Hollywood may be the first place people think of when they think of big screen productions, but while it’s considered the focal center of the film industry, some of the most unique and imaginative movies don’t originate from a Hollywood studio, or even garner a release in the United States.
Whether it’s due to budget, poor language or cultural translations, or a perceived lack of box office potential, American cinemas rarely see most foreign films on more than a handful of screens during awards season.
Unfortunately, the popularity of foreign films in the United States have been on the decline for several years, depriving the biggest movie market in the world of some of the most unique and amazing content in production. This is especially true in the science fiction and fantasy genres. While the United States release schedule is dominated by sequels and adaptations, many other countries are branching out in ways most Americans will never see.
If you’re a geek looking to expand your cinematic horizons, check out these 15 Insane Foreign Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films You’ve Never Heard Of.
Besouro (known as The Assailant in the US) is the fantastical account of an Afro-Brazilian myth surrounding the origin of capoeira and its inventor, the film’s legendary namesake: Besouro. Set in 1920s Brazil, an African slave gains special powers, which he leverages with the capoeira fighting style to liberate a Brazilian plantation.
Brazil doesn’t have a strong film tradition in kung-fu, but bringing in Huen Chiu Ku of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill fame provided a unique high octane wire-fu meets western story that is at times more contemplative than violent.
With a release exclusive to Brazil, Besouro’s box office impact was limited to $2 million, and reviewers looking for a non stop action flick were divided over the dialogue-heavy moments of a movie that veers into art house cinema when the protagonist isn’t throwing punches or doing backflips. Still, Besouro’s unique take on the genre presents a film that isn’t only unique to Brazilian cinema, but also to the rest of the world.
Tale of Tales
Region: Italy, France, UK
Tale of Tales is an ambitious adaptation of 3 fairy tales, but not the Brothers Grimm fairy tales most American audiences are familiar with. Tale of Tales goes back even further to the works of the 17th century Italian father of fairy tales, Giambattista Basile.
Before the Disneyfication of the modern fairy tale, most such stories were far darker, twisted, and genuinely frightening. While Basile may have claimed his work was intended for children in the 1600s, the movie based on his work is clearly not intended for children of the 2000s.
Tale of Tales struck a unique aesthetic to go along with the whimsical stories. While it was filmed entirely on location, director Matteo Garrone specifically sought out real locations that had the look and feel of a studio set, serving to provide a surreal atmosphere and mildly haunting tone for most of the film.
Although Tale of Tales was well received critically and holds a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, its unconventional take on the subject matter, European fairy tale influences, and microscopic release footprint makes for a film that is unlikely to catch any traction in the United States.
Region: Russia, Ukraine
In 1700s Europe, a young mapmaker travels the countryside, charting the terrain into the east, when he comes upon a strange village deep in the swamp where he’s soon exposed to an unfamiliar evil.
Viy (called Forbidden Empire for its US release) is a visually stunning piece of fantasy horror with a dash of steampunk, and plenty of black humor. The film’s many monsters were realized through a variety of means, from puppets to CGI, resulting in effects that are — at times — so creepy they’re uncomfortable.
Posting one of the largest opening weekends in Russian history, Viy was heavily praised for its amazing special effects and unique visual aesthetic, but its actual critical reception was more divided. While many did appreciate the film, several reviewers pointed out a cognitive split, where the movie is both too intellectual for casual audiences, but too straightforward for cinefiles.
When a man chases after a naked woman he sees in the woods, he inadvertently finds himself wrapped up in a time paradox. Upon attempting to rectify his actions, he only adds to a cycle of repeating events, pitting him against multiple past copies of himself.
Taking a simplistic low tech approach to time travel (a la Primer), Timecrimes is a truly cerebral experience where the main character’s disorienting spiral is able to maintain high levels of drama and suspense with an absolute minimalist approach to action and special effects.
Timecrimes didn’t see a theatrical release outside of Spain — where its box office numbers only hit half a million dollars — but it is very widely regarded by fans and critics alike, even garnering the Best Picture award at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
Mr. Go (2013)
Region: South Korea, China
Based on the South Korean comic, The 7th Team, Mr. Go tells the story of a circus Gorilla, Ling Ling, that joins the Korean Baseball League to serve as a pinch hitter. He quickly becomes a superstar called Mr. Go, turning the Doosan Bears’s losing streak into a winning streak.
