This Friday sees the release of the much-anticipated “Stoker.” The melodrama would probably be of note just because it stars Mia Wasikowksa and Nicole Kidman, but it’s even more so because it marks the English-language debut of acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, the man behind “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Thirst,” among others. The film lands hot on the heels of “The Last Stand,” from Park’s countryman Kim Ji-Woon, and a few months from the English-language debut of another Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon-Ho‘s “Snowpiercer.” The three are only the latest international filmmakers to seek wider audiences and acclaim by making a film in the English language.
Indeed, many have come before them, and some have succeeded, while probably more have failed. And opinions differ as to which to file “Stoker” under — some find it one of the best films of the young year, and a fitting companion piece to Park’s Korean work, others (including our review from Sundance) found it a dismal, tone-deaf mess. Either way, Park’s in good company, and so we thought we’d mark the occasion with five great, and five bad, English-language-debuts by foreign-language filmmakers. Read our picks below, and let us know your own favorites (and least favorites) in the comments section.
5 Great Ones
“Breaking The Waves” – Lars Von Trier (1996)
While technically “The Element Of Crime” might be his English-language debut (thought it has some Arabic in it too) and “Europa” was a mix of German and English, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier started turning heads among international cinephiles with 1991’s “Europa,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the 1994 miniseries “The Kingdom.” But he arrived much more emphatically on a global stage in 1996 with “Breaking The Waves,” (perhaps technically his first film entirely in English) and the first in his so-called “Golden Heart” trilogy, which put its innocent protagonists firmly through the wringer (completed by “The Idiots” and “Dancer In The Dark“). Emily Watson (Oscar nominated in her very first feature performance) makes an unforgettable film debut as lead Bess McNeil, a role originally intended for Helena Bonham Carter, who apparently pulled out due to the extensive nudity required. Bess, though full-grown physically, is childlike in every other way, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, sheltered by her close-knit religious community. She marries the worldly outsider Jan (the ever watchable Stellan Skarsgård) and is both awakened and liberated by their first two-minute tryst in a bathroom, as well as during the honeymoon that follows. However, what begins as a fleshy love story becomes a tragedy. Initially tinged with black comedy — in true von Trier style — it spirals further into sadomasochistic perversion. Watson is the core of the film as the increasingly disturbed Bess who sacrifices her own life through unconventional physical degradation to prove her unwavering faith and devotion to her husband and to God; the Christ parallels and nods to Carl Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” are unmistakable. The film’s chapter breaks are set to ’70’s classics from Elton John and David Bowie, which provide some respite from the film’s devastating emotional intensity.
“21 Grams” – Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu (2003)
Having made a dazzling (if somewhat uneven) feature film debut with “Amores Perros” in 2000, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu was swiftly courted by the rest of the world; he joined Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai and John Frankenheimer (heady company for a man with one film under his belt) to shoot one of the BMW “The Hire” shorts starring Clive Owen, and, in a less corporate manner, contributed an impressive segment to the post-9/11 anthology film “11’09″01 September 11,” alongside Ken Loach, Sean Penn and Danis Tanovic, among others. With these under his belt, he reteamed with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga for his English-language debut “21 Grams,” a film which might still be the director’s finest. Told in a carefully scrambled non-linear manner, it tells the story of three initially unrelated people: Cristina (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug addict whose husband is killed in a hit-and-run, Jack (Benicio Del Toro), another ex-addict and ex-con, who was driving the car that killed her husband, and Paul (Sean Penn), a professor with a fatal heart condition, whose life is saved by the heart of Cristina’s husband. It has all the hallmarks of Inarritu and Arriaga’s collaborations, for better or worse — a time-jumping narrative, dark and dour Catholic-guilt-ridden themes, and perhaps an over-reliance on contrivance and melodrama. But it feels like Arriaga’s tightest and most coherent script for its flaws, genuinely profound and poetic in a way that follow-up “Babel” rarely managed. Inarritu and regular DoP Rodrigo Prieto do tremendous work together, and the filmmaker shows that the language barrier was no problem when it came to working with actors, with all three leads (plus a phenomenal supporting cast, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Eddie Marsan and Danny Huston) delivering remarkable performances.
