The notion of watching foreign films can be a bit daunting for some people. There are obviously lots of fantastic movies that don’t require subtitles, and a person could easily live a fulfilling movie-watching lifetime with nothing but same-language cinema. There is no shame whatsoever in doing that. But there are so many wonderful films from other countries, ripe for the picking by those with the curiosity and patience to adapt to foreign language films. I’m here to help those people with this handy, dandy Foreign Film Novice Starter Kit.
I should probably note that when I say “foreign language films”, I’m referring to non-English language films, watched by English-speaking people. These rules and tips may apply cross-culturally but I’m in no position to say.
Item 1: The Match
If you want to run a 5 mile race, you don’t start by running all 5 miles on your first day of training. You ease into it. The same applies here. It’s a critical step, and you’ll need something light and easy to spark your interest. Diving right into the heavy, experimental stuff might work for some people but not most. Fortunately, there are a lot of great foreign movies from recent years that can aid you in the transition. It’ll get you used to the occasional non-traditional story structures, reading subtitles, and balancing the subtitles with paying attention to the action. Ideally, you want something easy to follow, or at least closer to the types of films you’re used to seeing. Some films you might try if you like their specific genres: Run Lola Run (1998); Amélie (2001); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006); Let the Right One In (2008); Delicatessen (1991); The Host (2006); Enter the Dragon (1973); The Devil’s Backbone (2001); Hard Boiled (1992); The Illusionist (2010)
Item 2: The Scalpel
Once you’ve sparked your interest, you’ll need something to make the incision and go deeper beneath the surface. You don’t need anything too deep- just enough to break the skin. If you speak English, odds are good that you’ve learned French, Spanish, Italian, or German as a second language. As such, watching films originating in those countries will help you along the way. As you dig a bit deeper, you’re likely to encounter some movies that use unique filmmaking techniques. You want to maintain as much familiarity as you can. If you stick to a second language, it allows you to focus more on how the film was made. That’s not to say that you should limit it to those specific countries. Rather, look for films in a language that you’re familiar with. If you speak Japanese or Chinese or Indian, those would be great places to truly break the surface. Yet another way you might approach it is to find the original versions of films that have been re-made in English, perhaps even in different genres. For instance, Yojimbo was re-made as the more familiar Fistful of Dollars. The only caveat is to be careful. Don’t dig too deep or try anything too experimental just yet. Examples: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972); La Dolce Vita (1960); The Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961); Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987); M (1931)
Item 3: The Security Blanket
After you’ve used the match to ignite and the scalpel to break the skin, you’ll start to find things that you really enjoy. You may find that you really enjoy films from a certain country. Perhaps you enjoy a specific director. Maybe there are certain actors that you enjoy. Cuddle up with these security blankets because they’ll only further enhance your ability to embrace foreign language films. You won’t always find great films or films that you enjoy but it gives you a baseline of expectations. Some directors and actors you might use as your security blanket: Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Yasujiro Ozu, Max Von Sydow, Jean Gabin, Francois Truffaut, Lars Von Trier
Image: copyright Charles M. Schulz
Item 4: The Test Tube
It’s now time to start experimenting with film movements and genres, since you’re completely familiar with the very basics of foreign film and you now have a grab bag of directors and actors that you know will deliver quality to you. You need a test tube to combine several elements, thus finding which genres, languages, and film movements might work for you. This is where most caution is thrown to the wind. There are a lot of directions to go here and none of them are wrong. They may not all work but the important thing is to try. Genres and film movements you might check out: the French New Wave, the Czech New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, New German Cinema, J-Horror, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Soviet Montage, Dogme 95, Indian Parallel Cinema
And that’s all you’ll need. Obviously, not everyone will need the starter’s kit but I think it’d be helpful for lots of people. Once you use those items, you should be able to move beyond any apprehension that foreign films may give you and find a whole new wonderful world of cinema. Enjoy!