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Appreciating “Foreign” Films

Foriegn movie posters

The term “foreign film”  or more accurately, “foreign language film” used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in their classification of films for award considerations creates an false binary and otherness for movies that are not from the English-speaking world. 

These terms also mean little to a person like me who grew up in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment where 99% of the available movie diet in cinemas were in fact from foreign sources. With an undeveloped local film-making industry in Singapore (attributed in turn to a small, unviable audience market size), growing up for me there meant that movies were movies, just that they were available in various languages and you would either watch them in their original language or, if it wasn’t in English, to be enjoyed with accompanying English sub-titles.

Living in Australia now, if baffles me how non-English films could be viewed as “foreign” films when one realises how certain Australian movies delivered in strong ‘ocker’ Australian accents or slang would reasonably be considered “foreign” to other English-speaking audiences. You’ll understand what I mean when you recall that trip to the USA which former Prime Minister Julia Gillard made in her capacity as Minister of Education, when an American child, not understanding her accent, asked her what language Australians spoke. We recently watched an “English language” movie from Scotland and were thankful we had the hearing-assistance subtitles on or we might have missed a large chunk of the dialogue. 

We are thankful for the breadth of non-English movie viewing fare afforded to us by the free-to-air SBS TV channel. They screen a healthy dose of non-English movies in their World Movies series which is aimed at the significant and diverse immigrant population in Australia to which such movies may readily connect with. Then there’s our local art house cinemas such as Palace and Dendy, which also offer them as part of thematic film festivals and regular screenings offered throughout the year.

Why watch non-English films?

If movies provide a window into the lives of the people who make and watch them, then why would we not fully avail ourselves of this gift of movies made in a language outside our primary language? Unlike some forms of artistic and cultural expression (e.g. stage plays and drama) the film medium is a lot more mobile and comes to us with translations offered through subtitles. While the quality of these translations can vary and poor efforts occasionally result in unintended comedy, through these translations we are allowed a glimpse into the lives of ‘others’ whom we may otherwise not have access and relate to, or connect with, because of linguistic and geographic barriers. In a world that is already too divided and misunderstood across cultures, movies can be an insightful channel for mutual understanding. 

Unless, of course, you’re too lazy to read subtitles, intellectually incapble of coping with such multi-tasking (i.e. seeing, hearing and reading at the same time) or just blatantly uninterested in what the rest of humanity is up to, because you are conceited enough to think your life and the only language you speak is at the centre of your limited universe!

Movies from foreign lands give us the opportunity to understand more about the cultures of these communities. We see not just how they live their lives but also what motivates them, how differently they may sometimes tell their stories, revealing what is important to their lives and existence including what they eat, wear and how they treat each other within their unique socio-political context. Whether these films are about historical events, personal or domestic stories about relationships against a particular societal backdrop, we see nuances in how the stories are presented and how distinct values within that social context come to bear on their behaviours. 
Another benefit of watching “foreign” films, which may adopt unconventional techniques and  alternative structural approaches, is that they may give audiences used to traditional American or Hollywood fare a different experience. If you’ve watched enough European movies you would realise that many of them don’t have straight fowardward narratives with neat and tidy and morally biased and predicatable endings, which could be unnerving for some but refreshing for others!
Despite the many differences in film-making styles, we inevitably see that they all tell a common tale of the human beings negotiating the universal human predicament in all its glory and challenges in order to find meaning, love and happiness for themselves.  

Dubbing vs. Subtitles

The alternative to audiences reading translated subtitles is having the dialogue dubbed into another language. Unfortunately, with the exception of really good dubbing efforts, you tend to get dialogue simply read and the result is a loss in the emotional fidelity of the original spoken track. We come across enough badly done dubbing to know that it is generally better to watch the film in its original form and language and to rely on good translations which you read instead.

Of course, having to read the subtitles means you may have to work a little more, over just seeing and listen, in order to enjoy the movie. But the rewards are well worth the effort. As regular opera goers who are used to reading surtitles projected either above or to the side of the proscenium or digitally displayed on the backs of the seats in front of you, we know this is something you quickly get used to and part and parcel of appreciating productions performed in their original language.