“Blow-Up” – Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)
Cities are always documented best by outsiders, so it’s no surprise that when “L’Avventura” and “La Notte” director Michaelangelo Antonioni came to London to make his English-language debut with the formally playful anti-thriller “Blow-Up,” he ended up producing one of the most seminal cinematic looks at the city in the midst of the Swinging Sixties. With a central character inspired by Carnaby St. icon David Bailey, and cameos from Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck among others, it’s certainly an image of its time, but it’s also an almost impossibly innovative and brilliant film away from all of that. The owl-eyebrowed David Hemmings plays Thomas, a fashion photographer who takes a photo of a woman and her lover, only to realize he might have accidentally captured evidence of a murder. The plotting, such as it is, is thin, but due to the film’s existential ennui, epitomized most by the brilliant ending, it never really goes anywhere. Antonioni might be appropriating the imagery of the time, and even inventing a sort of visual language to match it, but he’s never enamored by swinging London (the director was, after all, well into his 50s when it was made), almost always painting it as a bleak and deeply unhappy place. Only when Thomas has his camera in his hands is he truly alive. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence of “Blow-Up;” it became a monster hit, bringing down the Production Code, and causing the creation of the MPAA in the process, and perhaps more importantly, led the way for the European influence on Hollywood, from “Bonnie & Clyde” to serving as a direct inspiration for films like “The Conversation” and “Blow Out.”
“The Others” – Alejandro Amenábar (2001)
At the time, Amenábar had been on Hollywood’s radar for a little while – his debut feature, “Thesis,” was a chilling thriller about the accidental discovery of a snuff film (it makes the Nicolas Cage movie “8 MM” seem even more cartoonish) and his sophomore film, “Open Your Eyes,” an odd, amazing mixture of horror, sci-fi and romance, had recently been optioned for remake purposes by Cameron Crowe as his follow up to the critically adored “Almost Famous.” (Crowe’s wonky remake, “Vanilla Sky,” would open later the same year that “The Others” was released.) But with his English-language debut, the backwards ghost story “The Others,” Amenábar really made his presence known. “The Others” was produced by Tom Cruise and starred Nicole Kidman (recently separated – awkward), and was loosely based on the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” (memorably adapted by Truman Capote as “The Innocents” and later as a bizarre Marlon Brando horror movie called “The Nightcomers” by the irrepressible trash kingpin, the late Michael Winner). Amenábar didn’t rely on gore or cheap scares but let the story, which largely takes place in a cavernous Victorian home, ruminate and breathe. It’s a quiet movie, punctuated by moments of sheer terror, both because of their literal scariness and the amount of existential dread that’s already haunting the film. Since “The Others,” Amenábar returned to Spain for the genuinely moving “The Sea Inside,” but faced major hurdles with his big-budget, creatively compromised historical epic “Agora,” released back in 2009. Hopefully he’s working on something just as frighteningly good as “The Others.”
“The Constant Gardner” – Fernando Meirelles (2005)
Anyone who saw “City of God,” the Brazilian epic about the slums of Rio that Fernando Meirelles co-directed with Katia Lund (who went on to oversee the television spin-off “City of Men“), was also blown away by its use of color, its energy, its scope, its style, the way that its propulsive nature never got in the way of its emotional center. So when it was announced that Meirelles would helm an adaptation of a beloved John le Carré novel, “The Constant Gardner,” expectations were high. Thankfully, they were all met. Less a straightforward thriller than an elliptical look at the nature of love, it starred Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat in Africa whose wife (Rachel Weisz) is tragically murdered. Their relationship is told mostly in flashback, as Fiennes races to uncover the truth about what happened to her (it involves a labyrinthine conspiracy and the pharmaceutical industry), in a weird way expanding the idea of the things we hide from our significant others into crazy spy movie territory. Meirelles somewhat reigns in the hyperactive style that made “City of God” so memorable, but still relies largely on handheld camera work and bright, nearly glowing colors, which combined creative a feeling of immediacy and exoticism. “The Constant Gardner” is brilliant, beautifully made, and totally heartbreaking (almost as heartbreaking as Meirelles post-“Constant Gardner” career).