Mr. Go is nothing less than a groundbreaking technical achievement. A team of 500 visual artists spent over 4 years leveraging CGI and motion capture technology to create lifelike animation for Ling Ling, resulting in a finished product with more than 3.8 million individually animated hairs on the digital gorilla’s body.
Unfortunately, despite a moderately warm reception, Mr. Go’s box office returns weren’t quite as numerous as the movie’s visual accomplishments. The movie was able to mark the best Chinese opening for a South Korean film, but it was still only barely able to recoup its own budget.
Tai Chi Zero (2012)
Tai Chi Zero tells a fictitious account of the first man outside of the Chen Clan to learn the Tai Chi fighting style. At first, the Chen village doesn’t want to teach the outsider, but when a greedy tycoon attempts to build a railroad through their village, they realize they need all the help they can get.
Truly a visual marvel, Tai Chi Zero is a steampunk martial arts film that heavily borrows its visuals from video games, comic books, and classic wire-fu movies. Despite a simplistic script, Tai Chi Zero keeps the pacing up with plenty of extravagant action scenes that keep most viewers engaged.
Splitting many reviewers with its bland story, Tai Chi Zero still managed to get a warm reception due to its excellent action and visuals. While the movie did get a US release, it didn’t even manage to crack a quarter million dollars at the box office, however, it did get a little more attention in Hong Kong, with 5 nominations at the 32nd Hong Kong Film Awards.
Tokyo Gore Police (2008)
When a mad scientist develops a virus that makes people sprout weapons from their injuries. Ultra violent Engineer Hunters are tasked with taking down the infected (dubbed “engineers”). Seeking atonement for the murder of her father, one of the Engineer Hunters becomes infected, beginning to sprout lethal weapons herself, becoming even more of a killing machine than she already was.
Taking all the demented blood and guts the title and synopsis would suggest, Tokyo Gore Police dials it up to 11 in what is truly a twisted movie with buckets of blood, over the top brutal action, juvenile humor, and more deformed bodies than you could shake a stick at.
Despite subject matter many filmgoers would consider off-putting, Tokyo Gore Police maintains an 82% on Rotten tomatoes, although that only accounts for 11 reviews, suggesting a very narrow target audience.
The Storm Warriors (2009)
Region: Hong Kong
Inspired from the Chinese comic series Fung Wan, which launched in the late ’80s, The Storm Warriors (and its predecessor, The Storm Riders) is a Hong Kong Wuxia film about two warriors, Cloud and Wind, who attempt to stop the evil Japanese warlord, Lord Godless, from taking over all of China.
From geomancy, to sword play, to flying, The Storm Warriors goes where few movies dare to go, straight down to Cloud’s blue hair (you gotta have blue hair!). The lengths to which Storm Warriors ambitiously goes to bring these characters to life would make the craziest of comic book movies in the United States look like they’re pulling punches.
Enthiran is an Indian film that tells the classic story of a robot that turns on its creator. In a quest to make a lifelike robot, a scientist is more successful than he gambled for when his own creation falls in love with his girlfriend. Hurt over his spurned advances, the new AI ends up becoming a ruthless killing machine.
Although Enthiran took a roundabout trip to the big screen, that didn’t stop it from striving for visual excellence, mixing Bollywood costumes and dance numbers with some hardcore sci-fi action set pieces. Enthiran is truly a one of a kind mix.
Enthiran drew high praise from most Indian reviewers, who loved everything from the special effects to the costumes to the cinematography. US reviewers — who are less accustomed to seeing dance numbers in the middle of their sci-fi action thrillers — were far less positive towards Enthiran.
The Monkey King (2014)
Region: Hong Kong, China
This film is based on the classic 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West — which is basically China’s Wizard of Oz, only much, much older. The character of The Monkey King is arguably the most popular superhero in the world (although his fans are mostly restricted to Asian countries) but the western world may be more familiar with characters inspired by him, such as Goku in Akira Toriyama’s original Dragonball series.
The Monkey King tells the story of a monkey that acquires supernatural powers and rebels against heaven, which gets him banished to earth beneath a mountain for 500 years. The sequel (The Monkey King 2), chronicles the Monkey King’s adventures as he accompanies a monk on a pilgrimage that brings Buddhism to China.