On my earlier travels, e.g. to Prague, I’ve attended movie screening such as Evita which have been kept in its original English with subtitles in the local language. This one was a particular consideration as it would not have made sense to dub a singing soundrack into the Czech language. But it proved to be quite a different experience to see how differently a Czech audience would react to a musical movie not in their native tongue. 

There is a trend for animation feature films to be completely re-recorded into the local language, provided of course that market is large enough to justify such localisation. For example, Disney’s 2013 film Frozen has been translated and dubbed into 41 languages. The international vocie cast for this effort included more than 900 people (with singing and speaking voices cast separately) in 1,300 recording sessions!

Putting the film industry into perspective

Our diet of English language films could come from a range of English-speaking countries, e.g. USA (from staple commercial Hollywood offerings to independent art house fare), the UK, Canada, South Africa, The Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand or Australia where a geographic variant or regional dialect of English is spoken. But the global film industry sees a much larger output than just English movies.
The world film industry may appear to be driven and dominated by the English-speaking world, somewhat understandable when Hollywood has been a prime mover in the global film industry. But the invention of the cinematographe is French (by Auguste and Louis Lumiere) and the non-English movie industries of Bollywood in India, Nollywood in Nigeria and the other major film markets in China, Japan and other countries suggest that the English-speaking market isn’t the centre of film-making, 
Based on pre-pandemic data compiled by UNESCO Institute of Statistics, we know that India produces up to 2,446 feature films per year, followed by Nigeria with 1,599, China with 874, Japan with 689 then the USA with 660 followed by South Korea (339), France (300), the UK (285), Spain (241), Germany (223), Argentina (220) and others.  In terms of market size based on box office revenue, data from the THEME Report 2020 published by the Motion Picture Association gives us a list topped by China with their film industry worth US$3b, followed by USA at US$2.2b which is tied with the overall European Union also at US$2.2b, then Japan at US$1.3b and then other countries such as South Korea, India, the UK, Germany, Russia and Australia hovering between US$0.3-0.5b each.  From an attendance perspective, we know that the number of box office admissions for movie tickets sold in 2019 we have a list topped by China (1,650m), India (1,514m) then USA (1,170) following by Mexico (352m) and then South Korea, Russia, France, Japan, Brazil and the UK with 200m and less.

Awards and accolades

Our exposure to what’s available and good from the annual movie output is mostly dominated by the awards. So we zoom in on a shortlist that comes to us from nominees from annual awards such as the Oscars (awarded by the Hollywood-based Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts), the Golden Globes (awarded by the now somewhat dubious and questionable Hollywood Foreign Press Association), the Screen Actor’s Guild (also Hollywood-based), the British BAFTAs and numerous international film festivals, the major ones of which are Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. Of these, the French Festival de Cannes (known in English as the Cannes Film Festival) is truly international. Not without its own controversies, this festival going back to 1938 features a truly international participation, entries by invitation and a jury panel from across the world.
So we know that English movies only make up a fraction of the overall global film market. When you have an opportunity to watch a non-English movie, keep an open mind and do give it a go!  It might just offer you a glimpse into other ways of living and seeing the larger world around us in a more sympathetic light.


The following are some non-English language films we’ve enjoyed recently. While not exhaustive nor representative of the enormous and rich range available, these are movies we have been drawn to because they have somehow made it to a shortlist for an international film award:

JAPAN | Doraibu mai ka (Drive My Car)

Drive My Car
Rating 4.0 stars
Despite being a rather long 3-hr marathon, this movie was totally absorbing. It is recommended viewing especially if you are a fan of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, a number of whose shorts stories form the basis for the screenplay and theatre. This thoughtful and haunting film explores the universal themes of love, loss, acceptance and peace and is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. 
The story centres on Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who is an accomplished stage actor and director. Two years after the untimely and sudden death of his wife, Yusuke is invited to direct a festival production of Cherkov’s play Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. Because of the festival’s policy, he is assigned by the festival a young driver to drive him around in his much loved red SAAB 900. Over the course of the rehearsal period he develops a deep platonic bond with Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) where they are able to explore and in some ways fill the emotional voids left behind in their very different yet similarly troubled past lives. I thought the reason why he was assigned a driver was because an accident had previously occurred when someone else drove himself.
The somewhat “Driving Miss Daisy” situation between Yusuke and Misaki is what gives the film its title. But the starting point for this driver and passenger relationship is marked by the opening credits occurring late into the piece and this is preceded by a long preamble that presents Yusuke’s unique creative and sexual relationship with his TV playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). The interaction between director and the Uncle Vanya cast is underpinned by a tension with one of the lead actors, the handsome TV star Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) whom Yusuke knows has had a previous connection with his wife. It all culminates in a fascinating three-way conversation in the car between Yusuke, Misaki and him, helping Yusuke to unlock some unresolved aspects from his enigmatic relationship with his late wife.
The film is poetically shot and accompanied by a complementary soundscape and musical soundtrack. 
What was particularly interesting for me was that the play directed by Yusuke would be executed as a multi-lingual production, in which actors from different cultural backgrounds would deliver their lines in their native tongue. So we see characters in the diverse cast speaking in Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, English, Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog and even Korean sign language while the audience absorbs the dialogue via a combination of their speech, body language and emotions, together with multiple surtitle translations projected above them on stage. For me it was reminiscent of the seminal and laudable efforts of Singaporean theatre stalwarts Kuo Pao Kun and Ong Keng Sen, whose productions I’ve witnessed where cast members and audience could somehow understand what was going on, to profoundly reflect the reality of life in a multi-lingual environment.

SPAIN | Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers)

Parallel Mothers
Rating 3.5 stars
The latest offering from Spanish auteur Pedro Almadovar, this movie features a continually recurring theme of motherhood in his movies. 
This one features a couple of his favourite acting collaborators. One of them is Penelope Cruz, whom we have seen in seven of his movies; namely Volver, Todo sobre mi Madre (All about My Mother), Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory), Los amantes pasajeros (I’m so Excited), Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), Atame! (Tie me Up! Tie me Down!) and the short film La concejala antropofaga. And the other actress is Rossy de Palma, who was also in his Mujeras al borde de un ataque de “nervios” (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Julieta and Broken Embraces.
In this movie Cruz plays Janis, an independent photographer who finds herself pregnant. The mature single mother encounters another “accidental” adolescent mother Ana (Milena Smit) in the maternal ward of a Madrid hospital and they forge an unexpected connection as new mothers. Circumstances conspire that they should keep in touch, developing a strange but close bond which changes their lives indelibly. 
Not to shy away from convoluted twists and turns in the proceedings, Almadovar also manages to interweave a larger social commentary into the story. He does this skilfully by bringing to attention aspects of Spain’s troubled history when Janis solicits the help of the father of her child, who happens to be an archeologist, to literally dig into her family’s tragic past to uncover what happened when her grandfather disappeared under a historical fascist regime. In true Almadovar fashion, the notion of families and relationships are unconventional and the circle of life, in its glorious connection between life and death is again put in the spotlight.

ITALY | E stata la mano di Dio (The Hand of God)

Hand of God
Rating 3.5 stars
Set in Naples in the 1980s, this movie from director Paolo Sorrentino (who also gave us The Young Pope) tells the story of young Fabrietto Schisa (Fillipp Scotti) who loves football at a tumultuous juncture in his life, when a sudden event sets him off on a future as a filmmaker.
The events take place against a joyous social backdrop of football legend Diego Maradona’s arrival in Naples coinciding with his witnessing of a movie being filmed in his neighbourhood and when unexpected tragedy befalls his family. The confluence of extreme emotions ranging from euphoric joy, pain and loss, love and confusion converge to fatefully pave a way forward for his life. 
For this successful filmmaker, this movie takes him back to his hometown (just as Kenneth Branagh did with Belfast and before him, Alfonso Cuaron did with Roma) to tell us about his personal journey and formative childhood that seems to have been steered by “the hand of God”.

