Category Archives: LGBT Foreign Language Films

Spa Night-2016

Spa Night-2016

Director-Andrew Ahn

Starring-Joe Seo

Reviewed May 19, 2017

Grade: B+

On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.

David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.

David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.

The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.

I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.

Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.

Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.

Free Fall-2013

Free Fall-2013

Director-Stephan Lacant

Starring-Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt

Reviewed May 3, 2017

Grade: A-

Free Fall is a 2013 German language film that is very reminiscent of the highly influential LGBT film, Brokeback Mountain, only set in Germany- during present times. The loneliness, struggles, and deceit that the characters face are similar in both films and both are arguably bleak as overall films. I, however, truly enjoyed this film and embraced the touching aspects and truthful writing.

In the case of Free Fall as compared with Brokeback Mountain, only one of the male characters is a family man- coming to terms with his sexuality in very bad timing, while the other male character is more comfortable in his own skin. A case could be made that a similar characterization is apparent in Brokeback. In both films, a love story develops between two men and outside forces thwart their happiness. The film is a very good watch and the love scenes particularly steamy and emotional.

Marc Borgmann is a young police officer, fresh out of the academy, living with his very pregnant girlfriend, Bettina. They are temporarily staying with Marc’s parents until the baby is born. Seemingly happy, Marc befriends a new recruit, Kay, and they begin a ritual of jogging together in the forest. Both men are young and handsome and very masculine- an aspect in a LGBT film that I personally find as a positive. Kay is much more brazen about his sexuality than Marc, and they eventually fall in love with the added pressure of their very macho surroundings, and Marc’s pregnant girlfriend to contend with.

Free Fall, as the title implies, is not a cheerful, romantic film, as a whole- nor is it completely bleak either. Yes, the love affair between Marc and Kay has some happy moments, but more often than not they face some sort of peril and do not get much time to relax and enjoy each other. As circumstances begin to unravel, Marc’s girlfriend slowly suspects something is going on with Marc, but when Kay is outed (the film suggests he purposely outs himself) during a gay nightclub raid, their lives spiral out of control.

The film itself is very realistic and does not come across as forced nor plot driven. The acting by both principal actors (Koffler and Riemelt) is quite strong and I buy their attraction instantly. The scenes where Marc questions whether the pair are buddies while internally fighting his attraction for Kay, are excellent and very passionate. The range of emotions on the face of actor, Koffler, is excellent. In fact, passion is felt during each and every scene the pair share together.

The way many of the supporting characters are portrayed, however, is disappointing,  yet also a brutal strength of the film. Marc’s parents are quite unsympathetic to either Marc or Kay and are written as stereotypical, anti-progressive and rigid. When Marc’s mother catches Marc and Kay kissing, she coldly chastises Marc for being “raised better than that”. In her mind being gay is bad- the father wholeheartedly sharing her beliefs. Another of the cops in the police academy is written as homophobic, but the film wisely writes Marc and Kay exceptionally well, proudly with none of the unfair effeminate qualities films and television still seem to cling to. The characters are not written for laughs, nor should they be. They are strong men.

The film wisely throws in a handful of supportive characters, like the police force as a whole- teaching and recognizing diversity and inclusion, and a fellow cop who is supportive of the situation with Marc and Kay, but most of the characters come across as harsh and unfeeling to same sex attraction.

The conclusion of the film is slightly disappointing as the story ends abruptly and in a rather unsatisfying way- rumors of a proposed sequel have circulated around the film. Certainly shot on a very small budget, the funding for a follow-up film must still be raised, which hopefully will occur. A nicer (and happier) ultimate resolution would be great.

American LGBT films, sometimes going too much the comical, or worse yet, the sappier route, can take a lesson from this treasure of a German language film. Free Fall is a humanistic, realistic, and brave film that I hope more people find themselves experiencing. The film will touch those who are either involved in or sympathetic towards the LGBT community.

The Visitor-2011

The Visitor-2011

Director-Tor Iben

Starring-Sinan Hancili, Engin Cert

Reviewed April 4, 2017

Grade: B-

The Visitor is a 2011 LGBT centered film that is set in Berlin, Germany, but features mainly Turkish characters. While the film tells a nice story and features some cool shots of the metropolitan city, it is rather amateurish in style,. The pieces of the film do not always come together or fit very well and there is no character development to speak of, but still, the film does have good intentions with a nice message and theme that deserves at least a few props.

