It’s easier to say what fantasy isn’t, rather than what it is. It’s not the robots or interplanetary adventures of science fiction, and it’s not the inexplicable and the terrifying creations of horror. All we can say for sure about fantasy is that, within the world on the screen, anything can happen.
So here’s an alphabetical list of some of the more interesting foreign-language films in which the rules no longer apply. There may be strange happenings and mythical beasts but they are not out to scare us, or to confirm our suspicions that we need to be afraid of the new and the strange. Instead they challenge us to look with, as Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio would have it in The Abyss, better eyes than that.
You need your best eyes trained on the screen to get the most from these films; they’re not always easy, but they are truly magical.
1. Beauty And The Beast (1946)
Fairy tales continue to be committed to the screen on a regular basis. This year we have Disney’s Frozen to look forward to, in which Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen will get a facelift. Disney may do the delightful side to children’s stories, but some film-makers opt instead for the darkness that lurks behind, such as Catherine Hardwick’s 2011 retelling of Red Riding Hood. I can think of only one film that has managed to capture both the darkness and the delight, and that is Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast.
The best scenes in this classic story, complete with hairy monster, enchanted rose and magic mirror, take place in the Beast’s castle. Cocteau shows us Beauty, slow-motion, running down corridors with billowing curtains, past candelabras held up by human arms, stopping next to a mantelpiece from which a face turns and stares. Objects move of their own accord and doors slam shut in your face – it’s a mesmerising place, and the beast struts around in it, his snout bloodied, smoke curling up from his paws and mane. It’s a great performance by Jean Marais, who convinces us that he is still the same tamed monster after he becomes a man once more. Not even Disney managed that trick.
2. The City Of Lost Children (1995)
Hollywood can give you a bad Santa, but foreign-language films can give you downright evil ones. Finnish fantasy Rare Exports (2010) is a great example of this, but no Santa strikes fear into my heart quite like the one in The City Of Lost Children.
Off the coast of a strange city, mad scientist Krank is kidnapping children in order to steal their dreams, but, alas, kidnapped children tend to only have nightmares, even when he dresses as Santa to try to placate them. Directors Jeunet and Caro represent the dreams with looming faces and wide-angle lenses, using a mainly green palette to the point of nausea. The story becomes more disturbing as a strongman (Ron Perlman) and a young girl (Judith Vittet) club together to find the missing children. Clones, brains in boxes, conjoined twins, trained fleas and a Cyclops cult all play their part along the way. Gilliam meets David Lynch in this movie; it may be a film with children in it, but it’s definitely no children’s film.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
You know the bit in Kung Fu Panda when Po finally gets to watch the Furious Five in training? He’s just so happy to be in the presence of the best of the best that he stands there, with a big panda grin on his face, marvelling at their brilliance. When I watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that’s the expression I have on my face.
There is nothing better than having the likes of actors Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh tell a mythical tale of magic and mystery with perfect choreography captured by director Ang Lee, while an incredible soundtrack sucks you in. And it revolves around a green sword of destiny, which is as cool as it sounds. Anyway, enough panda-grinning. Here’s hoping the sequel (currently set to begin filming in May 2013) doesn’t wipe the smile from my face.
4. Destiny (1921)
It could be argued that death is a presence in every movie. He’s not always on the list of dramatis personae though. Foreign-language films that make Death come to life include Bergman’s influential The Seventh Seal, Cocteau’s Orphee, and gems such as Mexican fable Macario, but I think the first time he made an appearance was in Fritz Lang’s Destiny.
One day, a stranger arrives in town and buys a plot of land next to the cemetery. Then he builds a high wall around his property; a wall with no doors or windows. The townsfolk are intrigued – apart from a pair of young lovers, who feel the chill of foreboding when they look into the stranger’s face. When one of the lovers disappears, the woman feels sure that the stranger has taken him, and so she goes to the wall and tries to find a way in. But there’s only one entrance to the garden owned by Death…
Fritz Lang wrote so many of the rules of modern film. Here he gives us a ‘story within a story’ structure, some excellently creepy special effects that convince even now, and innovative lighting and characterisation that had a huge effect on film-makers such as Hitchcock and Bunuel. He also gives us an embodiment of Death that terrifies and then moves us in equal measure; actor Bernhard Goetzke has one of the best stony faces ever committed to film. Clint Eastwood eat your heart out.
5. The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Imagine that you go to a dinner party from which you find you can’t leave. How long will you continue to be civilized? How many hours will pass before you start gnawing the bones left on the table and praying to whatever god might hear you? Luis Buñuel was a director with a gift for looking beyond the veneer of social niceties and discovering the savagery within us. It doesn’t take long before the guests in his endless dinner party start to turn on each other, leaving only a calm doctor to repeat “Everyone be calm” while despair, suicide, witchcraft and paganism infect everyone.
The sense that anything could happen is palpable in all Buñuel’s films. He never seems to obey the rules, and there is always a dry, satirical wit lurking beneath the struggles and debasements of his characters. It can make his films mesmerising, but also painful – the meaning you take from his delight in stripping away our veneer of gentility is up to you. Whatever you take from it, it’ll pop into your head whenever you attend a long, boring dinner party, and make you shift uncomfortably in your chair.
6. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
You could make a list of great fantasy films simply from Studio Ghibli’s output, from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo via Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, but faced with choosing just one for this list I found that Kiki is the character that I think about the most often and with the greatest affection.
Kiki is a witch. Her mother was a witch, and this kind of thing runs in families, so when the time comes for Kiki to join the tradition, she knows she has pass the test: to leave home, find a town that needs her help, settle down with her cat Jiji, and stay for a whole year. It’s a lot to ask of a young girl, and she’s scared, and shy, but determined to give it her best. That’s the reason why she’s such a wonderful character – she meets challenges head on and inspires us to do the same. The amount of optimism that can be drawn into one tilt of the chin is quite incredible, but then, we’d expect nothing less from Hayao Miyazaki. Kiki’s Delivery Service is perfection.
7. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Ofelia lives with her mother and cruel stepfather, an Army Captain, in an old mill during Franco’s fascist regime. All the company she has is in the form of her imagination, and it takes her to very dark places. Is it purely her daydreaming, or is she really seeing a faun, fairies, and truly terrifying creations such as the Pale Man? Guillermo del Toro leaves that up to the viewer to decide.
Pan’s Labyrinth fits together reality and fantasy in such a natural way that it’s astounding. The fantasy world is no relief; it matches the real world for pain and brutality – Ophelia’s imagination is not offering her an escape. Perhaps the best it can offer is a way to deal with the horror she must live with. It’s a beautiful, grotesque film. It makes you shudder, but, uniquely, it never feels like anything other than a child’s vision.
8. Trollhunter (2010)
Goblins, dragons, ogres, wizards, elves and dwarves living in enormous forests together in a place that looks suspiciously like New Zealand – these have become the high fantasy tropes that do great box office recently, and who can blame viewers for wanting a bit of hairy-footed escapism? But I have to say I’m glad that director André Øvredal has taken back the troll to the cold, white setting of Norway and given us, in the forms of Ringelfinches and Tusseladds, a potent symbol of man’s attitude to the natural world.
A group of students suspect that wild bears are being illegally killed, and start following the mysterious figure of Hans (Otto Jespersen), hoping to catch his activities on camera. It wouldn’t be ruining any surprises to tell you that he’s not a bear hunter at all. The trolls are brilliantly scary and enormous and real in the forests and caves through which Hans tracks them. A lot of the time you find yourself holding your breath. These are dangerous animals and the job of killing them is hard and horrible. Jespersen plays the role with a weary disgust that means we don’t ever think of him as the bad guy; it’s the bureaucracy of the Norwegian Wildlife Board that is the enemy here, and the lack of understanding for the importance of the natural world in the face of government quotas.
But this isn’t dry political commentary. Mainly it’s a really cool film about trolls. Exciting, funny, scary – and one of the best ‘found footage’ movies yet made.
9. Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970)
It seems a bit ridiculous to try to outline the plot of a surrealist fairy tale but here goes: Valerie is thirteen years old, and she lives with her grandmother, who has been bitten by a vampire priest father figure who steals and then returns Valerie’s magical earrings. She has a boyfriend who might also be her brother. She witnesses the seductions and debasements of the townsfolk, who are also becoming vampires. Can she survive this strange and terrifying week with the help of her magical earrings?
The closest thing I can think of to Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is Alice In Wonderland; everything is dreamlike, inconsequential, and yet deeply disturbing. Valerie is also a film about the beginnings of sexuality; there are layers of frightening and beautiful imagery, and eroticism uncomfortably combined with innocence. Directed by Jaromil Jireš, Valerie sprang from the Czechoslovak New Wave Movement, seeking to use surrealism to highlight the oppression of the communist regime, and that knowledge gives the film an added political level. Valerie represents the ideal of girlhood that must grow up and face a brutal reality. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it; after all, isn’t that what surrealism is for? Watch this strange, hypnotic film and make your own meanings from it.
10. When Pigs Have Wings (2012)
When something utterly unbelievable happens in the most mundane of circumstances, it can make us re-evaluate what we think we know about a time or a place. It can also be really funny.
Jafaar (Sasson Gabai) is a fisherman living in Palestine. It’s not a good living because the Israelis allow him to fish only up to 4km off the shoreline, so the most he catches is sardines. Until the day that he brings up his net and discovers a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig in it. Since it’s illegal to own a pig and against his religious sentiment to eat it, this is a big problem. The solution involves sheep disguises, pictures of Miss Piggy, and religious martyrdom.
This film proves that fantasy is not synonymous with special effects, or big budgets. When just one extraordinary thing happens the world is thrown into relief, and the conflict happening in Palestine is brought home. Gabai has the perfect face for a comedy that becomes a tragedy; he makes us believe it, and from that, we believe the impossible can happen. Maybe the world can be turned into a different place, a better place, after all. And if that’s a cheesy message, is that a bad thing? Besides, cheese and ham in the same film – delicious…
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