World Cinema 101

World Cinema (or Foreign Films) often gets dubbed as an elitist genre, something that only snobbish college students would be into so they can show off how knowledgable and cultured they are. Some people also think reading subtitles is tedious work. However, these films often offer a lot more substance-wise than their American counterparts. Film from other nations serve as quick slice of that culture. Films can illustrate political tensions, explain important historical moments, show you that nation’s style of humor, and reflect the national point-of-view. You also don’t need a “sophisticated” palette for these types of films - if anything they are presenting a story that you wouldn’t hear typically in the States. So if you are up to learning a bit while being entertained, here is my guide to World Cinema.

The Introduction

Lola rennt, Germany, 1998 A rapidly paced film, we follow a young woman attempting to find 100,00 deutschmarks in 20 minutes to save the life of her boyfriend after he botches a job for his crime boss. This film is fast paced and shot in real time; there isn’t a dull second in this film. The film’s soundtrack also mimics this pace through its usage of rhythmic techno. Overall, it is a cleverly made film that doesn’t disappoint nor does it take itself too seriously. In my opinion, it is a perfect introduction to how interesting and creative world cinema films can be.

Lagaan, India, 2001 This film is one of my favorites and it definitely is what ignited my interest in world cinema. However, when I try to describe it to people I realize it sounds pretty silly and many are quick to judge it. Lagaan is a Bollywood musical set in 1893 about a cricket match between Indian peasants and the British colonial government over a tax dispute that is nearly 4 hours long. Yes, this is an epic musical about taxes and cricket. This movie also features incredibly well developed characters and a superb musical performances. It also effortlessly weaves in commentary on religion in India, British colonialism and the caste system among other topics. This film has romance, action, comedy, drama, and wonderful dance and music performances. Lagaan is an expertly crafted film and demonstrates the prowess of India’s filmmakers.

My Sassy Girl, South Korea, 2001 I’m not usually a fan of romantic comedies, but this film is an excellent love story. This film is based on real-life events between a young man and a drunk girl he encounters on the subway. Their relationship is full of hilarious enconters that are often at the expense of the young man. However, in the second part of the film the origins of this girls odd behavior are further explored and we come to understand that things in her life are much more complicated that initially perceived. This film balances humor, drama, and tragedy well and the ending result is a thoughtful, entertaining romantic comedy. It also doesn’t hurt that this film is one of the most successful films in Asia, to the point it was getting compared to the frenzy over Titanic in 1997.

The Midterm

Russian Ark, Russia, 2002 A masterpiece of technical skill is probably the best way to describe this film. Russian Ark explores the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg during different times through Russian history. The film is absolutely gorgeous and has seamless transitions between time periods. What is even more impressive is that this 90 minute film was taken in one single, uninterrupted shot. The film is similar to what one would experience if they visited the Winter Palace museum, but the usage of different time frames makes the film much more interesting.

Le Huitième Jour, Belgium, 1996 This film is an interesting take on the “unlikely friendship” theme. This film follows the relationship between two men: one an overworked business man and the other is a man with Down’s syndrome. This film heavily emphasizes how disabled people are often swept to the side in society, but in reality if people took the time to get to know and understand people with disabilities they would see their humanity first and disability second. The film itself is bittersweet, but the message behind the story is one that needs to be told more often.

Paradise Now, Palestine, 2005 Highly controversial, this film looks at the human realities of suicide bombing in the West Bank and Israel. The film shows the journey two friends take that leaves behind their average lives to become part of the chosen, the suicide bombers. This film has received a great deal of attention, positive and negative, because of how it portrays suicide bombers. While I did not find the film to be advocating violence, I did see that it supported the notion that suicide bombers are real people, with full human emotions, and are not the soulless robots that they are portrayed as in the media. This film is a powerful statement from a part of the world that is far too often spoken for rather than heard from.

The Final Exam

JSA, South Korea, 2000 This film’s plot is about an international investigation of murders committed on the boarder of North and South Korea. While the story presented is an interesting mystery, the far more powerful aspect of this film looks at what occurs far before the murders, a friendship between two South Korean soldiers and two North Korean soldiers. This film presents not only the political tension between the two Koreas, but also highlights the tragedy and pain the national divide has caused to their respective populations. Considering the mounting tensions between North Korea and the United States, I think this film serves as a great tool in understanding the history that resulted in the division of Korea and the attitude South Korea has toward reunification.

La Historia Oficial, Argentina, 1985 Another film that analyzes political history, La Historia Oficial ties the adoption of a young girl into a wealthy family to Argentina’s Dirty War. The film focuses on the adoptive mother’s journey to determine the origins of her adopted daughter and if the girl was taken from one of Argentina’s “disappeared”. Her journey leads her to come into contact with mothers of disappeared children and realize the actions the Argentinean government had taken to repress political dissenters. This film also explores aspects of feminism and family dynamics. Overall, a exquisitely made film on a topic rarely discussed in the United States.

Cidade de Deus, Brazil, 2002 Rarely is a film this multifacted. Cidade de Deus follows the story of a young man growing up in the shadows of his older brother’s gang involvement in Rio de Janeiro’s poorest slum. While the film tells the story of gangs and their crimes, this film differs from many other stories in similar settings because of the psychological depth of the characters. The story told here is completely unpredictable and does not fall into using stock characters. This level of character development in this film gives the entire film a completely different feel, a more dynamic and interesting texture. The film is all at once brutally tragic, comedic, and uplifting. A true masterpiece - a film that stands on its own in terms of quality, concept, and plot.