Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Myth of Foreign Films

I am calling bull on the idea of “foreign” films. For decades, we’ve been told that foreign films offer “something different.” They are deeper and more thoughtful. They aren’t structured for quick commercial sale like everything coming out of Hollywood. They are supposed to offer us a glimpse into an entirely different way of seeing the world, a glimpse you just can’t get from Hollywood. Uh.... no.

I’ve seen a vast number of foreign films. And yet, it’s the truly rare foreign film that offers something unexpected. Yes, they are often slower and typically much more talky and they don’t look quite like our films, but they function in the exact same ways Hollywood films do. Specifically, they establish their heroes using the same tricks. They designate their villains in the same way. Their conflicts aren’t anything you haven’t seen in American films. And their resolutions follow the standard format we all learned in high school English. Good luck finding a story that starts with the climax, or which has no climax.

Sometimes, you find something culturally interesting. For example, the substitution of a noodle cook off for a gun fight in Tampopo, which is really a remake of the Spaghetti Westerns, which were themselves remakes of Kurosawa’s work. Or the high premium placed on honor in the wuxia style fantasy/kung fu films from China. But these aren’t foreign concepts, they just aren’t so much in vogue right now in Hollywood.

Indian musicals are unpleasant unique, I’ll give them that. But only because their singing style is different. Other than that, they aren’t much different from 1950s musicals. Hong Kong films are direct rip offs of American action films. The Japanese are excellent filmmakers, and occasionally offer something unique, but still rarely venture far from the American formulas. German films are full of angst, but little originality and, frankly, I don’t even see much culture in them. And French films are the most Hollywood out there, unless you count British films as foreign.

Ran is King Lear. High and Lo is Ransom!. Stalingrad is Platoon. Strictly Ballroom is the classic ugly duckling story. Etc.

At one point, I decided to see what the world had to say about romance or love. So I rounded up a bunch of foreign films on the topic. I was hoping to see something distinctly non-Hollywood. I didn’t. There were some glimpses, but each film still fell pretty firmly within the formula. Interestingly, the best foreign romance film I saw wasn’t even a romance, it was Hero (2002), a Jet Li wuxia martial arts film based around a tragic love story.

Where I have had some success has been in the odd-ball films. Diva was an odd French film which presented a strangely likable stalker. Hero, as I said, had a great love story. The heroine in the Korean My Sassy Girl was interesting because she’s so hard to describe. She’s both self-destructive and sadistic, but not in the sexual way Hollywood interprets the term. . . there’s no easy way to describe her, which makes her rather unique. Shall We Dance was great because it had all these aspects of Japanese culture in them -- the remake was typical Hollywood stereotypes. Run Lola Run was neat because of its pounding pace and writing trickery. And Kurosawa’s Ikuru, though quite old, was easily the best film I’ve ever seen about the problems of bureaucracy and how people stand in the way of good deeds.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many good foreign films (and many more stinkers), but I’ve come to the conclusion that few really offer what foreign films supposedly offer -- a glimpse into a strange world with a very different set of rules than our own. Ultimately, I guess that’s a good thing because it means humans have a common culture. That means we should all one day be able to work together. But in the meantime, it kind of sucks the life out of the foreign film experience.

So give me some help here. Tell me some foreign films you’ve seen that really struck you as unusual, deeply explicative of culture, or just really good.

87 comments:

ScottDS said...

I remember when I first started my Netflix subscription (almost 9 years ago!) and I went through a foreign film phase (thanks to the Criterion Collection). I saw some movies that I liked and some where I wanted to blow my brains out (not because I was shocked or offended but because I was bored!).

Closely Watched Trains - it's a "New Wave" Czech film and I love Criterion's description: "At a village railway station in occupied Czechoslovakia, a bumbling dispatcher’s apprentice longs to liberate himself from his virginity. Oblivious to the war and the resistance that surrounds him, this young man embarks on a journey of sexual awakening and self-discovery, encountering a universe of frustration, eroticism, and adventure within his sleepy backwater depot."

