World Cinema – Inferior Filmmaking or Undiscovered Masterpieces?
Until my dying day I will never call myself a film expert but I do love to engage in detailed discussions about the land of celluloid and DVD. Whatever your taste in film I like to think I can contribute something to a conversation. There is an area of contention and ignorance that does frustrate me in the film industry and that is world cinema. In my many conversations about films I generally mention both Japanese anime and world cinema as alternatives to Hollywood or British films. The majority of people have heard of anime but the occasional one looks at you blankly when mentioning world cinema. In this blog I will air some of my frustrations but not to the extent that I want to dictate to others. These are purely my views on world cinema and I don’t expect them to be yours. However, my hope is that those who have never watched a film in a language other than English may consider giving at least one a try.
Though I’ve loved films since childhood I don’t recall seeing any world cinema until the release of Amelie in 2001. My brother and his ex-girlfriend had it on DVD and insisted I watch it. Ashamed as I am to say, I had my doubts. It wasn’t that I was put off by the characters not speaking English, it was my limited grasp of French and with it the concern that I couldn’t focus on the film if I was having to read subtitles. Imagine my surprise when I did give Amelie a chance and found not only could I keep track of the conversations, but I was able to see what the characters were up to as well. It took a bit of getting used to but all of a sudden a new doorway had opened and overnight I became a fan of world cinema.
Since watching Amelie I can honestly say that the the best films I have watched in the last decade have mostly been world cinema. From Japan I’ve enjoyed some fabulous films, most notably the controversial Battle Royale (2000), that finished 7th in my Top Ten Films blog posts, Akira Kurosawa’s moving Ikiru (1952) and the visually stunning Casshern (2004). Horror is a Japanese specialty and has restored my faith in a genre that had failed to unnerve me since childhood. The Ring (1998), The Grudge (2002) and Dark Water (2002) are classics that excel not because of bloodshed and gore but due to the atmospheric settings and the feeling of unease they create as you’re sitting uncomfortably in your seat. Not that Japanese cinema is afraid of gore with Ichi The Killer (2001) proving to be an example that was far too much for my tastes with its uncompromising violence. Other notable Asian horror classics are Shutter (2004) from Thailand, and R-Point (2004) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) from South Korea.
While Asian horror films are more atmospheric than any coming out of Hollywood today, there is something original and distinct about the many filmmakers working throughout the world. Martial arts are a staple part of China and Hong Kong’s filmmaking industries with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li being amongst the biggest names in history. Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) brought something of a Renaissance to martial arts with its recognition in Hollywood. It was followed by two notable classics from Zhang Yimou, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which combined stunning combat scenes with lush scenery such as autumnal woodland, bamboo forests and placid lakes. My most recent film of this genre was Xiaogang Feng’s The Banquet (2006), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which contained some stunning sequences. If Hollywood made a film such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon something would be lost in the westernised style. That’s no fault of Hollywood. I just think Asian cinema has a unique quality that cannot be incorporated in America.
Not that it’s just Asia that makes great films. European cinema continues to release some brilliant films each year. I’ve already mentioned Amelie, but since then I’ve enjoyed The Vanishing (1988) and The Three Colours trilogy (1993-4) from France; Sophie Scholl (2005), Stalingrad (1993), Downfall (2004), Goodbye Lenin (2003), Run Lola Run (1998) and Das Boot (1981) from Germany; I’m Not Scared (2003) from Italy and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) from Spain. Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is, in my opinion, the finest war film ever made, offering a different take on World War II from the perspective of a young crew aboard a German U-Boat. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth brilliantly combines fantasy with the brutality of the Spanish Civil War and is one of the masterpieces of the last ten years.
Elsewhere in the world I have had the pleasure of the poignant Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005) from South Africa, the hard-hitting City of God (2002) from Brazil and the Motorcycle Diaries (2004) from Argentina. Tsotsi and the City of God, though taking place an ocean apart both offer gritty perspectives of violent gangs in the respective Brazilian and South African societies, but never to the extent that they would alienate large audiences. The Motorcycle Diaries is one of three recent films about Che Guevara (1928 – 1967) and is a great starting point if you want to learn more about the Argentinean revolutionary, one of my favourite historical figures.
That is just a summary of the jewels I have unearthed deep in the mines of world cinema and my education/excavation has only just begun! I’m discovering new films all the time and spend more time perusing the world cinema section in my nearest HMV than I do films from Britain or Hollywood. It seems the bulk of originality is to be found outside of Hollywood. I have recently enjoyed Let The Right One In (2008), which scored 9/10 on a recent blog review, but am dismayed to learn Hollywood intends to remake it, as well as South Korea’s brilliant thriller, Oldboy (2003). The latter is somewhat controversial and I can’t imagine Hollywood retaining some of the shocking elements. Their attempts at The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004) were quite good but I hated Dark Water (2005). Hollywood seems to be in the midst of a bad struggle, producing remakes of world cinema, classic films from the seventies and eighties, and even playing safe with the usual round of sequels – I never expected Toy Story 3!
I struggle to understand the reluctance of cinemagoers to try a film that isn’t in English. Even films that were English-dubbed, such as Hero, didn’t have staggering box office returns in the UK and US. Yet if they were remade with familiar American or English stars then everyone would flock to see them even though they are, in essence, the same film. I find it disappointing for not only are great films being overlooked each year, but they are being remade and always emerge inferior in quality. The recession has called on all of us to cut back and spend only what is essential. I think of the money spent on these remakes and think it could be put to better use, especially in light of such disasters as the floods in Pakistan.
World cinema has so much to offer to everyone if only they would give it a try. In less than ten years of watching these films I find myself now looking more forward to the latest releases from the likes of Japan and China than I do Hollywood. If everyone gave one world cinema film a chance I do believe a lot more would become as hooked as I have. I can’t force anyone to try world cinema but if you do you just might be in for a pleasant surprise.