So many films begin with ‘R’ that I could easily have written three posts on this one letter. This will leave you a lot of scope, as I am determined to leave out the films from Tarantino, Scorsese, and many others who have chosen ‘R’ titles. In fact, I will limit my choices to only World Cinema films this time. So, no mention of ‘Ride With The Devil’, ‘Right At Your Door’, ‘Ronin’, or many other favourites. (Oops…)
My top choice was always going to be a Japanese film anyway, so here are some more foreign language choices to lead you up to it.
Two Chinese films to start with. Both historical dramas, and equally ravishing to behold. They are also both directed by Zhang Yimou, and star the same female lead actress, the wonderful Gong Li. ‘Red Sorghum’ (1987) was the film that introduced us to both director and star. The story is told in flashback, to a China in the 1930s, during the war with Japan. Arriving as the arranged-marriage wife of a distillery owner, a young woman is shocked to find her husband dead, and she has no alternative but to take over the running of the business. This simple tale of peasants, murder, and foreign invasion is elevated by the outstanding performance from Gong Li, and the wonderful cinematography.
Four years later, and another sumptuous production, close to taking my top spot, ‘Raise The Red Lantern’ (1991). This film is set a little earlier, in the 1920s, with China still ravaged by opposing warlords. It tells the enchanting story of a young concubine (Gong Li). This educated woman is forced by the poverty of her family to become the fourth wife of the elderly Master Chen, a wealthy and influential man. The sets and costume are both superb, and the claustrophobic confines of her life inside the house are nicely rendered too. In the bitchy atmosphere of a house full of women, we see the 19 year-old attempt to move up the social ladder of her new family, and to gain the attention of Master Chen. Outstanding.
Even though it makes this post a little long, I could not leave out ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945). Rossellini’s stark wartime drama has a documentary feel, and unforgettable set pieces. The central performance from Anna Magnani is heartbreakingly good, and the rest of the cast members deliver too. With the SS searching for resistance fighters near the end of the war, the tension mounts, and the fugitives fear betrayal. This film is considered to be a classic of neo-realist cinema, and you will see why.
A Spanish zombie film might seem to be an unusual choice here, but ‘.rec’ (2007) is a real thriller. A TV crew are set to accompany a fire crew for a night shift in Barcelona. They intend to make a conventional fly on the wall documentary, following the firemen as they attend emergency calls. When they are called to an old apartment block to help police officers rescue a trapped old lady, all hell breaks loose. Soon, all those inside are quarantined, and suspicions are that the government knows all too well what has happened, and why. This is exciting, edge of the seat stuff. Full of unexpected shocks, realistic and gritty location filming, and mostly seen through a shaky newsman’s camera, as events unfold. I loved it, though the three sequels might well be considered unnecessary.
Another horror, this time from Japan. One of the few horror films to really creep me out, in adult life at least, the overwhelming ‘Ringu’ (1998) is Asian horror at its best. Menacing, unnerving, and genuinely scary, this tale of what happens to those who view a mysterious video tape had me watching with the lights on. It spawned some sequels, and a rather good American remake too, but the original is still the best. Don’t watch it alone!
A modern Indonesian film, ‘The Raid’ (2011) combines oriental martial arts with heavily armed gangsters, as a police SWAT team assault a tower block that has been taken over by a large criminal organisation. This is a non-stop action masterpiece, and just never lets up. Betrayal, extreme violence, and protracted shoot-outs guarantee to leave you feeling drained after watching it. The body count is enormous, and the pace unrelenting. And there is actually a story behind it all too. Police corruption, the breakdown of society in Jakarta, and the bravery of individual officers. I have yet to see the sequel, but this one was good enough for me.
Another Japanese film, and one more from Akira Kurosawa. Slightly changing the story of King Lear, and setting it in 16th century Japan, Kurosawa spared no expense for his final epic, ‘Ran’, (1985) Using countless extras to recreate the battles between feuding clan warlords, amazing location filming, and elaborate sets including specially built castles, this was the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that time. And you will see why. This magnificent film is worth every penny, from the masterful battle scenes, to the detailed interiors, the historical accuracy is second to none. Compelling visuals of castles burning in the distance, and colourful flags merging on battlefields, this film is such a treat, I could watch it without subtitles.
To the top pick, and it will be no surprise to anyone that it is another Kurosawa film, this time in black and white and from 1950. These days, we are used to seeing films that take a single event, then show it from the point of view of different characters involved in it. It has become a familiar theme, and one we have all seen, in some form. But this was one of the earliest treatments of that idea, and to my mind, still the best. Starring the stalwart and always convincing Toshiro Mifune, ‘Rashomon’ is widely acclaimed to be an important film, and has been preserved by the Academy Film Archive. The story is set in the 12th Century, and deals with the murder of a samurai warrior, and the rape of his wife.
This event has been witnessed by various people, and they tell their story to the local court. In four segments, we hear different versions of what happened, even using a medium to relay the story of the dead man, from beyond the grave. Hard to describe, it just has to be seen.