Last week the Guardians trailer spread throughout the internet, making superhero film fans go bananas. Set in USSR during the Cold War, the film introduces a bunch of oddball superheroes, a guy who manipulates earth, a martial arts specialist, a woman who walks on water and a werebear, who are called upon to defend Soviet interests. All of a sudden everybody wants to see a subtitled Russian blockbuster.
It’s not the first time that a film like this has drawn the attention of American audiences. In many cases in the past, Hollywood was outmatched by the originality, the boldness, and the outright strangeness of foreign blockbusters. American studios are always looking abroad for creative ideas and remaking major foreign hits like Let The Right One In and Seven Samurai. Additionally, talent hunters are keeping an eye out for overseas visionaries to take on Hollywood films.
International cinema is ever-changing and ever-evolving. It is heavily influenced by American filmmaking also constantly influences Hollywood, which is occasionally awed by its accomplishments.
Let’s take a look back at 15 Foreign Blockbusters Hollywood Wishes They’d Made.
15. NIGHT WATCH (RUSSIA)
Twelve years before Guardians, another Russian film was the focus of Hollywood’s interest. Newcomer Timur Bekmambetov came up with an ambitious idea for a fantasy trilogy, where the forces of good and evil, of day and night, were about to collide in an epic battle. The first part, Night Watch, scored a huge domestic opening, becoming the highest grossing Russian release. Fox Searchlight Pictures quickly acquired the rights and gave it a worldwide release.
Night Watch introduced us to The Others, the supernatural creatures of old that, after centuries of conflict, came to a truce during the Medieval times. Back then, the light side created the Night Watch, in order to keep the dark forces in check at night and the dark side established the Day Watch to oversee the light forces during the day, until the truce is shattered in modern-day Moscow. Bekmambetov summons an army of vampires, shapeshifters, and other abnormal oddities, creating a grim atmosphere thanks to the clever use of special effects, supervised by no less than 16 Russian VFX studios.
14. ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (THAILAND)
When Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior was released worldwide in 2004 and in the US in 2005, everybody was talking about the new martial arts superstar Tony Jaa. Carrying out a demanding physical performance by executing all his stunts without the use GCI or ropes, Jaa was universally praised as a worthy successor of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. He also helped popularize Muay Thai, a fascinating and fairly violent martial art, reminiscent to western kickboxing.
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew and choreographed by Jaa’s mentor and action b-movie veteran Panna Rittikrai, Ong Bak follows a peaceful orphan who kicks off an adventure in search of a Buddha head that was removed from the sacred statue of his village. Jaa’s character penetrates the Bangkok underworld in order to recover it and bring it back home. The plot is simplistic and it reproduces many genre cliches, but Ong Bak ranks amongst the best martial arts films ever, due to its jaw-dropping and incredibly inventive action sequences.
13. BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (FRANCE)
Known for the atmospheric video game adaptation of Silent Hill and last year’s vibrant Beauty and the Beast, Christophe Gans in undoubtedly one of the most visionary directors in the horror/fantasy genre. His imaginative fables may not have the most solid narratives, but they are a wonder to look at.
His breakthrough film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, was inspired by the real-life events revolving around the Beast of Gévaudan, which terrorized the French province during the years of the Revolution. When King Louis XV sends out the knight and naturalist Gregoire de Fronsac to investigate the mass killings and capture it, Fronsac and his Native American companion Mani uncover a conspiracy closely connected to the Catholic church.
Although some of its action scenes may look a bit silly and out of place, undermining the final result (remember, this is two years after The Matrix, when everybody was trying to imitate that slow-motion fighting style), Brotherhood of the Wolf is a worthwhile and highly entertaining horror adventure. Gans offers an interesting spin on a well-known French legend, associating it with the fallout of superstition and the fallacy of organized religion. Visually stunning and nicely performed by an all-star international cast, the film exhales a strangely attractive aura.
12. BAAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING (INDIA)
This list could not go without an entry from Hollywood’s biggest rival, Bollywood. One of the most hugely invested and massively productive national film industries in the world, with more than 1500 films each year, Indian cinema is known for its flamboyant, wildly imaginative extravaganzas. South Indian director S.S. Rajamouli’s historical/fantasy epic Baahubali: The Beginning is one of its most magnificent creations.
With a satisfactory storytelling and decent performances by a glowing cast, Baahubali is the fable of a banished child who, upon adulthood, discovers his roots and sets out on a journey to fulfill his destiny by facing a tyrannical king. Some viewers may find Rajamouli’s filmmaking a bit over the top, but his grandiose vision is unlike anything seen in Western cinema. Featuring sweeping battle sequences and gorgeous musical acts, the film is so full of eye-candy you won’t be able to look away from the screen from beginning to end.
The highest grossing Indian film within India and third globally, it was cleverly marketed via social media campaigns, smartphone apps, cosplay events and setting the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest poster.
11. THE HOST (SOUTH KOREA)
During the past two decades, South Korean cinema came to the foreground as some of the most inventive and artistically stellar in the world. Among its prime representatives is Bong Joon-ho, whose impressive filmography features outstanding pieces of filmmaking, such as the crime dramas Memories of Murder and Mother, as well as his English-language debut, the Chris Evans-lead sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. His finest moment however, lies in his 2006 unconventional monster feature The Host.
After a toxic disposal in the Han River, a hybrid creature surfaces in Seoul and kidnaps a young schoolgirl, setting her family on an impossible quest to save her. Oddly enough for a monster movie, The Host takes the surprising approach of a political satire, featuring Joon-ho’s signature idiosyncratic humor. The final result is a highly entertaining horror-comedy filled with delightful characters and heartfelt moments, without sacrificing a couple worthy scares and genuine freak-outs.
Due to its artful direction, wonderful performances, and pleasing computer generated imagery (it was one of the biggest South Korean productions of the time), it has been hailed as one of the best offerings in the genre, ending up on Quentin Tarantino’s list of favorite films that have been released since he became a director.
10. 2046 (HONG KONG)
Hong Kongese Wong Kar-wai walks the lonely path of a true artist. His heretic filmmaking stays clear of conventional narrative structures. His films are elegant exercises in atmospheric aesthetics and visual storytelling. Of all his filmography, which contains gems such as Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, and In the Mood for Love, 2046 is perhaps the most distinctive sample, since it gathers all of those trademark elements that gained him the worthy title of a modern auteur.
Part character drama, part stylized romance, and part cutting-edge sci-fi, 2046’s rambling, chapter-segregating plot can hardly be described. Largely associated with memory, obsession, lust, and unfulfillment, it can be viewed as the ultimate study on the untamed nature of love. With Wong Kar-wai’s lyrical direction, consisting of stunning shots of rare cinematic beauty, Zhang Ziyi’s spellbinding performance, and Shigeru Umebayashi’s grandiose score, the film invites viewers to dive into its sensual and expressionistic universe.
9. DOWNFALL (GERMANY)
Everybody has seen one of those “Hitler reacts to” parodies and memes, but not everyone has seen the actual film the footage was taken from. The scene depicts Hitler’s emotional outburst towards his generals at the moment he realizes that the war is lost. Great German actor Bruno Ganz incarnates the Nazi leader with a bloodcurdling plausibility, in a truly astounding performance that is easily the pinnacle of his remarkable career.
Downfall is the second film by Oliver Hirschbiegel, after his much talked about and quite shocking debut Das Experiment. Based on several historical sources and memoirs, it chronicles Hitler’s last ten days in Berlin, before the downfall of the Nazi regime. Hirschbiegel handles an extremely delicate matter with admirable clarity. Focused, solidly written, and historically accurate, Downfall challenges the viewer with its thought-provoking portrayal of Hitler, almost allowing one to feel empathy for mankind’s most hated persona.
