World Cinema: Why I Love It!
If there ever existed a language that operated and could be understood on a universal scale, it would be the language of cinema. And in the same way that I like to look up new words in the dictionary, so as to broaden my vocabulary, I am compelled to explore world cinema for similar reasons.
While foreign language films can appear impenetrable and unappealing to the mainstream moviegoer, as soon as one gets over the cosmetic differences, they aren’t massively different. Both sides of the coin are intent on telling stories, and both, for the most part, use many of the same filmmaking techniques to achieve this. But for a lot of people, the prospect of having to read all of the dialogue whilst watching a film is not particularly appealing. However, foreign cinema has the ability to offer something more than just exploiting a story through visual images and sound. When you watch a film from a another country, you start to soak up the idiosyncrasies of their culture. Also, because different cultures exhibit different ideological pre-occupations, this has an effect on how their art is produced. Therefore, a Japanese film is different from an American film, just like a French film is different from a German one, and so on.
For those inclined to look, there is a huge variety of cinematic feasts out there waiting to be sampled. I remember my first proper forays into world cinema – about ten years ago now – being a very exciting time. It was fascinating to compare what I was discovering with what I had grown up with; how they were strangely similar, but also very different. The foreign films I was watching had the capacity to be just as, if not more fun than the big budget blockbusters I had previously turned to. For instance, John Woo’s sensational and gloriously over-the-top Hard Boiled (1992) easily outguns almost every big action film ever produced by Hollywood, and the martial arts antics of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are infinitely more inventive then many Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Statham starring fisty-cuffs.
I also discovered tremendous beauty, innovation and a sense of the envelope being pushed that was lacking elsewhere. I felt nauseated, repulsed and absolutely compelled by the leering and swooning camera of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) when I blind-purchased it by chance not long after its initial DVD release, and I still wonder how the upcoming Hollywood remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) is going to handle the original’s shocking final revelation?
I love world cinema because I could spend several lifetimes exploring it and continually find something new to savour; a new director or actor to worship; a new sub-genre to conquer; a new and unique experience to cherish.
FIrst Experience Of World Cinema
The first foreign-language film that I can remember seeing was probably Luc Besson’s Subway (1985). I would have been around 12 or 13 years old at the time; however, it was not something that I watched out of choice. The film was screened during a French lesson at school, where we watched it in two sittings.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this initial experience with foreign cinema was that the version of Subway we watched in class (presumably recorded off the television by one of our teachers) didn’t have subtitles. Regardless, it was still possible to have an understanding of what was going on. Naturally, the finer points of the narrative evaded me, but the basic concept of a man using the Paris subway system to hide from gangsters and the reasons for them wanting to find him were unmistakably apparent.
Admittedly, I had received some training of sorts in this kind of viewing. Anyone who was in primary school during the late-80s/mid-90s surely remembers Muzzy, a cartoon film about a furry green alien with a penchant for eating clocks. It was created by the BBC to acquaint children with foreign languages. My primary school prescribed the French edition, which, again, was sans-subtitles.
The Hollywood Alternative To World Cinema
Hollywood is always chastised by film snobs; sometimes unfairly. Having said that, it frequently goes through periods that definitely lack inspiration. Currently it appears to be in its largest rut ever, where the majority of its output seems to be one of the following: a sequel, a remake of a film from yesteryear, or an adaptation – comic books and graphic novels have been a popular target of late (they have even started to reboot some franchises like The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)), but novels are still routinely used.
Dogmatic formula means that the industry takes very few risks nowadays.
However, none of these current trends are new. Hollywood has always found sequels, remakes and adaptations appealing because not only do they adhere to a particular trend but there is a proven fan-base that will likely pay to see it. People who liked the first film of a franchise will probably see the second, the same as somebody who bought and enjoyed a novel will probably see the film that’s based on it. This dogmatic formula means that the industry takes very few risks nowadays (it used to more often, especially during the New Hollywood era of the 1960s and 70s). Another factor is the financial landscape, which has definitely seen better days, and will no doubt contribute to the conservatism that’s currently evident.