“Hard Target” – John Woo (1993)
The story goes that Universal was so nervous about having John Woo (an unproven director known for his hyper-violent Hong Kong action flicks) helm their big-budget movie that they forced producer Sam Raimi to hang around the set as insurance in case Woo couldn’t perform his duties. (Raimi, a huge fan of Woo’s Chinese output, was never in doubt.) And by all accounts shooting the movie was relatively easy and straightforward, even with the temperamental Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead role (supposedly it was Van Damme who threw out the movie’s original speedboat chase ending for a baffling horseback chase; Woo would later use the original chase for his lone English-language masterpiece “Face/Off“). When the movie, which is a loose remake of “The Most Dangerous Game” set in Southern-fried Louisiana, was in post-production, it was then that everything went to hell. After Woo’s initial cut, the MPAA demanded over a dozen changes for it to even have a chance of securing an R-rating (it’s rumored that Woo re-cut the film 17 times), and at one point Van Damme stepped in and fashioned his own cut of the movie, one that replaced a number of scenes with superfluous “hero shots” of the actor (according to a biography of Woo). The resulting film is a shadow of its former self – you can see slivers of the talent and ingenuity that Woo brought to Hong Kong movies like “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled,” but you can feel every cut and meddling hand, like a bullet to the head.
“The Ring Two” – Hideo Nakata (2005)
By the time Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata (who also directed the soppy supernatural chiller “Dark Water,” poorly remade by Walter Salles which we’ll get to in a moment) made his stateside debut with “The Ring Two,” he had already directed two entries in “The Ring” franchise back in Japan. So it’s not a huge surprise that “The Ring Two” felt so lazy and phoned-in, but what was truly shocking was just how awful the movie would be. Instead of the elegant weirdness that Gore Verbinski brought to the remake, it was replaced by meandering spookiness that felt like an odd mishmash of elegiac Japanese storytelling styles uneasily mixing with the more Western focus on narrative mechanics. The resulting film was neither fish nor foul, less a movie than a collection of limply realized scares draped over “Scream 3” author Ehren Kruger‘s anemic script (Verbinski’s script had a huge, wholly un-credited assist from Scott Frank) and punctuated by long stretches when literally nothing happens. None of what made the original Japanese “The Ring” such a late night kick was present in “The Ring Two;” and returning star Naomi Watts looked like she was embarrassed to be there, something the audience could sympathize with.
“The Tourist” – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2010)
Jesus. Where to begin with “The Tourist“? A prestige end-of-the-year thriller starring handsome movie stars Johnny Depp (in a rare recent role that sees him free of both prosthetics and wigs) and Angelina Jolie, it also marked the English language debut of German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who just a couple of years earlier, directed the Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” a film that managed to elegantly blend edge-of-your-seat thrills with a deeply melancholic, emotionally resonant worldview. “The Tourist” (based on the popular French film “Anthony Zimmer,” which we only assume is million times better) showed nothing of von Donnersmarck’s considerable abilities, instead serving as a series of banal, loosely connected chase set pieces that involved a mysterious criminal and mistaken identity (or something) and always took place in obnoxiously glamorous locations. The script has a similarly pedigreed background, having been worked on by “Downton Abbey” mastermind Julian Fellowes, “Usual Suspects” screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and von Donnersmarck himself, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again. It’s hard to tell where, exactly, “The Tourist” went wrong since it’s such a complete and utter disaster, but we’re fairly sure that the language barrier was the least of this thing’s worries.
