Swipe right for like: can non-arthouse foreign films succeed in Britain?

A look at Polish romcom Planeta Singli, plus Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetary of Splendour.

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It’s rare for a foreign-language film to get distribution in Britain unless there is a whiff of the art house about it. The rationale must be that there is already enough genre cinema produced in the UK and US to satisfy demand: releasing a Polish Richard Curtis-style romcom here when the real thing is readily available would surely be a case of bringing coals to Newcastle, or brioche to Notting Hill.

The success of Planeta Singli, which happens to be a Polish Richard Curtis-style romcom, suggests otherwise. It opened in Britain last month and became an invisible hit. Like the Bollywood spectaculars that are marketed directly to Asian audiences, the film was sold straight to this country’s Polish community. Enough people turned out to give it an impressive £163,000 gross in its first ten days. I can see why. The picture is idiosyncratic enough to be distinctive but its slickness makes it right at home in the multiplex. It’s Polish with polish.

The plot revolves around a dating app, making the film possibly the first fully fledged Tinder romcom. Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha), a music teacher, signs up to the “Planet Single” app but when her date fails to show, Tomek (Maciej Stuhr) leaps opportunistically into the breach, having spied her from across the restaurant. Tomek is the obnoxious presenter of a late-night TV show specialising in battle-of-the-sexes comedy performed by puppets. When he turns this faltering date into comic material, complete with an Ania puppet, his boss demands that her dating exploits become a regular fixture. Ania’s school will get a new piano so long as she reports back about every disastrous date she has. But there’s a get-out clause: should she fall in love, she’s off the hook.

This represents only a small slice of narrative in a movie that is full of incident, from the mischievous teenager using the app to drive a wedge between her father and stepmother to the brouhaha when Ania’s pupils have to share the gym with the boisterous volleyball class. After a slow start in which the film has trouble liberating the characters from their smartphones, the Slovenian director Mitja Okorn skilfully juggles the mounting plotlines. There’s an inevitable sense of overkill – Planeta Singli has three endings, including an outrageously corny musical number, as it races to find a romantic match for each character from the leads down to the lowliest extra. As Okorn recently pointed out in a Q&A, only the nerdy film critic is left alone at the end. What a cheek. Despite that, I’m swiping right on this one.

Even art cinema has its brands and they don’t come much more reliably weird than the Thai director Apichatpong Weerase­thakul, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his last film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He invites us in Cemetery of Splendour into a rural hospital where cheery, chatty nurses keep vigil over a ward of soldiers suffering from sleeping sickness. A bedside psychic provides relatives with bulletins about what is happening in the unreachable minds of their loved ones; a nurse with insomnia wonders if the patients are getting some of the sleep that is rightfully hers; the dead mingle happily with the living and doubts arise over whether there is really such a state as being awake. At times, the picture resembles a low-tempo Matrix.

What distinguishes it is its elegant interlacing of the soothing and the insolubly mysterious. (Why is the ground outside the hospital being endlessly excavated? Nobody knows.) Staff slip into their own trances while guarding the comatose soldiers and what Weerasethakul creates on-screen could be described as a meditative space: he is using film not to dictate his ideas but to stimulate ours. There’s a woozy sequence set in a shopping mall multiplex with Escher-like escalators. Everything is transformed by an air of magical serenity. The moment when the psychic realises that one part of the soldier she is watching has woken up with a “boing” is enchanting, despite sounding on paper like a scene from Carry On Meditating.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink