The sheer number of overseas
films now available on DVD in the US is staggering, yet most DVD
enthusiasts still identify those releases through traditional but
narrow definitions of “foreign film.”International cinema is commonly
thought to fall into one of two categories: new releases of contemporary
art house favorites like Amelie and Y Tu Mamá También,
or Criterion Collection-type special editions of world cinema classics
like the works of Bergman, Kurosawa, Buñuel, etc.. But when
one is weary of investigating such admittedly worthy territory,
the definition of “foreign film”should be expanded. Specifically,
it should encompass the popular entertainment from other countries—the
genre films. From musicals to horror films, westerns to slapstick,
martial arts to swashbucklers, Mexican wrestling movies to (well,
where can you really go after Mexican wrestling movies?), cineastes
would do well to broaden their international horizons.

Such titles used to be the domain of ethnic specialty
stores and “gray market”mail order video pirates with an adventurous
clientele. But as the Internet-driven appetite for such cult fare
grows, American DVD labels are taking advantage of the trend, marketing
foreign genre movies to curious mainstream consumers (though VCI’s
release of several Mexican favorites is clearly directed at the
Latin American community, as well).

While far from comprehensive, the following selections
should provide some worthwhile viewing suggestions, all culled from
recent US DVD releases.

India’s film industry is the largest in the world,
and their Bollywood productions—colorful, widescreen, musical spectaculars,
often with three-hour-plus running times—have developed a considerable
following among non-Indian populations in the US and the UK. Hundreds
of Bollywood titles are now available on English-subtitled DVD in
this country through Indian retailers (peruse
for a great selection). If you want to walk into your local video
store and sample the output of this remarkable industry, then the
two new Bollywood titles issued by Columbia/TriStar—Lagaan (2001)
and Mission Kashmir (2000)—should serve as an ideal introduction.

Lagaan was among the five Best Foreign Film
contenders at this year’s Oscars, and although its brief theatrical
run didn’t quite make it the Bollywood breakout hit some had been
predicting, it’s a hugely entertaining and emotionally affecting
epic. And, despite a length of 225 minutes, star/producer Aamir
Khan’s film is an exemplary initiation into Bollywood. Yet, director
Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir is an even more exceptional
film, integrating its romantic musical sequences into an action
film framework; chronicling Islamic terrorism and the territorial
war over Kashmir. With action set pieces as gorgeously stylized
as the film’s song interludes, Chopra’s film is among Bollywood’s
best in recent years. Columbia’s DVDs are both 2.35:1 widescreen
and look gorgeous; extra features are minimal.

The era of the thriving Italian horror film has
sadly passed
, but thankfully many DVD producers are acquiring
these classic titles from the 1960s and ’70s. The baroque, operatic
shockers of directors Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Mario
Bava (Black Sunday) may already be familiar to some, but
the Italian horror genre extends much deeper than that—and several
new releases from Anchor Bay offer additional testament to these
films’ enduring appeal. “Giallo”(literally “yellow,”for the color
of mystery novels’ paperback covers in Italy) is the term used to
describe a particularly Italian brand of stylish, perverse and complex
thriller that thrived during the ’70s. The Giallo Collection is a new four-disc boxed set which presents four notable examples
of the genre, all in pristine widescreen with some supplementary
features (including interviews and alternate scenes). Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow (1978) is perhaps the weakest entry
in the set. Though overlong and lugubriously paced, it still manages
to remain engrossing. Giuliano Carnimeo’s Case of the Bloody
(1972) is an improvement—a visually accomplished whodunit
with some startling suspense set pieces. But the two films from
director Aldo Lado are the highlights. His debut, Short Night
of the Glass Dolls
(1971) is a striking first effort, and his
follow-up, Who Saw Her Die? (1972), is even better. It’s
a dark and sobering Venice-set giallo reminiscent of Don’t Look
that stands as one of the best titles of the genre.

Anchor Bay has also released other European genre
titles outside of the giallo family. Also from Italy, director Renato
Polselli’s Delirium (1972) must be seen to be believed. A
manic, hallucinatory shocker with muscleman Mickey Hargitay as a
psychologist-turned-sex-maniac, Delirium is an appropriately
outrageous intro to Polselli’s work (which includes the equally
bizarre Reincarnation of Isabel, also available on DVD from
Image Entertainment). Just consider yourself warned. The widescreen
DVD contains both the original Italian version, as well as the American
edit, in addition to an interview featurette.

Also from Anchor Bay are two Spanish horror efforts featuring that country’s genre star, Paul Naschy. Werewolf Shadow (1971) and the superior Curse of the Devil (1973), both uncut
and widescreen, are augmented by interview footage with Naschy,
as well as the usual trailers and bios. Naschy’s atmospheric, gothic
chillers are more of an acquired taste than their feverish Italian
counterparts, but they possess an eroticized charge similar to Hammer
Studios’ more explicit Brit horror titles from the period, and one
can easily become seduced by Naschy’s peculiar charms. Start with Curse of the Devil.

