At halftime, it's become customary for critics to put up their top 10 films of the year so far, but that's a small pool of work to consider. Though American movies continue to dominate the globe decisively, local film industries still produce work that connects strongly while being unlikely to ever receive US distribution. Some movies are just too culturally specific to circulate widely; consider these 10 blockbuster hits, listed alphabetically by the country in which they've topped the box office.
China: "The Switch"
"PREDESTINATION...SEDUCTION...IMPASSE" are the words nonsensically linking the trailer for what's currently China' top-grossing film of the year. Like many big domestic productions, the heist thriller was given maximal space to attract domestic eyeballs when the government pulled "The Croods" early to ensure a lack of Hollywood competition. The film opened strong and (as Lilian Lin reported in "The Wall Street Journal") kept drawing in viewers precisely because it's awful. "“After reading so many sharp and funny comments about how terrible this film is, I cannot wait to go to the cinema and see how bad it really is,” one Weibo (China's Twitter) user) wrote, and apparently the public at large agreed.
"Variety"'s review notes that "it's a bit of an eyesore" and notes that some action scenes are "borderline racist and proudly sexist," as well as noting the film's many "'what was that about?' moments," like the inclusion of "a security device that can also microwave popcorn." Chinese viewers on the net are blunter: "cherish your life and keep away from this film," one wrote. Star Andy Lau even apologized`for making the movie, telling reporters "I often overestimate my ability to make films, and thought that any script that comes to me will naturally become good, so I feel like I've let everybody down. I will be more careful next time. Sorry."
Croatia: "The Priest's Children"
"The Priest's Children" is the fifth film directed by Vinko Brešan, who's made both the first- and third-highest grossing domestic productions since Croatia achieved independence in 1991. This latest film is the highest-grossing of the year (grossing about $250,000 more than the film in number two, "The Hangover Part III"). In part that's due to a heavy advertising campaign, in part to Brešan's popularity and in part to the film's topicality.
The story concerns a priest unhappy with the Pope approving of even limited condom use. Assigned to a small island in the Dalmatians, he pokes tiny holes into the condoms he distributes, causing local birthrates to skyrocket and garnering more work for the church. The film's January release came in the middle of a heated national debate about whether sex education should be taught in schools from ages 9 to 18. With a population that's 90% Roman Catholic, this is a big issue in Croatia; a few weeks before the film was released, television broadcaster Karolina Vidović-Krišto added fuel to the fire by broadcasting a "documentary" ("Secret History — Kinsey's Pedophiles"), trying to undermine the proposed curriculum by effectively saying the program was created by a government official trained at the Kinsey Institute, meaning it was the product of a deviant mind shaped by an even more monstrous deviant. Sex ed was, nonetheless, introduced in February, but earlier this month it was suspended by order of Croatia's highest court, which will now consider whether the curriculum meets the court's constitution. Suffice to say the particular dynamics shaping this movie wouldn't translate, much less the timing of its release.
Finland: "21 Ways To Ruin A Marriage," "Rölli and the Golden Key," "The Year of '85 — Rock Your Memories"
Finland's top three productions for the year are all domestic. For local insight on these, I turned to Helsinki-based freelance film and technology reporter Olli Sulupuisto. The first of these is a romantic comedy about a graduate student performing a Paul Simon-esque catalogue of ways to destroy a partnership, and Sulupuisto credits its surprise success to the casting of actress Armi Toivonen before she landed a position on the Finnish sketch comedy show "Putous." Rölli, he notes, is "a well-known franchise that grew out of a popular '80s kids' tv show (or a segment in one, to be exact)" that's already had two live-action incarnations and one previous animated film; this variant is "bland, featureless safe - the kind of adjectives you could throw at most family-friendly films."
That leaves us with "The Year of '85 — Rock Your Memories," which is more or less the Finnish "Rock of Ages," "based on a musical that ran for God knows how long in Tampere, Finland's third-biggest city. In the '80s Tampere was the mecca of what was then called suomirock (think hair metal and LA, or grunge and Seattle)." Sulupuisto also notes that "it's a terrible, terrible film. No redeeming features whatsoever in my eyes and ears." As seen in the trailer below, signifying "the '80s" by having someone stare in puzzlement at a Rubik's Cube is an international constant:
The title of Poland's top-grossing film this year translates as "Traffic Department," following seven traffic cops who represent the seven deadly sins. The results have courted controversy — Krzystof Gajewski, the deputy highway police chief, forbid officers from going to see the movie in uniform — but proven massively popular. Combining real-life footage of cops misbehaving with staged dark comedy, director Wojciech Smarzowski said the film stemmed from his frustration with constantly having to bribe traffic police. "Up to a certain time I paid a bribe, and they would let me off without penalty points," he explained. "But then there came a certain point where I had had enough." Not that only the police are under attack: Smarzowski says it's also about "the stupidity of drivers, the absurdities of the highway code, traffic jams, motorways and the realities of potholed roads." The trailer has topless women and may therefore be accordingly NSFW (depending on your workspace):
Russia: "Gagarin: First In Space"
"Gagarin: First In Space" is the top-grossing domestic production of the year so far, though that doesn't mean it'll hold that position. This is a biopic of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space (like the title says), and by all accounts it's pretty much what you'd expect from a state-subsidized portrait of a Soviet hero. One TV critic said that the movie's presentation of a flawless, perfect hero resulted in "a deadly retro film as if it was turning a feature from 'Pravda' into a film." The film makes no mention of Gagarin's post-space life and goes so far as to not even use the word "Communist" at any point.
