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5 Great & 5 Disappointing English-Language Debuts By Foreign-Language Directors

by The Playlist Staff
February 28, 2013 11:01 AM
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English debuts by Foreign Auteurs

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
"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, Inarritu
"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.

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  • cirkusfolk | February 28, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    Oh comon. Where is Mimic and Alien Resurrection? The two most notorious.

  • wes | February 28, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    Agree with everything, but Hard Target and Constant Gardner should be swapped. :)

  • Ville | February 28, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    "Breaking the Waves" was not Lars von Trier's english language debut...his first film, "Element of Crime" was also in english...bad research! BAD RESEARCH! :)

  • yer | February 28, 2013 12:26 PMReply

    My Blueberry Nights is truly awful. I'm glad there hasn't been an attempt at some sort of revisionist history because he's such a popular director.

  • Tom | February 28, 2013 12:06 PMReply

    I know that Fear X was a box office failure, but I really liked it. So I wonder where The Playlist places Refn's English debut?

  • Tobi | February 28, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Thank you for mentioning 'The Constant Gardener,' I love that film, and I keep getting shit for it from everyone I know. The rest of Meirelles' catalogue though, like mentioned, I don't know what happened there and it's brutal.

  • Ras | February 28, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    Breaking The Waves is not Trier's first English language film. Both Element of Crime and Europa are in English.

  • Ras | February 28, 2013 11:49 AMReply

    Breaking The Waves is not Trier's first English language film. Both Element of Crime and Europa are in English.

  • Eds | February 28, 2013 12:40 PM

    We took some creative license there. They're not all in English, (at least not Europa), but I see your point and will amend.

  • RC | February 28, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    "...but you can feel every cut and meddling hand, like a bullet to the head."

    Nice touch, hahaha.

  • Marie | February 28, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    The constant gardener is one of my favorite movies, awasome, perfect! I loved the book too.

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