Opinions & Features Workshop (Oct 26th)

Illustration by Sylvia Lopez

Foreign-language films to add to your watch-list

By Aymen Sherwani, October 22 2021—

Something that never fails to amaze me is the number of people that refuse to watch foreign-language films because they find subtitles inconvenient or — somehow — are perfectly content with cookie-cutter American films that offer a regurgitation of the same perspectives time and time again. There’s nothing wrong with curling up on the couch and watching an American cult classic from the ‘80s, or binging ten years’ worth of Marvel movies in one weekend.

That being said, where Hollywood is falling short to tell bold and culturally nuanced stories is where international films are beginning to really shine on the silver screen. For the sake of spooky season being in full swing, below is a range of my favourite spooky foreign-language films that I feel provide an oppositional gaze to the traditional Hollywood lens and challenge the narratives that are thrust onto them by American film narratives and the cultural stereotyping that affects people on a day-to-day basis. 

Spirited Away (2001) 

Argued to be director Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus, Spirited Away tells the story of a young girl named Chihiro, who gets trapped in the spirit world after her parents get turned into pigs —  a metaphor for the culture of overconsumption that followed closely behind the Americanization of Japan. Other spirits in the film are metaphors for greed and cannot remember their names anymore as they have lost their connection to the natural world that has been destroyed in favour of industrialization.

Despite how heavily this film subverts American norms, it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003 — Miyazaki refused to attend the Oscars and accept the award, saying that he “didn’t want to visit a country bombing Iraq,” which is quite fitting with the broader themes of this timeless animation.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

If I were to encapsulate the essence of this Persian film in three words, they would be “unconventional feminist horror” — even then I feel like I wouldn’t be giving the Iranian-American director, Ana Lily Amirpour, her due credit. Not only is this film so much more than the conventional coming-of-age feminist film in which the white female character breaks free from the shackles of the American patriarchy, it also defies the normative borders of your run-of-the-mill horror flick. Shot in black and white, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is rife with symbolism and is centred around a Persian female vampire who hunts rapists and abusers at night in the streets of Iran — all while wearing a chador

It allows the viewer to subvert their view of what a woman is like in the Muslim world — docile, oppressed and resigned. The film uses the idea that women shouldn’t stay out too late at night in fear that they may encounter predatory men and instead tells the tale of a woman who uses her femininity to lure and incite fury on such men. When I’m watching horror movies, I usually don’t end up rooting for the “monster,” but this film pulls into question who the monster really is in the end. 

Dabbe: Curse of the Jinn (2013)

It’s no secret that horror movies are reflective of the cultural fears that their target audiences harbour — this is one of the many reasons why American horror movies, full of exorcisms and inverted crucifixes, just don’t hit the same for viewers that simply have grown up fearing other things. Being a Muslim myself, one of the most chilling horror movies I’ve come across is Dabbe: Curse of the Jinn, which is a 2013 Turkish horror movie that leaves you waist-deep in the world of blood magic, summoning jinns — or demons — and all the religio-cultural taboos that our parents used to scare us with if we misbehaved.

The film is shot as found footage that is curated by the protagonists — a jinn exorcist named Faruk and a skeptical university psychiatrist named Ebru, who firmly believes that there is always an empirical explanation for any supposed supernatural occurrence. Together, the two travel to a Turkish village that is afflicted with unexplainable birth defects and now a murder that many believe to be the result of jinn possession. 

Although this is the fourth installment of the Dabbe series, what I personally love about this film is how it balances rationalism and logic with our primal fear of the unknown, particularly through the exploration of witchcraft in the Muslim world. And while I should warn you that this does not fall under your typical haunted houses and ghosts genre of horror, the introduction of the notion that it is humans you should fear is what makes this film so great.


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