8. HOLY MOTORS (FRANCE)
The former enfant terrible of French cinema returned to form, twenty years after the critically acclaimed The Lovers on the Bridge, with the cinematic riddle Holy Motors. In a sense, the film revolves around the enigmatic character of Monsieur Oscar and the various real-life roles he undertakes, as he rides in his glazed limousine. However the events that unfold before our unwary eyes are more related to the logic of dreams than reality.
While many might criticize its unconventional structure and narrative, Holy Motors is a stroke of cinematic genius. Through a series of surrealist and seemingly disjointed segments, Leos Carax showcases an imaginative and utterly crazy cinematic vision that made critics mutter in ecstasy wherever the film was shown. Charmingly absurd and totally original, it is an insane study of identity, a triumph of visual storytelling, and ultimately a love letter to cinema itself that Hollywood can envy, but would never dare to make.
7. THE RAID: REDEMPTION (INDONESIA)
Hailed as one of the greatest action features ever, The Raid: Redemption is the second collaboration between Welsh writer/director Gareth Evans and Indonesian actor/martial artist Iko Uwais. The film follows a special forces team as they get trapped inside a fifteen storey building in their attempt to arrest a vicious crime lord.
Those seeking strong storytelling and profound character development ought to look elsewhere. For fans of martial arts cinema, however, The Raid is a sight for sore eyes. Stunningly stylized by Evans’ innovative directorial approach and choreographed by Uwais himself, the film introduces the ancient Indonesian fighting technique of Pencak Silat, in a breathtaking roller coaster of incredibly conceived, non-stop action.
It was followed by another successful entry, The Raid 2, and there are plans for a third part as well, to complete a trilogy. Its influence on Hollywood’s Dredd, which was released the next year, as well as the spectacular stairwell fight scene in Daredevil Season 2 is unmistakable.
6. AMELIE (FRANCE)
Even before the phenomenally successful Amelie, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was no stranger to Hollywood. The eccentric, Gilliam-esque vision he showcased in his first two features Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, led him to the director’s chair of the fourth installment of the Alien saga, the Joss Whedon-written Alien: Resurrection.
Amelie closely follows the everyday antics of a timid young waitress who’s determined to better the lives of everyone around her. Against the backdrop of a sepia-toned, dazzling Paris and Yann Tiersen’s nostalgic accordions, Jeunet invents a whole universe of peculiar characters and delightful ideas, making a visually rich film, which is whimsical, inspiring, and hilarious at the same time. Moreover, due to her charming performance, Audrey Tautou was distinguished as one of the most promising young actresses, making her Hollywood debut five years later with Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code.
5. KUNG FU HUSTLE (HONG KONG/CHINA)
Upon its release in the United States, the late Roger Ebert described Kung Fu Hustle “like Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny”, perfectly sketching out the film’s substance. The film is written, directed, produced, composed by, and starring multi-talented Hong Kongese Stephen Chow. Kung Fu Hustle successfully continued the terrific mishmash of martial arts and slapstick comedy Chow established in his previous effort Shaolin Soccer, which put him on the international radar.
Set in the 1940s gang-ruled Shanghai, Kung Fu Hustle tells the story of a gangster wannabe and his sidekick in their attempts to join a notorious squad. Chow has an extraordinary ability in mixing different moods and genres. The physical comedy in which he excels is in harmony with the dramatic character-driven moments. The spectacular kung fu battles — some of the best ever shot — are ideally matched with the mobster backdrop. Aside from its hilarious cartoonish action, the film oozes nostalgic nods and cinematic references.
Kung Fu Hustle was the highest grossing release in Hong Kong at the time and it also achieved the tenth most profitable opening for a foreign film in the US. Fittingly enough, another one of cinema’s greats, Bill Murray counted it as “the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy”.
4. CITY OF GOD (BRAZIL)
In 2002, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles exposed what lies beneath the surface of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in his gangster epic City of God. Recounting the relationship between two friends who go separate ways, one into photography, the other into crime, the multi-award-winning film scored the largest Brazilian opening ever and one of the most profitable US runs for a foreign film.