What’s Missing For World Cinema?
The last decade has seen a lot of improvement with regards to foreign film distribution. That poorly stocked, single shelf at the back of the video shop has expanded quite a bit. The internet – as ever – is a great place to search and discover new items, and many major towns and cities in the UK now have an independent or art house cinema that is able to show the latest foreign releases. However, it is still rare to see foreign films hitting the multiplexes (although I did miraculously see 13 Assassins (2010) at a Showcase cinema almost a month before it appeared at my local independent), nor do they get as much attention in the mainstream press as the blockbusters.
Part of the current problem now is that there aren’t many sources providing information and guidance on these films, and where to go in order to find them. Hopefully, outlets such as subtitledonline.com and other similarly concerned publications will be leading the way with regards to this. They are needed now more than ever, as more and more foreign cinema winds up getting a cinema or DVD release due to increased distribution channels. It also stands to reason that with this increasing saturation comes a reduction in quality control. There is certainly more choice nowadays compared to ten years ago, but it is also becoming more difficult to find those diamonds in the rough, and, believe me, there is a lot of rough (America is certainly not the only country that can produce generic tat, as evidenced by some of the reviews on this website).
What’s On Offer For World Cinema Fans?
Many large towns and cities in Britain possess some kind of independent cinema. The East Midlands has the Broadway in Nottingham and QUAD in Derby to name two. They show an interesting mix of the latest foreign language releases, mainstream cinema and classic movies, both from Hollywood and abroad.
Favourite Country For World Cinema
Although I admire many national cinemas, one country that I continue to revisit on-screen, time and time again, is Japan. I am constantly impressed by the diversity of Japanese cinema, and I continue to discover new things about it. It’s capable of producing violent and deranged work like Audition (1999) and Battle Royale (2000) – something many have come to expect in the wake of the Asia Extreme movement – but it’s also equally adept at quieter, more sensible drama like Tokyo Sonata (2008), Still Walking (2008) or Departures (2008).
There is also a rich history with genre cinema; Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) is perhaps the most famous of the ever popular Tokusatsu (meaning ‘special filming’) category, which encompasses horror, fantasy, science fiction and super-hero genres, and are films that utilise a lot of visual effects work. Lower-key horror is also popular, as recent years have seen a boom in eerie and supernatural J-horror such as Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002). Lastly, there is the industry within the industry that is anime, which again is highly diverse in content: the cyberpunk thriller Akira (1988); the apocalyptic and highly existential Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995); the child-like wonder of Spirited Away (2001); and the very creepy and very adult Perfect Blue (1998) merely represent the tip of a very large iceberg.
Favourite World Cinema Director
There are many foreign filmmakers that I admire greatly; Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu and Krzysztof Kieslowski all spring to mind in the first instance. Sadly, all the above are no longer with us. With that in mind, one of my favourite filmmakers working today would have to be Shin’ya Tsukamoto.
Although best known for his feature film debut, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and its two inferior – but still enjoyable – sequels, Tsukamoto has spent the last two decades amassing a fascinating filmography, built from an interwoven nexus of thematic concerns: the human body and dehumanisation in the face of modernity. Some of his other highlights include the intense Tokyo Fist (1995), which is possibly the most primal and honest depiction of anger, rage, frustration and jealousy I have ever encountered in a film; the gritty, noir-flavoured Bullet Ballet (1998); the sumptuous, colourful and unorthodox period-piece, Gemini (1999) and the cold, strangely perverted A Snake Of June (2002).
Top-5 World Cinema Films
To choose five films has been very difficult, let alone trying to place those that have finally been selected in any kind of preferential order. I’m not sure if this represents my ‘true top 5′, but the films that have been selected are indeed among my favourites, and I have tried to be fairly diverse in my choices – I could have quite easily selected five Japanese films, or five Kurosawa films for that matter. In chronological order:
Easily the defining film of the silent movie era, any self-discerning cineast will have an awareness of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; an early science-fiction epic whose scale and ambition still impresses after eighty-five years. The production design, camerawork and special effects – both optical and model work – represent an immense achievement; it must have been absolutely mind boggling to have seen this when it was first released.