On the state-sponsored "Russia Today" website, you can get more of a sense of the film's unsubtle nationalistic goals, particularly as expressed in a quote from producer/co-writer Oleg Kapanets, who said "If children fail to know who Gagarin is, we'll lose ourselves as a nation." On the plus side, at least Alexei Krasnov, the head of manned flight programs at Roscosmos, liked it, noting "We still know how to make films — not just rockets."
Singapore: "Ah Boys To Men Part 2"
The most expensive (and highest-grossing) production in Singaporean history, "Ah Boys To Men 2" is the second part of a two-part production by Jack Neo, a writer/director/performer, best known as a cross-dressing performer. You can and should read both his extensive wiki and the one for the film itself, both of which are deliriously entertaining. In a nutshell: this is a comeback for Neo, whose infidelities became national tabloid fodder a few years ago, and the film's success led him to pledge that the entire cast would go skinny-dipping to celebrate (they weren't comfortable with that, so the idea got scrapped).
Part of the reason the film's resonated so well is because a fairly standard plot — rich brat grows up — takes place against the backdrop of mandatory army service, a conscription rite of passage for the entire country. Another factor that helped the movie: theme song "Recruit's Anthem," which went viral after being posted on YouTube last year. It's all in English, so if you ever wanted to hear someone rapping about basic training, here's your chance:
South Africa: "Klein Karoo"
"Why are you jumping around in the road like a lively male ostrich anyway?" screams teacher Cybil Ferreira (Donnalee Roberts) when she nearly runs over documentarian Frans Coetzee (Tim Theron), whose car has broken down on the country road. The trailer (which actually has English subtitles for a change) promises a lively romantic comedy/heart-warming story about Cybil's efforts to keep a farm school for young children open, complete with a love triangle pitting Frans against Cybil's wealthy fiance, ostrich farmer Meyer Labuschagne (Hykie Berg, former soap opera star and winner of "Survivor South Africa: Maldives" in 2011). It's the highest-grossing local production of 2013, which only places it at number 20 on the country's charts.
South Korea: "Miracle In Cell No. 7"
South Korea has one of the world's strongest domestic film industries. This year's current champ is number one for the year (seven of the current top ten are Korean films). The trailer kind of speaks for itself: a mentally incapacitated man, wrongly convicted of murder, is sentenced to death. In prison, his wide-eyed propensity for blurting out things like "C-section. Mom hurt cuz my head was big!" brings out the protective instincts of his inmates, who smuggle his daughter in out of sheer kindness, leading to what looks like an extremely unstable amalgam of laughs, tears and sheer melodrama; the film is said to be especially popular with the middle-aged and elderly, and it's currently the third-most successful Korean film of all time (inflation unadjusted). The trailer will make your head hurt:
Thailand: "Pee Mak Phrakanong"
If the wild tonal shifts of a film like "Miracle In Cell No. 7" are hard to export because they're so culturally specific, it's equally impossible for foreigners to understand the pull of a film like "Pee Mak Phrakanong." A folk legend that's been filmed nearly 20 times before, the core of "Pee Mak" is the story of soldier Nak who returns from war to his hometown, where his wife Mak died during childbirth. Nak is so besotted, he fails to perceive that his beloved bride has become a vengeful ghost. The story had been filmed as recently as last year in "Mae Nak," a 3D horror version that adds a woman so jealous of Nak's love for his late wife she takes the unborn child, removes it from Mak's dead body, cuts off a finger and barbeques it (!); this version is more of comedy, with anachronistic references to "300" and "The Last Samurai." Now the most successful film in Thai domestic history, it was so popular some in Bangkok couldn't even book tickets for the film. Also noted: a teenager tried to imitate a boat paddling scene with his friends, but when their fiberglass boat sprung a leak and capsized, 17-year-old Anond Thongchai (who couldn't swim) was left to drown before his friends could rescue him.
Turkey: "CM101MMXI Fundamentals"
This last one's so specific that I'll turn the mic over to Turkish film critic Ali Arikan. This is the highest-grossing film of the year by far in Turkey, a stand-up showcase for the ever-popular Cem Yılmaz, who can be seen below smoking a cigarette before berating a bunch of people around him. Per ali, this concert film "does not have the same sort of cultural resonance as, say, the Richard Pryor films, or even Eddie Murphy's 'Delirious' and 'Raw.' It features terribly anodyne humour (I fell asleep in the second half, which, apparently, is funnier), and the guy's shtick gets tired after a few jokes. He's been in the spotlight for almost 15 years now, and all that time remained Turkey's premier comedian. He hardly does any political stuff: it's observational humour about how stupid life is in Turkey, peppered with the occasional curse word. It made tons and tons of money."