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The One-Inch-Tall Barrier

Why you should be watching more foreign films.

Written by Olivia Schwab

Many film students find themselves dozing off during those early morning history classes, particularly when they screen foreign, subtitled films. It's understandable; a dark theater at 9 a.m. can be quite the lullaby. However, that's a pity because classics like “The 400 Blows,” “Yojimbo” or “Daisies” are unfairly slept through.

February 9, 2020, Bong Joon-ho made history at the 92nd Academy Awards as his film, “Parasite,” became the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture award. Upon receiving the Oscar, he said, “Once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The Oscars had been going on for 92 years and this was the first time? Why do we let that one-inch barrier impact how we view the entire world of film? ​​

"If you have never seen a foreign film, you’ve yet to have a whole world of movie experiences with unique stories and filmmakers."

Watching a foreign movie requires a greater degree of concentration — if you look away you could miss important dialogue, so having to be fixated on the screen for a couple of hours can be a big turn-off. However, this immersion often leads to a deeper engagement with the film, allowing viewers to become fully absorbed in the story despite the presence of subtitles. Personally, this heightened focus has led to a major sense of discovery, introducing me to many talented directors and writers, such as Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut.

I know I’m going to get a violently over-the-top flick with long monologues when I put on a Tarantino film, or a massive blockbuster scored by Hans Zimmer that I probably won’t understand when I put on a Christopher Nolan movie. When I put on “The Seventh Seal” by Igmar Bergman, I had no idea who the actors were, who the director was, or what the film style was going to be. This led to one of the most memorable first watches of a film I’ve ever had — I felt that feeling of discovery again. Upon finishing the film I had to find out what else Igmar Bergman had done. I came across “Persona,” and the experience repeated itself. 

If you have never seen a foreign film, you’ve yet to have a whole world of movie experiences with unique stories and filmmakers. By expanding the range of countries you watch films made in, you will in turn expand your knowledge about those countries’ cultures.

This article isn’t meant to say that foreign films are better, but I can say that the action in movies coming out of Asia is simply better than what we get out of Hollywood. Even when the action we see in Hollywood movies is good, the likelihood that it was  inspired by Asian cinema is extremely high (think “Kill Bill” or “John Wick”). Admittedly, I am not the biggest action movie fan, especially when I see bad shaky-cam action paired with fast, unmotivated edits. An incredible example of a well-done action sequence happens during a samurai fight in the Japanese film “Harakiri.” Even before the two samurai fight, the film tracks about two to three minutes of build-up when the two walk to the fighting location. No words are exchanged, no death stares or cringy dialogue: just two men walking alongside each other, knowing that one of them is about to die. There’s no music — only the sound of the wind. The entire scene is captivating and tense without flashy cuts or gimmicky camera movements. This is what happens when you have great characters, a director who knows how to build suspense and perfect editing to match.

At a time when everything in Hollywood is a remake, reboot, sequel or prequel about superheroes, it is so refreshing to find unexpected films outside these categories. Those things aren't necessarily bad, but it gets exhausting watching the big franchises churn out the same kind of movie with the same tropes and cliches you’ve seen time and time again. This is one of the big reasons for the success of Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” in the American and English markets. The film is so unpredictable and goes in so many different directions that you never see coming because it doesn’t play to the cliches and tropes that we’re used to.

I’ve noticed that foreign films place a much bigger emphasis on rich themes like class, religion or family. That’s not to say that Hollywood movies don’t explore those elements. It’s just that movies that perform well at the box office are normally just your average “fun time at the cinema” movies — or as Martin Scorsese puts it, “theme park movies.” Again: the point I’m getting at isn’t that these films are “better” and you should stop watching superhero movies. Rather, it’s that these fantastic movies are out there, just waiting to be watched.

If you've yet to explore the realm of foreign cinema, consider yourself lucky: you're on the brink of a thrilling journey, filled with fantastic movies waiting to be unearthed.


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