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Pop Culture

The pleasures of watching a subtitled movie

Film festivals offer moviegoers a chance to indulge in rarely screened foreign fare that are often seen as difficult to understand

There are times when the cineplex seems to be conspiring against you.

Of the eight, nine or 10 screens available, most are showing the same blockbuster, shoving alternative titles - if they are shown at all - to smaller halls in unpopular time slots.

Coming to your rescue is not a superhero but a film festival. You can always turn to one as a surefire means of varying your cinematic diet. The Singapore International Film Festival used to be the only player in town back in the late 1980s. Since then, festivals have sprouted to cater to seemingly every interest, from design to food to cycling.

At least four are taking place back to back - the Italian Film Festival from April 20 to Sunday, the Singapore Chinese Film Festival from Friday to May 8, FoodCine.ma from Friday to May 14 and the European Union Film Festival from May 10 to 22.

While there are the occasional subtitled works that make it to a cinema chain as well as the more adventurous programming offered by the National Museum of Singapore and indie operator The Projector, it is thanks to these mini film festivals that one can easily get a taste of foreign fare, which run the gamut fromthe rib-tickling to provocative.

Just because a film does not get a general release in cinemas here does not mean it is arthouse or esoteric and just because a film comes with subtitles does not mean it is difficult to understand.

Just because a film does not get a general release in cinemas here does not mean it is arthouse or esoteric and just because a film comes with subtitles does not mean it is difficult to understand.

An Italian Name (2015), which opened the Italian festival, is a comedy that starts with a joke of naming a baby Benito, the outrageous equivalent of naming one's child Adolf in Germany. It soon develops into a sharply observed portrayal of friendships and relationships as secrets are revealed and loyalties strained over the course of an eventful night.

True, there are references in An Italian Name pertaining to social class and politics that might be a little tricky to grasp. But at heart, it is dealing with easily relatable issues such as relationships between siblings, friends and husband and wife. And the wonderful expressions on the faces of the actors as they respond to bombshells being dropped are funny in any language or culture.

Actually, I like the fact that elements of the film are, well, foreign. There is something fresh and exciting about the rapid-fire rhythm of the repartee and the unfamiliar backdrops and actors.

And thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute's efforts in bringing in current films despite budgetary and other constraints - apart from some classics, most of the works at the ongoing festival are from last year - one gets a snapshot of contemporary Italian cinema and society.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Chinese Film Festival is screening Ten Years (2015), a Hong Kong film unlike those featuring the likes of Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Nick Cheung, etc.

The Hong Kong Film Award winner for best movie has ruffled China's feathers as the territory's fears and mistrust are projected into five sobering shorts set in 2025.

In that bleak future, the territory is wrestling with its identity as it is subject to cynical political machinations, the frightening abuse of power by tyrannical child snitches and restrictions on its beloved Cantonese language.

Given the local authorities' campaign to promote Mandarin, Ten Years is unlikely to get a screening here. After all, the power of the film would be diminished if it were to be dubbed in Mandarin, not to mention ironic.

If you still think of Hong Kong merely as a shopping and eating haven, this political and powerful anthology will show you new facets.

These are films to entertain, enlighten, prod and provoke and they are making their way to Singapore. In fact, the cineplex is used as a convenient venue for a good number of titles, so you do not even have to venture far to make a meal out of them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Say yes to unfamiliar foreign films'. Print Edition | Subscribe