanian health care system and the collusion with that nation’s pharmaceutical industry. What was significant about the film was not just how much risk the filmmakers took in making the movie, but also in the parallels with what is happening here in the U.S. Still, as I mentioned in my review, there is a difference between my feelings about the subject matter of a documentary (which I was totally sympathetic to), and the objective qualities of the movie as a craft product. In the latter regard, it wasn’t perfect.
“Another Round” from Denmark did a little better as a movie, but then it was a fictional treatment of the drinking problem in Denmark. Again, though, just because it was discussing the problem from the Danish perspective does not mean it has no relevance for us here. In fact, addiction of all kinds is endemic to American culture and viewing how it is treated in more ‘accepting’ countries (like Denmark) is enlightening, as well as entertaining. It helps, of course, that the lead actor is Mads Mikkelson, someone who I don’t think can possibly deliver a bad performance. Be sure to enjoy his dancing scene at the end of the movie which he did entirely by himself (and, apparently, without the benefit of alcohol!). “Another Round” won the Oscar in this category and I suspect it was because the subject matter resonated so thoroughly with Americans who have increasingly turned to drinking to help pass through these ‘Covid Times’.
But I disagree with that choice. Clearly, this year’s best International Feature is the film from Bosnia and Herzegovina “Quo Vadis, Aida?” As I said in my review, this is certainly not a feel-food move, but it is one people need to see because it exposes the ugly, cruel underbelly of humanity. The film portrays the Srebrenica, Bosnia massacre of 1995 in terms that simply overwhelm your sensibilities. Starting small in the world of a woman, Aida, who is nothing more than a translator for Dutch UN forces, the film progresses to life-altering, and life-ending, results. This is a tragedy of huge magnitude and is portrayed in a fashion that film students need to study. This is painful – but excellent.
So, there you have it. This year’s five International Features. All of them are certainly worth a view. Just remember, these are films you have to work at. In the end, though, they are all worth it. Have fun, and be enlightened.