The movie was a massive production involving intense wirework and CGI spectacle. Both installments set multiple Chinese box office records, but didn’t have much of a financial impact outside of China. The Monkey King received a drastically altered cut in the US, which was mostly panned by the few reviewers that checked it out The response from Chinese media (to the original cut) was slightly warmer, but not by much. The Monkey King 2, however, sits pretty at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The City of Lost Children (1995)
Region: French, German, Spanish
The City of Lost Children is a dark science fantasy steampunk movie about a mad scientist who has lost the ability to dream. To combat his loss, he begins kidnapping children so he can steal their dreams for himself. Unfortunately, the children he kidnaps become terrified, so he’s only able to steal their nightmares.
Breaking impressive visual ground, The City of Lost Children doesn’t look like any other film shot in the mid ’90s. Using every tool at their disposal, from digital effects to optical illusions, directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet even went so far as to paint the actors faces white, so that the color could be adjusted in post production to aid the film’s creepy tone.
The City of Lost Children was the opening film at Cannes Film festival in 1995, and was met by a divided opinion. While some found it fresh and revolutionary, others found it to unnecessarily dour, although today the film holds a respectable 80% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 90% audience rating.
When a young child’s family is assassinated, he begins to learn the ways of the ninja. After many years of training, he goes out on his own as a master thief, becoming a sort of ninja Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor.
Shot completely on a digital backlot, Goemon is a truly unique visual aesthetic a that is possibly as close to anime as live-action can get without removing human actors entirely — which wouldn’t be much more work than the CGI animators already put in for Geomon.
Although it was only released in a handful of Asian countries, Goemon received a fairly strong response, including a pair of technical nominations from the Asian Film Awards, and a 72% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (with no published critic rating).
Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012)
After awaking from a 500 year imprisonment beneath the ice, a demon fox spirit sets out in search of a man who will let her consume his heart, fulfilling her desire to become mortal. This search brings her upon a princess with a scarred face who desires the affections of the general of a local military outpost, but fears he will reject her due to her scars. Offering to trade bodies, the fox demon attempts to compete for the man’s heart. Literally.
Featuring demons, body swaps, heart consumption, and a fight with a giant bear, Painted Skin: The Resurrection might seem like one of the most insane fantasy tales of all time, but what makes it almost crazier is that the fantastical elements are merely the outer shell to a much more dramatic, and well served, love story.
Due to the underlying romance, Painted Skin: The Resurrection divided many audience members by gender. The final outcome is still mostly positive, though. The film even won several awards for a stellar female performance, and garnered recognition for its impressive visuals. Also finding financial success, it saw one of the largest box office openings in China at the time.
What if Superman landed in the impoverished suburbs of Buenos Aires instead of a farm in Smallville, Kansas? Kryptonita tells the story of the Justice League, but not as you know them. Based on an Argentinian DC Elseworlds novel by Leo Oyola, this Justice League is a street gang full of anti-heroes that regularly find themselves at odds with local law enforcement, led by the Joker, a hostage negotiator.
Drawing comparisons to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Kryptonita is a brilliant work of superhero deconstruction that eschews the typical comic book movie budget, telling a far more intimate story in a way that would likely never go over in America — where comic book properties are too valuable to waste on smaller film experiments.
Kryptonita isn’t available in the United States, or even with proper english dubbing or subtitles, but it garnered a ton of praise from Argentinian fans who loved the small scale, dialogue heavy, twist on the property. Kryptonita has even been nominated for 3 supporting actor awards by the Argentinean Film Critics Association.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Region: Hong Kong, China
When a mysterious death interrupts a construction project, a soon-to-be Empress brings in detective Di Renjie to solve the case.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is an exercise in extravagance that would sink most big movie productions, but the pacing holds true and makes for a thrilling ride. Massive sets were constructed during production, including an 80 meter (262 feet) tall bust of Empress Wu Zetian, and some of the action choreography was so complex that there were as many as 70 wires used in some scenes. Detective Dee also kicks a deer in the face.
The film unfortunately didn’t see much financial success, but critics still went crazy for Detective Dee. The 2011 Hong Kong Film awards gave it 13 nominations, covering all categories, resulting in 6 wins for direction, acting, art, costumes, sound, and visual effects.
Have you seen any of these moves? Seen anything you think is crazier? Let us hear about it in the comments!
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