“Dark Water” – Walter Salles (2005)
Brazilian director Walter Salles, known primarily for art house smash “The Motorcycle Diaries,” decided to make his English language debut with “Dark Water,” a moldy horror movie based on a Japanese film directed by Hideo Nakata, who made a similarly unimpressive domestic debut with “The Ring Two” (see above). “Dark Water,” ostensibly about the terror that befalls a young single mother (Jennifer Connelly, in another disastrous post-Oscar dud) and her young daughter (Ariel Gade) after they move into a shady apartment building, plays like a laundry list of things that are laughably not, at all, in any way scary: mold (well maybe this is scarier if you have allergies), puddles, Roosevelt Island, and John C. Reilly. The central mystery, about a young girl that went missing from the same apartment building years earlier, never builds appropriately and Salles, who has a more impressionistic style than the story demanded, poorly handles the suspense, even with a cast of solidly weird character actors/red herrings (among them: Tim Roth, Dougray Scott and Pete Postlethwaite). Glacially paced and muddily photographed, “Dark Water” was one of a host of Americanized Asian horror tales (others included “The Grudge,” “The Uninvited” and the instantly forgettable, one-time Wes Craven project “Pulse“) that mistook a vaguely menacing, eerie atmosphere for actual scariness, poorly grafting a Western sensibility onto things that worked much better in their original, Eastern form. No wonder that, after some short film noodles, Salles would return with the beat generation tale “On the Road.”
“My Blueberry Nights” – Wong Kar-Wai (2007)
Coming as it did from one of the most acclaimed filmmakers alive, the man behind “In The Mood For Love,” widely regarded as the best film of the 2000s, excitement was obviously high ahead of the premiere of “My Blueberry Nights,” the English-language debut of director Wong-Kar Wai. It starred singer Norah Jones, in her acting debut, as a woman who’s traveling through the country to try and recover from a love affair, meeting various lonely figures, including Jude Law‘s Mancunian-in-exile cafe owner, David Strathairn‘s alcoholic cop and Rachel Weisz as his estranged wife, and Natalie Portman as a broke poker player (Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, also features in a small role). On paper, it looked like pretty much the best thing ever, and there are things to like it about it — it looks typically gorgeous, even though Kar-Wai had split from regular DoP Christopher Doyle in favor of Darius Khondji, and Strathairn’s performance in particular is excellent. But something is lost in translation; the film feels like the product of a film student smitten by Wong’s earlier work, rather than the real deal, and lacks in any real substance. The emotion and dialogue feels false even in the hands of talented actors, Jones is something of a blank at the center, and it somehow feels like the filmmaker’s heart isn’t quite in it. The film picked up poor reviews when it premiered at Cannes, and Wong returned home for his long-in-the-offing martial arts opus “The Grandmaster,” which finally hit cinemas in China last month.
Honorable Mentions: On the good side of things, while Francois Truffaut‘s “Fahrenheit 451” doesn’t stand with the best of his work, it’s a pretty solid first (and only) attempt at English-language cinema. Further back, Fritz Lang didn’t skip a beat when he came to America to make “Fury,” while Luis Bunuel‘s “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” is worth checking out too, although perhaps not one for the canon. We adore Roman Polanski‘s English-language debut “Repulsion,” but we’ve written about it a lot of late here (the same is true of Ang Lee‘s “Sense & Sensiblity“), while Werner Herzog‘s “Where The Green Ants Dream” is better than its reputation. Milos Forman‘s “Taking Off” is underrated, as is Ingmar Bergman‘s “The Touch,” while more recently, Alfonso Cuaron, Susanne Bier and Tomas Alfredson made impressive English-language films with “A Little Princess,” “Things We Lost In The Fire” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
On the less happy side of things, as we’ve already seen, remaking your own work is never a good idea, as George Sluizer, Ole Bornedal and Danny and Oxide Pang demonstrated with “The Vanishing,” “Nightwatch” and “Bangkok Dangerous.” Like Wong Kar-Wai, Chen Kaige got lost in translation with “Killing Me Softly,” while Fassbinder’s “Despair” is far from his best work. And more recently, Thomas Vinterberg and Oliver Hirschbiegel both dropped the ball with “It’s All About Love” and “The Invasion.”