How paradoxical that America, a melting pot of nations, gets so set in its ways on certain points of multiculturalism. Like movies, for instance. People watch American movies all over the world, but how many foreign films has the average American seen?
There’s a certain undeserved stigma floating around the notion ‘foreign film’. Take it in the wrong context and you may imagine three hours of grainy black-and-white images narrated in droning, depressed French. But in reality, foreign movies can be very much like our own even when they’re different. So why not begin your journey into European or Asian movies with a selection that gives you something familiar to hold onto? Films that are as rooted in traditional Hollywood cinema as they are in their own cultures. You can have the best of both worlds.
Here’s a sampler platter of five foreign films, all from different countries, that can serve as a gateway into watching, analyzing, and, yes, enjoying national cinema from around the world, even if the closest you’ve ever been to watching a foreign movie is flipping past Telemundo. You don’t have to be a film student or a well-traveled globetrotter to get into them. Just human.
You can get them all without much fuss from any major video chain or online sources like Netflix. Just be sure to watch them in their original language where applicable. Reading subtitles seems like work at first, but don’t worry, you’ll get into it, and it’s far better to get the original dialogue than an awkward English dub. You’ll thank yourself later.
(1) “Amelie” – France
This is almost too easy. “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain” has already found a popular place in many American filmgoer’s hearts. It’s a sweet, sappy and unabashedly Parisian look at love. The accessibility of this film makes it a sure bet for an easy first look at French cinema-you don’t want to start with something daunting like the New Wave. It’s an American-friendly romantic comedy with European overtones and charm. Star Audrey Tautou’s effect on an audience is undeniable, and led her to the female lead in the decidedly mainstream American film of “The Da Vinci Code”.
(2) “Yojimbo” – Japan
Of course many Japanese cinematic traditions have found their way to America, from martial arts to anime. But we were exchanging cultures well before that. What could be more American than a Western? You won’t see cowboys on horseback in Akira Kurosawa’s yarn about a samurai tough guy, but it’s not hard to imagine the story on those terms. (In fact, it got remade as a spaghetti Western in Italy as Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars”.) Kurosawa deftly tells an exciting and often very funny story with an East-meets-West feel all its own. Toshiro Mifune’s ronin would not be out of place with today’s more interesting Hollywood action heroes. A classic of Asian cinema.
(3) “Run Lola Run” – Germany
Essentially an eighty-minute music video, but what a ride. “Lola rennt” made a star of Franka Potente (“The Bourne Identity”), but this film is not remembered for individual performances so much as the sheer cinematic rush of it all. A throbbing techno soundtrack sends the ever-running Lola through three retellings of the same crime story, aided by hyperkinetic editing and a hip, slick style that keeps the heart pounding. If the notion of a German movie brings to mind stiff, serious actors in dark shadows, you’ve only seen a piece of the puzzle.
(4) “Whale Rider” – New Zealand
A film in English, about contemporary times, and yet a world quite unlike our own, “Whale Rider” examines old New Zealand traditions through a modern-day village that is so far removed from everything that even other New Zealanders might consider it a foreign country. Keisha Castle-Hughes (who went on to cameo in the decidedly American “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”) plays Pai, a young girl whose belief that she’s as cut out for a job as any boy clash with older, more traditionalist notions. A plucky heroine fighting for her rights is universal and easily accessible; it’s a story you’ve seen in a hundred American movies, but how many of them get people riding whales by the end? (Not to mention performing the haka.) The language barriers may be gone, but the cultural barriers are still in place, as this film takes you inside a world that is slowly fading away even within its own nation.
(5) “Monsoon Wedding” – India
Well-met during its American run, this family story shares much with wedding-based movies you’ve seen out of Hollywood; families are families the world over, and conflict is bound to ensue. Indian cinema is often joked about for epic Bollywood musicals long on exuberance and short on coherence, but that’s for another day; this is a story about regular people going through an Indian rite of passage that is just a bit different than what you get on this side of the ocean. A comedy of culture clashes that anyone can feel connected to no matter what color their skin.
To be sure, there exist many foreign films that bear no resemblance to anything out of Hollywood, and that’s a good thing, too. This is intended as a primer to give the novice filmgoer a taste of what’s happening overseas while still keeping a foot in familiar territory. Every national cinema has a different idea of how the world looks through a camera lens; get into it and enjoy it. Happy travels, happy moviegoing!