The film has existed in various lengths over the years, with about a quarter of the footage thought to be lost forever. However, in 2008, an almost complete print of the 1927 theatrical release (the longest version) was found in Buenos Aires. After a lengthy reconstruction process, Metropolis has returned in its most complete form to date (there are still a few minutes missing). The additional thirty minutes or so just makes the film even better, giving secondary characters like Josaphat, 11811 – Georgy and the Thin Man more prominence in the narrative, as well as making already impressive set-pieces, like the flooding of the worker city and the demise of the heart-machine, all the more spectacular.
Akira Kurosawa’s longest film is also his most breathtaking. The set-up is incredibly simple: a poor and terrorised village employ a group of Ronin (masterless samurai) to protect them from a horde of bloodthirsty bandits. What follows is a master-class in swashbuckling, action-adventure cinema by a filmmaker at the top of his game.
With the help of some reliable hands, Toshirô Mifune as the foolhardy Kikuchiyo and fellow Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as the warm and tactile samurai leader Kambê, Seven Samurai unfurls across its gargantuan three-hours plus running time in effortless style. That’s not to do the other five samurai a disservice, each a wonderfully crafted and indispensable character in their own right. The magic has been often imitated, but never quite replicated – it’s impossible to count the number of films that set their big finale during a horrendous downpour, as is the case here. Seven Samurai rightly takes its place as a true classic.
Ingmar Bergman’s brooding thanatopsis set in plague-ridden, medieval Sweden is as thoughtful and artistically rich as it is densely pessimistic. Max von Sydow’s Antonious Block, a disillusioned knight who has recently returned from the crusades, famously plays a life-or-death game of chess with Death himself (Bengt Ekerot). Block uses the game to delay his impending demise so that he may complete “one meaningful act” – escorting a travelling circus through the dangerous, plague-ravaged countryside to the safety of his coastal estate.
This is easily Bergman’s most iconic and, perhaps, most accessible picture. The ‘dance of death’, as seen from a distance during the film’s closing moments, remains an indelible and powerful cinematic image. An intense and compelling examination of humanity during one of its bleakest hours, but not too intellectually obsessed or self-loathing to acknowledge the rays of light that, reassuringly, always find a way to break through – no matter how dark it gets.
Sergio Leone’s finest hour, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is one of the crown jewels of the spaghetti western sub-genre. It is a film of such sweeping and panoramic grandeur, and a highly entertaining one at that.
Set against the backdrop of an escalating American Civil War, Leone’s triptych of eponymous leads are on the hunt for a cash box filled with immense riches, supposedly buried in a graveyard. This dynamic works wonders, allowing for strong character development. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ could easily be in the running for cinema’s greatest anti-hero. Naturally, the film is an expert showcase for Leone’s often imitated, extreme-wide/extreme-close shooting style, with the large scale, Civil War backdrop adding to the frequent operatic leanings of the cinematography. And Ennio Morricone’s instantly recognisable score is simply glorious.
A nightmare cocktail of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, H.R. Giger, J.G Ballard, Jan Svankmayer and perhaps one or two others, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s visceral feature debut is the stuff of cult filmmaking legend, and rightly so. Made on a microscopic budget and captured with chewy, high-contrast, 16mm film stock, Tetsuo manages to create its very own demented, techno-surrealist universe of intense and vivid imagination.
A man transforms from a spineless, salary-slave into a metallic monster, via an elaborate and lo-fi process of practical effects and stop-motion animation. The results are fiendishly macabre, darkly humorous and grossly perverse. Tetsuo moves at such rigourous speed – with the help of its pummelling, migraine-inducing, industrial soundtrack – that it could cause one’s eyes and ears to bleed profusely if not properly prepared. That’s if your head hasn’t already exploded, of course. Not for the squeamish.
Some honourable mentions: Ikiru (1952), Tokyo Story (1953), 8 ½ (1963), Andrei Rublev (1966), Persona (1966), Stalker (1979).
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