Last weekend, a Rwandan film, Kinyarwanda, won the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, a prize previously awarded to crossover hits Once, Whale Rider and An Education. That could mean the chance of it landing in Orlando theaters sometime between now and when it hits DVD have improved dramatically. It could mean that it will go all the way – the aforementioned films all went on to garner Oscar nominations.
Or it could go the way of Seducing Doctor Lewis and Naming Number Two, winners of the same prize in 2004 and 2006, respectively, and not much else.
If “nobody knows anything” when it comes to picking a good film from a bad film before it opens, it’s doubly so when it comes to foreign films. Culture clash is as big an obstacle as the language barrier, and films with difficult material from ravaged countries – Kinyarwanda is set during the 1994 genocide of minority Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers by the majority Hutus (a far cry from a coming-of-age tale set in 1960s London) – pose even larger financial risks to theater owners than typical crowd-pleasing Sundance fare.
So it is with a grain of salt that we present this handful of exciting-sounding films hoping to find an audience this year. With independent distribution being reshaped with every streaming innovation, cinephiles may not even have that long to wait. Cross your fingers … or just save them to your Netflix queue.
Applause : (Martin Zandvliet – Denmark) Since appearing in Tomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration more than 13 years ago, Paprika Steen has become the international face of Danish cinema, be it Dogme 95 or otherwise. She stars here as Thea, a popular but volatile stage actress whose struggles with alcohol have estranged her from her ex-husband and two young children. Her attempt to put her crumbling life back together runs within the film against carefully selected scenes shot during Steen’s acclaimed run in the revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that won her praise in her home country.
Certified Copy : (Abbas Kiarostami – Iran/France) Juliette Binoche won best actress at Cannes last year for her portrayal of a woman frustrated by life – especially her selfish, ingrate child. In her first collaboration with the Iranian master, she goes on a day trip to see art and local culture in Tuscany with a writer whose new book, Copie Conforme, an exploration on the artful validity of copies, she seems to despise. More than that, she seems to despise the writer himself. The European art-film style and comfortable budget is something of a change for Kiarostami, but fans will recognize his hand in the visual style, even if it is a lush countryside he’s framing instead of dusty Tehran.
The Grandmasters : (Wong Kar-wai – Hong Kong) Little is known about Wong Kar-wai’s biopic of the legendary kung-fu master, Ip Man (Tony Leung), the man who trained Bruce Lee. Yes, Donnie Yen has already played Ip Man in two films by Wilson Yip (the second of which, Ip Man 2, is playing now in very limited release), but this is Wong Kar-wai we’re talking about. Truthfully, little is known about the film because Wong himself won’t know what it is until his finished edit. This is Wong’s seventh collaboration with Little Tony, and the first since 2046, a loose sequel to In the Mood for Love.
Headshot : (Pen-ek Ratanaruang – Thailand) Since his dazzling 2003 breakthrough film, Last Life in the Universe, things have been much tougher for Ratanaruang. He looks to return to the prominence that has eluded him in Nymph, Ploy and Invisible Waves with this story of a hitman who is shot in the head and wakes up to find that he now sees the world upside down.
The Housemaid : (Im Sang-soo – South Korea) Jeon Do-yeon stars in this very loose adaptation of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film of the same name (now streaming for free on mubi.com), about a live-in maid caught up in a scandalous affair with the rich and powerful man of the house (Lee Jung-Jae). The original was daring for its time (especially in such a repressed place as 1960s South Korea), but Im’s update comes with no such caveats. This darkly shocking, sinfully sexy drama is a return to form for Im, whose last film, 2006’s The Old Garden betrayed the promise and talent shown in The President’s Last Bang and A Good Lawyer’s Wife.
Kinyarwanda : (Alrick Brown – Rwanda) Despite its aforementioned award, this film, about the Imams and mosques that sheltered Tutsis (and other non-combatants, including Hutus who refused to kill) during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, mixed reviews suggest it will need all the ground-level support it can find.
Melancholia : (Lars von Trier – Denmark) It’s hard to know what to expect from von Trier after the traumatic (cinematically and culturally) events of Antichrist. Charlotte Gainsbourg survived that film, and now returns as one of a pair of sisters (the other being Kirsten Dunst), but a synopsis would miss the point, which is this: Danish cinema is exciting again!
Norwegian Wood : (Tran Ahn Hung – Vietnam/Japan) There are a lot of nerves surrounding this film, the first feature adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. His short story, “Tony Takitani,” has been adapted before, and exceptionally by Jun Ichikawa, but this is another beast, to be sure. It’s very likely that no matter how good Hung’s film is, it will not satisfy fans of the novel. Still, Hung is a quality director and star Rinko Kikuchi seems to fit the bill for Naoko, the novel’s delicate love interest.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives : (Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Thailand) Weerasethakul’s slow and serene meditations have become art-house favorites around the world but have never managed to cross over into the American mainstream (or any mainstream, for that matter). That history seems unlikely to change with this film about the last days of a Buddhist man named Boonmee who, yes, spends the time with his family (even dead relatives) recalling his past lives and having out-of-body experiences. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and, depending on who you listen to, is either impenetrable to non-Buddhists or a brilliant, diary-like exploration of humanity by others.