Foreign Films: The Best from China and France

Captivating Cinema of China and France

Foreign films hold a real appeal for me. I love the feeling of being immersed in another culture and in another time. For me, foreign films provide the true force and joy of cinematic viewing. My favorite exports come from China and France. Both have very different feels to them, yet are equally provocative and riveting in their own unique ways. The films of China are rich in culture, music, and historical perspective, all while steeped in rich colors and tradition. The French films are darker and have a more ominous feel to them, yet the tales they weave are every bit as sinister and compelling as their Chinese counterparts. The following are a few of my favorite films from each country. If you enjoy foreign films, give these a look. You won't be sorry.


Raise the Red Lantern (China)

Directed by Zhang Yimou, released in 1991, and starring Gong Li, this export from China is a sumptuous feast for the senses. Set in the 1920s, it chronicles the life of a nineteen-year-old Chinese fourth wife, considered the third concubine of a wealthy man. As was tradition at that time, the husband would choose which concubine he would sleep with on any given night, by having a red lantern lit outside of her door. The chosen one would receive special attention and respect from servants, which drove the other concubines wild with jealousy. The movie weaves the tale of the complicated dynamic between the concubines. But this is no chick flick. Amidst the impossibly rich colors, haunting music, and beautiful Asian women come rage, trickery, manipulation, sex, murder, revenge and madness. This movie is a must see for anyone that loves foreign films. If you’ve never enjoyed a Chinese export, this is an ideal inaugural film for you. You’ll be hooked.

Farewell my Concubine (China)

Set against the backdrop of the Peking Opera this movie weaves itself beautifully through the history of China over a period of six decades. It is the tale of two young boys raised with the Peking Opera living in the turbulent political climate of 1920s China. One, Shitou, grows to play a king in most Operatic productions. The other, Douzi, a cross-dressing actor falls deeply in love Shitou. This unrequited love plays against the historical elements of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japanese occupation, liberation and the Cultural Revolution. The movie’s romantic yet tragic subplot reveals Douzi’s jealous and vindictive nature as Shitou falls in love with an marries a woman. The movie also illustrates how the cultural upheaval of China during those years threatened to permanently destroy the Peking Opera. The film explores in great detail the complexity of human emotions including homoerotic love, manipulation, reconciliation, and suicidal despair. It may sound macabre, but it is an important, relatable tale that is not to be missed. This movie was directed by Chen Kaige and was first released in Hong Kong in 1993.

The Last Emporer (China)

Bernardo Bertolucci directed this 1987 film about the Last Emperor of the People’s Republic of China. The movie’s main character, Puyi, played by a series of actors depicting the character at the various stages of his life, is first revealed as a political prisoner and war criminal from the Pacific War in 1945. He instigates a failed suicide attempt, which triggers a flashback to his first entry into the Forbidden City. As with all Chinese films I’ve seen, there is much emphasis placed on the historical perspectives of the times, revealing the tumult of the Japanese invasion and the Cultural Revolution. Rich visuals and haunting music make this a virtual feast for the senses. It is a brilliant, if frustratingly tragic tale of Puyi’s struggles until he ultimately identifies and inspires, in a brief yet prophetic meeting, a worthy successor.

Jean de Florette (France)

Directed by Claude Berri and released as the most expensive French movie ever made, to that date, the movie is set in Provence, France in the aftermath of World War I. Jean de Florette is the first in a pair of movies which begin with the struggles of Ugolin and Papet, as they attempt to harvest carnations on a small plot of land in Provence. Their attempts to acquire an adjacent lot from neighbors fails and ends with the death of the neighbor, Pique-Bouffigue, upon whose land a spring flows that would have successfully irrigated the carnation farm. Papet and Ugolin plug the spring in order to render the property seemingly worthless to its owners. The farm descends to Pique-Bouffigue’s sister, Florette de Berengere, who happens to be a friend of Papet, but she unfortunately dies, passing the farm on to her son, Jean Cardoret, portrayed by Gerard Depardieu. Like his uncle before him, Cadoret refuses to sell the farm, opting instead to live on the land and breed rabbits. He has no idea of the spring’s existence, or why Papet is intent on acquiring the farm. After a tragic accident claims Jean, his widow and child have no choice but to leave the farm, but not before Manon discovers Papet and Ugolin unplugging the blocked spring on her property. It sounds like a very slow film, and in some regards that is true, but the way in which the actors portray their excessively flawed characters and Berri reveals the dark side of human nature, it is a riveting, maddeningly frustrating film that will leave you eagerly hoping to find vengeance in the Part II, Manon des Sources.

Manon des Sources (France)

Claude Berri also directs the second and final installment of this French tale. The film opens to Manon, the daughter of Jean de Florette, living off the land in the Provence countryside with an elderly couple. Meanwhile, Ugolin and Papet have unleashed the vital spring that now feeds their lucrative carnation farm. After seeing the now grown Manon bathing naked in a stream, Ugolin falls madly in love with her and becomes obsessed with thoughts of sewing the ribbon from her hair onto his chest as testament to that love. But Manon is in love with a handsome schoolteacher who is new to Provence. As the movie progresses, Manon discovers not only that Papet and Ugolin knew about the spring, but that many other villagers also knew of their complicity in her father’s death. When she accidentally discovers the source of the spring, she plugs it with a concrete block in order to dry the city’s wells and destroy the carnation farm in an act of defiant revenge against everyone involved in the persecution of her father. To reveal more of this delicious sequel would be cruel, because it culminates in one of the best twisted, yet fitting endings in cinema. Manon des Sources moves at a more rapid, interesting pace than Jean de Florette, but one must see the first film to truly appreciate the sequel. This still stands as one of the best French films of all time

Monsieur Hire (France)

Released in 1990 and directed by Patrice Leconte, Monsieur Hire is the story of a sad, lonely, French misfit, who spends inordinate amounts of time playing peeping Tom to his comely blond neighbor. The premise sounds a bit creepy, and it is, but yet, as directed, the audience also begins to feel somewhat voyeuristic, adding the eerie, odd appeal of the film. The movie’s subplot surrounds an investigation into murder, for which Monsieur is a leading suspect. Why? Because he’s creepy and no one likes him. Yet despite his social maladjustments and voyeuristic tendencies, the object of his affection does not dread him. Instead, she is drawn to him and the two form an unlikely relationship that is ripe with sexual tension. In fact, the tension is so thick it is arousing. A riveting ending is added to make this an unusual yet highly appealing film choice.

Favorite Foreign Films

Which of these films was your favorite?

  • Raise the Red Lantern
  • The Last Emperor
  • Farewell my Concubine
  • Jean de Florette
  • Manon des Sources
  • Monsieur Hire
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© 2010 Jaynie2000

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