The story involves a young male and female couple, Cibrial and Christine, who are dating. Cibrial works as a policeman and the pair seem to be in a happy relationship, enjoying walks and dinners together. One day, when Christine’s gay cousin, Stefan, comes to town, the relationship between Cibrail and Christine sours. The cousin is openly gay and comfortable with his own sexuality, while Cibrail secretly harbors feelings for the same sex, which he dares not tell Christine about, though she eventually catches on in dramatic fashion. Stefan is looking for action, cruising the city and parks for sex and companionship, while Cibrail is both lustful and jealous of Stefan.

Many scenes involve Cibrail looking longingly at Stefan and fantasizing about him. In that regard, the film teeters on being quite steamy and features more than one nude shower scene- this smoldering element helps the film avoid complete doldrums. Specifically, Cibrail showers alone during one scene, washing and presumably daydreaming about Stefan. But too many other scenes show a character jogging or walking around the park- too much like filler material.

The climax of the film is highly predictable as the two men find their way into each others arms, though the passion is not exactly evident to the audience. The lack of buildup is a negative aspect to the film because there is very little rooting value and too many questions. Is the film a love story? Is it supposed to be about Cibrail coming to terms with his own sexuality? Why do we not see more of a blowup scene between Cibrail and Christine? He simply moves out once she catches him in bed with Stefan and before we know it, Stefan and Cibrail passionately embrace and the film closes in celebration.

A side story involving a dead body found in the park- a park known for gay shenanigans- is included as Cibrail investigates the crime with his police partner, but this seems to have nothing to do with the main plot, unless we are to suspect one of the two men as the killer, but this is hardly focused on. Another shot of a gay pride parade in Berlin is included, but is this to make it known that The Visitor is a gay film? Apparently so. Additionally, a statue of two men is shown in several scenes for seemingly no other reason than to reinforce that the film is gay themed.

The Visitor is a simple story of two men finding each other, which is a nice message, but the film’s run time is a brief seventy minutes, hardly enough time for character development. A muted, videotaped look does not help the film seem very professional, and in fact, seems downright amateurish as an entire film, so much so that I would not be surprised if a film student might have made The Visitor.

Show Me Love-1998

Show Me Love-1998

Director-Lukas Moodysson

Starring-Alexandra Dahlstrom, Rebecca Liljeberg

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Reviewed October 22, 2016

Grade: B

Throughout the latter part of the 1990’s, films with more of an LGBT perspective (then simply referred to as the gay and lesbian genre) were being released more readily, though it was not until the 2000’s when mainstream offerings on the subject (Monster, Brokeback Mountain) hit the big screen to wide acclaim. Show Me Love is a Swedish coming of age story about two high school girls, polar opposites in social acceptance, who find love. Interestingly, the film was directed by a male- Lukas Moodysson.

Show Me Love originally had a different title, a crude reference to the town the film is set in, in western Sweden, but when the film was considered for Academy award contention (it did not make the cut), filmmakers were advised to modify the title for the film to have any shot. The film contains a grainy look- using hand held cameras in parts and, of course, is in the Swedish language.

Agnes is sullen, introverted, and brooding. Known throughout the high school hallways as the angry, weird lesbian, she has few friends, and the ones who are kind to her, she shuns away. Elin, by contrast, is popular, lively, and charming- everybody loves her. However, Elin is restless in the tiny Swedish town where she lives, and yearns for excitement. When Agnes develops a crush on Elin, she confesses all to her computer, but nobody else.

The film is nicely put together and given the time period of 1998, is quite brave. Today, many years having past and progress within the LGBT community made, a film like Show Me Love is a more common occurrence. Director, Moodysson, does not go for anything gratuitous or steamy in nature, but rather spins a sweet coming of age tale, not only of teen love and hormones, but of outcasts and feelings of loneliness. It’s a film that most can relate to in some way.

The actresses portraying the leads (Dahlstrom and Liljeberg) are fantastic in their roles and play the parts with conviction and believability. Despite being opposites, we buy their attraction and chemistry. Nothing is forced or dishonest.

Favorite scenes of mine are the awkward 16th birthday party for Agnes, thrown by her well meaning yet clueless parents. When nobody except a handicapped girl show up, Agnes viciously insults her, causing her to leave. The family sits in the living room eating the food that was planned for anticipated guests. It’s a poignant moment and rather sweet. Despite Agnes’s unpopularity at school, she has a very strong, loyal family unit- that is nice to see.

