Films without borders


“Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s quote was one of the most memorable moments from the Golden Globes Awards that took place just earlier this month. His film, Parasite, was my favorite of 2019. Nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, in a year that saw numerous other highly acclaimed releases such as Little Women, The Farewell, The Irishman, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, just to name a few. Americans have become accustomed to only watching the big studio releases produced in their home country, and have missed out on quality foreign releases. Foreign films are consistently less afraid to tell a more original and nuanced story than most American films are.

This article contains spoilers for the following movies. Read at your own discretion.

The Chinese film Hero (2002) tells the story of a swordsman who plans to assassinate the king of Qin, and how his story of killing three other assassins changes as he begins to understand the King’s motives. The nameless swordsman is attempting to avenge his family, facing down the ambitious conqueror who killed them. But by the end of the story, not only does Nameless find himself agreeing with the tyrant’s cause, he becomes a martyr for it.

On the other side of the spectrum, most American films insist on a consistently good and morally focused protagonist. Marvel’s Captain America is essentially the personification of justice and goodness. He’s a consistent hero, which can be a redeeming trait in its own right, but in this case churns out a protagonist who barely develops across the six films he appears in. The villains of Americans movies have motives and development that stay just as consistent. Red Skull, Captain America’s enemy wants nothing but destruction on American cities in their film together. Emperor Palpatine, as iconic as the Senate Himself is as a symbol of cinematic villains, has no actual motives other than sitting at a throne at the end of a trilogy and furiously demanding that people “strike him down.” I’m not kidding. He does this at the end of every Star Wars trilogy. Beyond his weird death wish, his motive is just to be evil incarnate. Ideally, a villain’s motives should be nuanced enough that the hero could even doubt themselves, wondering if they are even on the right side, but most of the time American films take the easy way out and write off a villain as just evil for evil’s sake.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2012) is not a happy movie. The eponymous Princess Kaguya was found in a bamboo shoot, sent to earth by the spirits of the moon, and just like bamboo, grows incredibly fast, signaling that her time in the mortal realm is not long. Although she is beloved by her friends and family, her father’s insistence on her living the life of a princess, when all she wants is to return to the village life she left behind, results in her brief time on earth being marked with deep sadness and regret. When the spirits of the moon come to retrieve her, as her time on Earth is up, the film juxtaposes the joyous and happy nature of the moon spirits with the deep sadness of the family she left behind, and the regrets of how they spent her life. The movie isn’t black and white, you aren’t sure if you’re sad she left the life she had, or happy she can finally live how she wants. But regardless, by the end of Kaguya you experience the sadness of seeing Kaguya depart from the earth, but in a way, it also leaves you with a sense of gratitude, happy for the time you got to spend while she was there. The way the morals of the movie are unclear, it’s quite unlike walking out of the movie knowing Captain America crashing the plane to save New York was the right thing to do and that’s that. Were Kaguya’s parents right in giving her the comfort the life of a princess brings against her wishes? Was it wrong for the moon spirits to return Kaguya to her life away from earth, despite the sadness it would bring her family, but the peace it would bring her? Does that make her parents or the spirits the villains? Or the heroes? When a movie is more gray than a stark contrasting black and white, as American films regularly deploy, it leaves the audience wondering, rather than knowing, which makes a movie all the more enjoyable.

Parasite ends on a sad, but hopeful note. A family has been destroyed by their plan to escape poverty, their low social class playing a part of their downfall. The family’s worse off than it was before, but the movie ends on the hope that the son, Ki-Woo, can eventually make it big enough to bring the family back together. I’m not arguing that the sadder a movie is, the better, but American movies are so afraid to end a movie on a less than happy note, that the only times they do it’s because an inevitable sequel is on the horizon to provide happier closure to the movie.

Foreign films provide a flavorful addition to one’s film palette. Not enough people watch them, and are unknowingly shutting themselves off from many more incredible movies. The USSR’s Come and See, Mexico’s Roma, Taiwan’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Japan’s The Wind Rises. The list is practically endless. So get out there! Jump that one inch barrier, and watch some foreign films.