Speaking of acquired tastes (Santo! Santo! SANTO!
Mexico’s greatest masked wrestling superhero El Santo carried his
fame from the ring to the movie screen, appearing in over 50 films
beginning in 1958, and becoming a cultural icon in the process.
A couple of his films were released in America (where he was redubbed
“Samson”), but now VCI Entertainment and Kit Parker Films have issued
an English-subtitled DVD of one of Santo’s liveliest and most rousing
endeavors, Santo Contra la Invasion de los Marcianos (1966),
with the masked king of “lucha libre”using an abundance of chokeholds
to battle a troop of Martian kidnappers. Santo vehicles are, admittedly,
not for everyone. But there’s no denying that this entry is briskly
paced Saturday afternoon pulp entertainment at its nostalgic finest.
VCI’s DVD (part of a series devoted to popular Mexican cinema) provides
a fascinating background for this Latin American pop culture phenomenon.

Pity the long-suffering, old-school Hong Kong martial
arts movie fan.
While devotees of Euro-horror and Bollywood
musicals have seen their interests rewarded with some premium DVD
releases, kung fu film freaks have not been so lucky. They’ve had
to survive on wretched quality, unauthorized disc releases from
labels like World, Ground Zero and Xenon and fuzzy, pan-and-scan
atrocities packaged with misleading titles aimed at undiscriminating

The promised Shaw Brothers classics to be issued on remastered DVD
from Celestial Pictures have yet to materialize, but in the interim
there’s another label which seems to finally be focusing on quality
and honesty in their martial arts releases.

“The quartet
of films from Yasuzo Masumura represents perhaps the most significant
foreign release on domestic DVD this year.”

Crash Cinema has always been the leader in American
releases of 1970s and ’80s kung fu imports, but their new Pagoda
Films Premium Collection extends their reputation even further,
with martial arts discs which are finally capable of withstanding
quality comparison to mainstream DVDs. The initial trio of titles—Bloody
(1972), Cantonen Iron Kung Fu (1979) and Incredible
Kung Fu Mission
(1982)—may be minor representations of the genre,
but they’re all highly enjoyable. Bloody Fists features fight
choreography by Matrix action director Yuen Woo Ping, though
the two later films actually pack more of a punch.

As with other titles in the Pagoda line, the three
films feature wonderfully crisp letterboxed transfers, with some
extra features including trailers and “bonus”fight clips. Crash’s
other non-Pagoda releases are more of a mixed bag in terms of quality,
though Abbot White (1982) and Ninja: The Final Duel (1980) get by on sheer psychotronic energy alone (just be aware
that Abbot contains the worst English dub in the history
of martial arts cinema (which might actually be a sort of recommendation
to some).

Enthusiasts of Asian action cinema should also
the first two entries in Japan’s long-running
, which ultimately spanned 25 feature films
from 1962 to 1989 (as well as a ’70s television series). Home Vision
Entertainment has just released The Tale of Zatoichi and The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, both from 1962. These titles
are letterboxed at 2.35:1 and feature serviceable, if not razor-sharp,
transfers. Shintarô Katsu stars as Zatoichi, a blind traveling
masseur and legendary swordsman with an unfortunate habit of invoking
the wrath of Yakuza gangs and tyrannical feudal lords. The Zatoichi
series actually improved as it progressed (the next three entries,
including the first to be shot in color, should be available from
Home Vision by the time you’re reading this) and some may find these
inaugural endeavors to be rather leisurely paced. The second title,
though it lacks the emotional impact of the debut film’s climax,
moves at a more rapid clip. But it’s an essential film series for
anyone interested in Japanese popular cinema, and the releases are
recommended viewing. I’ll take Zatoichi over Yojimbo any day.

Also from Japan, the quartet of films directed
by Yasuzo Masumura
represents perhaps the most significant foreign
popular cinema titles released on domestic DVD this year (all from
the Fantoma label). Masumura began directing in 1957, as one of
the earlier members of the Japanese New Wave, which would also encompass
directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura. Masumura’s bold
genre exercises exist somewhere between the more auteur-oriented
productions of the aforementioned New Wave moviemakers and the pure
pulp endeavors of directors like Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku. Afraid to Die (1960), a brutal yet droll crime thriller starring
writer Yukio Mishima, is the weakest of the Masumura quartet, which
is only to say that it might not be as essential as the other
three. Giants and Toys (1958) is a caustic satire on Japan’s
advertising industry, enlivened by eye-popping kaleidoscopic compositions
and a jaundiced wit. Blind Beast (1969) is a nightmarish
and surreal chamber drama of sadomasochism, tactile pleasures and
romantic amputation. Slower to boil than its cult following might
lead one to believe, it’s still astounding for its excesses and
unnerving beauty. But the real stunner is Manji (1964), a
flamboyant hothouse melodrama centered on an obsessive lesbian relationship
and the suicidal consequences of jealousy. An incomparably audacious
work, Manji makes the melodramas of Douglas Sirk look Bressonian
by comparison. All four Fantoma discs are widescreen (2.35:1) and
look great; extras include trailers, as well as a Masumura bio and
filmography. MM