IRAN | Ghahrehman (A Hero)

A Hero
Rating 4.0 stars
This latest film from director Ashgar Farhadi, who previously gave us A Separation and The Salesman,  is a fascinating and morally complex character study while giving us a glimpse of life in modern Iranian society.  
It’s another very engrossing story revolving around the main character Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) who is currently serving a sentence in a low-security prison for an unpaid debt. When granted leave to see his family he tries to negotiate a release from his sentence and restoration of his reputation with his creditor with a repayment of a significant part of his debt.  But things don’t go to plan. Rahim is divorced, has a secret lover and a stuttering son. The situation degenerates into a convoluted mess when his revelation, that an anonymous bag of gold coins he claims to have found was returned to its owner, suddenly makes him a community hero.  

One white lie after another, innocently told to “keep it simple”, eventually upset the various parties that have piled onto the bandwagon in order to benefit from the media circus around Rahim’s “heroism”. In the melee, Rahim is left despairing even though all he wanted was to reclaim his life, respectability and happiness. In the process, we are left wondering how naive and trusting he could be that a simple lie could spin itself into such a horrific and complex web he may never find a way out of. 

Although Farhadi’s films are characteristically non-judgemental, acknowledging that the world we live in is messy and complicated we can’t help being reminded that nothing (neither ideas nor beliefs) always falls into clean binary buckets of good or evil, we can’t help being reminded that morality and governance, as are ethics and motivations, are only as good as how principled a society is. 

And then we think of our shameful Australian parliamentary culture and realise this is more universal that we are willing to admit. 

DENMARK | Flugt (Flee)

Rating 4.5 stars
This was an extremely moving animated documentary which tells the extraordinary true story of a man, “Amin”, on the verge of marriage in Copenhagen. He reveals the circumstances behind his hidden past for the first time, finally compelled to confront his tumultuous journey from Afghanistan through Russia to Denmark as an unaccompanied minor and refugee so that he can attempt to move forward with his future with his husband Kaspar.
We learn as he traces his traumatic childhood in Kabul when his father is arrested, imprisoned and then disappears, never to be seen again. Amin’s account then chronicles how the family subsequently make it out of Kabul before he eventually seeks refuge in Denmark. Amin’s homosexuality provides an additional dimension of oppression which he has to suppress from his family and the authorities in order to survive.  
The film is written and directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, a long time friend of the real “Amin”. It combines animated scenes to narrate the protagonist’s life story, interspersed with actual historical video footage to paint a vivid backdrop against which some of the scenes were set. Told with sensitivity and compassion, this is a powerful and pertinent film of its time, especially if you live in a country that chooses to vilify, incarcerate indefinitely and punish vulnerable asylum seekers so as to politically pander to the xenophobic segment of its citizenry.

NORWAY | Verdens verste menneske (The Worst Person in the World)

Worst Person in the World
Rating 3.5 stars
This was another fascinating, if not somewhat unconventional story about a young and ambitious woman Julie (Renate Reinsve) in Oslo as she tries to find a career path for her life while exploring her love life. She flits from one vocational option to the next but settles on an older lover in Aksel (Anders Danielsone Lie) only to predictably want more when she subsequently meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).
Interestingly, the film is presented in 12 defined chapters over a period of four years and Julie is eventually forced to face her existential dilemma of ever-changing choices when she learns that Aksel needs her more than she needs him.

FRANCE | Delicieux (Delicious)

Rating 3.5 stars
As foodies we were were drawn to this one by the lush and evocative food-filled visuals presented in its trailer. Set in pre-Revolution France of 1789, this movie is about talented chef Pierre Manceron (Gregory Gadebois) who is sacked by his aristocratic employer Le Duc de Chamfort (Benjamin Lavernhe) for embarrassing him in front of his guests with unappreciated culinary creativity.  
With the help of a motivated and determined apprentice Louise (Isabelle Carre), he finds his feet again and the strength to free himself from the chains of being a servant to open the first public restaurant at a time in history where culinary art was only enjoyed by royalty.
An anonymous quote claims that “cooking is love made visible”. This is true for this story and the love that chef Manceron and his apprentice invest in their food is amply rewarded when their output is appreciated by the general public. 
Directed by With rustic charm and sumptuous cinematography, we voyeur into the sensory epicurean world of taste which comes across vividly despite the lack of smell on screen. Be prepared to drool with hunger as you enjoy this one.