Later, Elin and her sister to attend the party, but more as an excuse to avoid another one. Finally, Elin and Agnes share a kiss, but is it a mean dare or is it authentic?

A clever aspect of the film is how Moodysson distinguishes both Elin and Agnes’s sexuality. Agnes is clearly gay and is open and out. Elin is very different in this way and has boys interested in her for days. The girls could not be more different and this adds a layer of complexity as each is in a different place in self discovery. This feature also makes Show Me Love very honest in its storytelling.

The film is not a masterpiece and certainly could have dared to venture into more controversial territory. Could they be harmed for being lesbians given the town they live in? Why is Agnes so sullen? This is a stereotype (the brooding lesbian) that needs to be changed- though given the time of the film, I will give a slight pass. Why not make Agnes a happy, cheerful girl who is gay? How will Elin’s sister deal with Elin’s sexuality or is it merely a phase for her? All sorts of darker issues might have been explored, but Show Me Love is tender, sweet, and lighter fare, but still an adventurous offering.

The Way He Looks-2014

The Way He Looks-2014

Director-Daniel Ribeiro

Starring-Fabio Audi, Ghilherme Lobo

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Reviewed June 4, 2016

Grade: B+

The Way He Looks is a foreign language film (Brazilian) from 2014 that tells a coming of age story about a blind high school student,  who develops feelings for the new kid in town. The other boy has rapidly become his new best friend and the boys, while unsure of the others sexual preferences, fall in love. The film is a charming story about a modern romance, now becoming more prevalent in film today.

Leonardo (known as Leo) is a blind high school student struggling to be his own person.  His close friend Giovana is in a similar situation as neither has ever been kissed, yet they feel adolescent desires- they are lonely, but share a close bond with each other. Regardless of his disability, Leo is quite independent, despite having parents who border on smothering. One day, a new student named Gabriel volunteers to sit behind Leo in class and they strike up a friendship. Giovana, unaware of Leo’s sexual preferences, develops a crush on Gabriel. The film then tells a sweet story about young, blossoming, romance. The main characters do not face particularly tough obstacles from outside sources, but rather from each other as their feelings and emotions are fragile. In addition to romance, the film focuses on the friendships between Leo, Gabriel, and Giovana.

The Way He Looks is a warm film. It is sweet and compassionate and tenderhearted. The viewer witnesses a budding romance between two teenagers and the fact that they are both male is really secondary- that is how charming the film is. The audience will root for Leo and Gabriel because they are nice kids. Giovana, the outsider, also has a rooting factor- she is in no way a villain, nor does she harbor resentment for either Leo or Gabriel, but rather, yearns for her own first romance and happiness. The film wisely does not turn her into an emotional wreck, or a psycho. Sure, she gets drunk at a party, but this is really only to temporarily escape her feelings.

I recoiled at scene after scene of Leo’s parents either fretting about something, worried sick about Leo coming home late, or simply worried that something may happen to their son. Relax already. Life is not meant to be spent frazzled because your son is blind. The parents are not the strongest written characters in the film and, in fact, are rather secondary characters. The case is the same for the bullies, the slutty girl, and the teacher. The film belongs to Leo, Gabriel, and Giovana wholly. The supporting characters in The Way He Looks are meant to merely react to the central characters issues.

A kind film about a same sex, young romance. Charming, not too heavy, with likable characters, who one can root for. There are no bombs, car chases, or explosions needed. The Way He Looks is a slice of life film that is simple, pure, and true.

The New Girlfriend-2015

The New Girlfriend-2015

Director-Francois Ozon

Starring-Romain Duris, Anais Demoustier

80017300

Reviewed March 5, 2016

Grade: B

The New Girlfriend is a French, and lighter, version of The Danish Girl, a similarly themed film also released in 2014-2015. The story involves gender identification confusion among the central character, though the time period in The Danish Girl is the 1920’s, The New Girl is set in present times.

The film begins with a brief montage of the lives of two best friends- Laura and  Claire- sharing a life together and inseparable as children, young adults, and even as married women. Sadly, we learn that Laura has recently died of a terminal illness and this is where the film really begins. Claire embarks on a unique friendship with Laura’s husband David, when she catches him wearing female clothing and acting as a “mommy” to his infant daughter. They form a bond and Claire agrees to harbor David’s secret and even accompanying him in public as he slowly takes on the persona of “Virginia”.

