At the 2020 Golden Globe Awards, director Bong Joon-Ho said “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He’s right. We often tend to only watch English language films because that’s what we’re comfortable with, because we’re conditioned to think that only Hollywood produces great films. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every year, great films/series of various languages are being born in all corners of the world — India, China, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Mexico, heck even here in Malaysia. So, with that let’s look at the best non-English content available on Netflix (MY) right now.
Note: This article will be updated on a weekly basis. So do check back in every week for new recommendations.
Also, in a case where a film/series mentioned here is dropped from Netflix (Malaysia), it will be removed from this list.
Fly By Night (Bahasa Malaysia / Mandarin)
The film is about a family who’re part-time taxi drivers, full-time thieving gangsters. When the younger sibling decides to do a job behind his brother’s back, it lands him in hot soup with a bunch of different people and then… sh*t happens. But Fly By Night isn’t necessarily about a particular plot. Here, Zahir Omar has built a world that is dusty, grimy, stinky (yes, it has a stench to it), violent and often very funny. He fills this world with gangsters, cops with broken moral compasses, thirsty adulterous husbands, revenge-hungry girlfriends, gambling dens, and loads of cigarette smoke. The screenplay by Zahir Omar, Dain Said, Fredrick Bailey and Ivan Yeo consists of a few storylines that weave and interlock with one another in an exciting and thrilling manner.
Fly By Night is absorbing and entertaining. More importantly, it’s ballsy and weird in the best possible ways helmed by someone who’s very clearly passionate about his craft. This is a film that calls for multiple viewings. You won’t want to leave the murky and outlandish world that Zahir has created with its insane characters whose lives spiral out of control.
Gareth Evans’ Indonesian film, The Raid is goddamn brilliant. An undeniable, batshit crazy modern-day action classic that is flawlessly choreographed, wonderfully framed and moves forward at such a ferocious pace that by the end of it you’re left on your knees, mouth gaping, completely exhausted, yet thirsting to experience it all over again. It opened the eyes of the world to Indonesian cinema and the glorious artistic violence it is capable of producing and has since become the holy testament that striving action directors worship and draw inspiration from. The plot is simple and resembles a video game: A group of police officers need to get to the top most floor of a low cost flat; each floor is swarming with gangsters. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Money Heist (Spanish)
Money Heist / La Casa de Papel follows a gang of robbers who penetrate the Royal Mint of Spain with the intent to carry out the perfect heist and take home 2.4 billion euros.
Look, it isn’t tour de force television. It isn’t as layered and dense as Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos or the first seven seasons of Game of Thrones. But, it isn’t trying to be. Imagine the best parts of the Fast & Furious franchise (oh yes, “family” and all), with less cars and more horny people. It’s a magnificent over-the-top melodrama handled with earnestness and filled with distinct characters who have larger than life personalities. These characters are also mostly hot and wear hot underpants that ride up their butt on a heist — which is highly impractical but wonderfully encapsulates the spirit of the show. It’s also an engaging cat and mouse game between the robbers and the police, all of whom wallow in the grey area of the moral spectrum, despite the lack of nuance.
This Netflix series isn’t subtle. In fact, it finds it flashes a giant middle finger at subtlety every chance it gets. It’s totally batshit crazy with its sometimes absurd but always glorious twists and turns that will not necessarily blow your mind but will definitely make you text your good friend who convinced you to watch the show in the first place, like this: OMG! I WAS JUST ABOUT TO SAY I’M STARTING TO LIKE BERLIN, THEN HE PULLS A GUN OUT ON ADRIANA. DAMMIT.
Revenge is a captivating, beautifully shot film that makes other rape-revenge films look like lame losers. It’s thrilling, violent, haunting and has kickass action scenes that are gritty and thrilling. Helmed by debutante Coralie Fargeat, Revenge shows us just how much more intriguing the ‘rape-revenge’ genre can be when it’s gaze and voice is female.
Super Deluxe (Tamil)
Super Deluxe follows a few sets of unrelated characters over the span of a few hours — some of them interlock directly, others don’t — yet the different threads interweave seamlessly to form a magnificent tapestry. What happens to one character dealing with his/her own problems affects another character who’s on a completely separate track. This isn’t just a storytelling gimmick, it’s tied to one of the central themes of the film: Like the millions of microscopic cells that make up our body, we (along with the stars in the sky and the centipedes on the ground) are tiny interconnected specs that make up this vast universe. Vijay Sethupathi’s performance as the transgender named Shilpa alone is worth the watch.
The Host (Korean)
Netflix Malaysia’s Korean content isn’t the best, as of this writing at least. When I think of Korean cinema (and I’m including TV series when I say this), I think of Oldboy, The Handmaiden, The Good The Bad The Weird, Lady Vengeance and perhaps even Train to Busan. But on Netflix Malaysia, we have things like Boys Over Flower, Crash Landing on You and something called My ID is Gangnam Beauty — WTF.
But among the Korean content that I have absolutely no interest in at all, lies a couple of gems. One of which is Kingdom, a Game of Thrones esque series with zombies that I’m only a few episodes in, hence why it’s not making the list. The other is Bong Joon-Ho’s (yes that’s the guy who made Parasite) third feature film, The Host. The premise is a little bananas — an unidentified alien appears from the Han River in Seoul, kills hundreds and also carries off Hyun-seo. When her family learns that she is being held captive, they resolve to save her — but my God does Master Bong make every single second utterly captivating. The Host is a horror-thriller, political satire, family drama, family comedy all rolled into one. Bong Joon-Ho masterfully balances the various tones to deliver thought-provoking and emotionally engaging brilliance.
Visaranai / Interrogation (Tamil)
There are two parts to this movie, one more interesting than the other, both equally riveting… and equally depressing. The film opens at the break of dawn, with three men sleeping on a grassy patch at a local park. We learn that they’re migrant workers who have left their hometowns of Tamil Nadu and travelled across the country in hopes to make ends meet. When a local big shot’s house is robbed, our protagonists get framed for it.
The police are desperate for Paandi and his three friends to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. But they’re adamant, as any innocent person would be. So the bastards beat them to a pulp. You hear the sound of thick rattans smacckkking against bare flesh. You see human skin vibrate in slow motion upon impact. You also hear the sound of a man choking while he’s waterboarded. While the sound of torture rings in our ears, we see a senior officer tell a rookie, “all is fair to close a case.” I watched most of the film through the tiniest slits between my fingers of my left hand, my stomach queasy. But the violent here isn’t for violence sake. It isn’t torture porn. It’s real life.
Narcos (Spanish + English)
If you’re intrigued by the underbellies and the world of crime then the Netflix crime-drama Narcos is a must-watch. The first two seasons detail the epic rise of notorious Cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in the late 80s and the astronomical efforts of American and Columbian law enforcement to take him and his syndicate down. Yes, yes, a lot of what transpires on the show is fictionalised, some would say to a laughable degree. But while it isn’t 100% factual, it always feels earnest. Every single episode, particularly in the first two seasons are utterly engrossing, mostly because the story is so mind-blowing — seriously, you’ll keep wondering “how did any of this happen in real life??” over and over again throughout — and it’s directed in such a way that you’re constantly at the edge of your seat.
But it’s Wagner Moura’s intoxicating performance as Pablo Escobar that makes this Netflix series oh so addictive! He oozes so much charisma, that you can’t help but feel for him, despite constantly rooting against him. The third season which happens after the death of Pablo and centres around the downfall of the Cali Cartel is equally alluring.
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