Based on the eponymous novel by Paulo Lins, but also inspired by real-life stories from these notorious neighbourhoods, City of God is nothing short of a directorial tour de force. While the disturbing elements of the film could result in a heavy viewing experience, Meirelles’ approach to the material — somewhat reminiscent to Scorsese’s visual style — is so energetic and engaging that it transforms a severely violent drama into a hugely entertaining movie.
City of God led to a TV series spin-off called City of Men, which was then followed by a feature film of the same name. What’s really worth watching though is the documentary City of God: 10 Years Later, a look into the lives of the young protagonists ten years after they were impacted by the film’s phenomenal success.
3. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (TAIWAN/CHINA/HONG KONG)
Wuxia is a traditional Chinese martial arts genre that dates back in the 1920s and was largely established by the films of legendary Shaw Brothers Studio. In recent years wuxia has appeared in many exceptional films, like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Assassin, and also drove the universal success of the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. The film, however, that popularized wuxia for Western audiences and revived the genre in its homeland, was Ang Lee’s masterful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Taking place in early 19th century China, the film revolves around a 400-year-old legendary sword, the Green Destiny. After its master gives it to a trusted friend, determined to quit fighting forever, the sword is stolen by a mysterious masked figure, triggering a thrilling hunt. Although the film is full of extended and incredibly choreographed fight sequences, orchestrated by martial arts pioneer Yuen Wo Ping, it stays miles away from typical Hollywood action. Ang Lee’s poetic, almost hypnotic, inner rhythm, along with Tan Dun’s captivating score, made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon an intoxicating cinematic experience.
Sixteen years after its release, it remains the highest grossing foreign film in the States. This remarkably influential, Oscar-winning epic set new standards in action moviemaking. It also led to this year’s utterly forgettable Netflix sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
2. PAN’S LABYRINTH (MEXICO/SPAIN)
A loyal disciple of the fantasy genre, both as a director and as a film buff, Guillermo Del Toro reached his artistic peak in 2006 with his dark fable Pan’s Labyrinth. Set in Spain in 1944, right after the end of the Spanish Civil War and the establishment of Franco’s dictatorship, the film is a twisted version of Alice in Wonderland, follwing young Ofelia as she slips into an ancient labyrinth, occupied by a mythical faun.
Working on the project for more than twenty years, Del Toro put into it all his craft and wizardry, vividly bringing to life his otherworldly creatures with an inventive combination of CGI, animatronics, and heavy costumes/makeup. Narratively flawless and thematically complex, it is one of the most sophisticated fantasy films ever created. Growing up in the turbulent central Mexico of the past century, Del Toro had witnessed the cruelty and violence of men very early on in his life and as a result he became one of the greatest modern theorists of cinematic horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is essentially an anti-war allegory, a poignant statement against the catastrophic effects of totalitarianism.
1. RAN (JAPAN)
Although it was the most expensive Japanese production of the time, Ran is not what one might expect from a blockbuster. Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic is essentially an auteur film, disguised in a high-budget casing. It is also one of the paramount masterpieces of world cinema and possibly the director’s greatest accomplishment.
Artfully adapting Shakespeare’s King Lear to Japanese medieval history, Kurosawa summed up all the themes he incorporated throughout his long career, such as war, chaos, despair, and human stupidity. Chronicling the final days of an aging warlord and the collision between his three sons, the film is a powerful moral story, a nihilistic yet deeply humane parable of mankind’s violent condition.
Ran was Kurosawa’s passion project. He has been working on it for decades, thoroughly planning every shot and painting countless storyboards (and even calling his previous samurai epic Kagemusha a “dressing rehearsal” for this one). Influenced by his turbulent life and linked to the passing of his own wife during filming, Ran is the Japanese master’s magnum opus. It touched a towering level of cinematic perfection that Hollywood has rarely reached.
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