I found the film quite compelling throughout most of the running time as we see David’s burning desire to both dress as a woman and feel like a woman. We mostly see the bond develop between Claire and David, who sometimes is Virginia, other times David. Claire is happily married to her successful, handsome, husband Gilles and the three individuals are friends- sharing dinners, tennis matches, and evenings consuming wine. Gilles is unaware of David’s secret and begins to fear an affair has ensued between his wife and his friend. Likewise, during moments, Claire imagines David and Gilles beginning a torrid affair.

Interestingly, the film does not go full steam ahead with the love triangle between Claire/Gilles/David (Virginia) and this is a wise choice. That would have made the film more typical and generic, and perhaps even one-note. Rather, the point of the film is the struggles David goes through to feel right as a woman and how his friends support him. When he kisses Claire and snuggles with her, it is not sexual in nature- it is to feel close to another woman. This makes the film more character driven.

As with many foreign language films, The New Girlfriend is liberal with nudity, both male and female. When nudity is featured in American films, typically it is in a gratuitous or in a sexual way. This film being French, the nudity was tasteful and even beautiful. When Claire is topless it is more expressive as the mystique of the female body than in a showing of a buxom woman, which Claire is not.

The ending of the film slightly disappointed me. The idyllic, fairy tale way that the film wrapped was romanticized and unrealistic. I would have liked to have seen even more of David/Virginia’s struggles and how his in-laws might have wrestled with the idea of their granddaughter being raised by a single man dressing as a woman.

Another flaw was the lack of explanation as to whether David- as a male-desired and yearned to biologically become a woman or if he was satisfied to dress up and publicly look like a woman. The film chose not to go this route and it undoubtedly would have made the film darker, containing a much deeper story. Instead The New Girlfriend was light, fun, and wholesome in its overall story.

Les Biches (Bad Girls)-1968

Les Biches (Bad Girls)-1968

Director-Claude Chabrol

Starring-Stephane Audran, Jaqueline Sassard

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Reviewed December 1, 2015

Grade: B+

Les Biches (translated to mean Bad Girls in English) is a French-Italian film from 1968 about a peculiar relationship between two women, one a wealthy, gorgeous, sophisticate named Frederique, and the other a poor, waif-like, struggling street artist named Why. They embark on a tumultuous love affair marred by competition for handsome Paul Thomas, the local architect. At its core, the film delves into class struggle, lust, and violence.

The beginning of the film sets the tone as Frederique provides Why with a large sum of money as she stops to admire her art on the streets of Paris. She invites Why back to her lush villa in gorgeous Saint Tropez, where Frederique lets two outrageous gay men co-habitat with her. The household is a circus of sorts as the men prance around wildly, but Frederique teaches Why about high society and good living. Soon Paul is introduced to the story and takes a shine to Why. She calmly rejects him and Frederique then begins to fancy him, thereby emotionally rejecting Why and leaving her feeling out in the cold. The film then takes a psychologically dramatic turn as characters turn against one another.

I admire this film as it is an unorthodox story especially for 1968. Same-sex stories were not the norm in these days and the interesting key is that the classes are different. Frederique has control and power over Why because she has money. Paul admires Why, but he cavorts with Frederique. Is he genuinely interested in her or does he value her money most of all? The film never makes the distinction crystal clear, but one speculates it is the latter. Frederique uses her wealth (and beauty) to obtain what she wants- namely Paul to spite Why. Why is younger and fresher and has not been marred by the world…yet. The gay men are cartoon-like. It is not clear exactly who they are or why they live in the villa. In fact, little background is known about any of the characters.

Foreign-language films, especially of the 1960’s and 1970’s are fascinating to me- filled with life and interesting facets and Les Biches is a prime example of interesting film-making. A trip down bi-sexuality lane with two gorgeous women at the forefront of the story, both struggling for power over the other, though one with a clear advantage.

Interesting to note that at the time of release is the film was touted as a lesbian skin-flick and humorously miss-thought to be entitled “Les Bitches” (perhaps to get audiences in the door), but is hardly a sex romp- quite the contrary as the psychological elements overtake everything else.

Les Biches is an odd little adventure, but one to be appreciated and traveled with an open mind if the mood is right. Stylish and interesting and certainly non-mainstream, it challenges social norms of the day and provides certain Hitchcock-like elements, especially in the final chapter.