On one hand, it's about a lovelorn teen who wants to get laid (and not nearly as "erotic" as the description suggests) but you have all this sociopolitical subtext that you may not get in an American film. But at the same time, is it relevant or simply window dressing?

I also watched a cool French crime/caper film called Rififi along with an Italian parody that was produced a few years later called Big Deal on Madonna Street (which I think was the inspiration for Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks).

I also remember liking Fellini's Amarcord and Renoir's Grand Illusion but I'd probably get a lot more out of them now. Or perhaps I would dislike them?

I also enjoyed Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle and M. Hulot's Holiday but I do felt they dragged a little bit, but there's nothing like a well-constructed physical gag.

I HATED Tout va bien which told the ponderous story of a strike at a sausage factory. It was made in the 70s and starred Jane Fonda at her most radicalized. I was also bored out of my mind at The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

I saw a couple of Bergman films. The Seventh Seal... for some reason, I thought the whole movie was the chess match between our hero and Death, as immortalized in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The biggest danger with foreign films is that a lot of time, really bad film making gets excused as being somehow "deep" or "meaningful." I could accept strange or unorthodox if it really was deep, but usually it's jut pedantic ideas masquerading as deep.... "look, ve stare at ze blank screen for ten hoeurs to see zat man is evil." Uh huh.

I have to say that in truth, neither Fellini or Bergman impress me. Fellini thinks odd equals deep and Bergman thinks dull equals deep. When it comes to actual depth, I will give credit to the Russians, who are not afraid of 4-5 hours films that dig right into their character's lives and souls.

I also keep running into films that are loved by the critics, but I think are just political statements and not great films. There is a French film like that called Cache, which is nothing but an anti-French "ain't we bad to the Algerians" rant. Ebert loved it, but the film itself is without craft, without depth, and the director cheats like crazy to pull off his big surprise. It's childish in its execution. But it says the right things, so all the liberals love it.

Tennessee Jed said...

I'd say you are on to something here, Andrew. I say that because, unlike you, I have not seen a vast quantity of foreign films. There is no question that the myth has grown up that somehow foreign films are better, wightier, and more mature. Why? Well because, Americans are pretty much the lowest common denominator when it comes to anything to do with culture (I guess that is why Japanese are addicted to all things American.)

I remember two foreign films in particular I saw when I was young (or at leaster youngER.) They we Diabolique, and a movie about the Greek revolution "Z." Both seemed good at the time, but lost a lot subsequently. I suppose the notion is that foreign film makers didn't have the money Hollywood had so they had to rely on dialog, storytelling and acting. Guess not!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I have seen Diabolique and I enjoyed it very much, though as you say it has faded over time.

I think there is definitely a sense with these films that our elites are looking down on us. These are the same people who have always been in love with "sophisticated" European ways... like world wars and socialism. I think the pretentious idea that foreign films are superior is all part of that.

Indeed, as I say, I really don't see anything in these films except lower-budget Hollywood films done in foreign languages. I have yet to run into one that I said, "wow, I never expected that!"

And that's not to say that some of them aren't quite good. I could easily list 20-30 really top notch foreign films that I think film-lovers would like a lot. But, I can't say that any of them are unique or so strange as to be truly contemplative.

I find that interesting as a human, but a little disappointing as a film fan.

T-Rav said...

I've seen a number of foreign films, most of which were thoroughly bizarre. I guess Europeans think it's clever to string a bunch of disconnected scenes together and then just say "Fin," but it's very off-putting. And don't tell me (I'm addressing Europeans here) I just don't understand it! There's films you have to think about to get and then there's films which are just plain badly made. Yours are the latter, folks. Sorry.

Okay. That said, there are a few out there which are very good. My favorite would easily be "Das Leben die Anderen" (The Lives of Others), about an East German agent in the '80s who turns away from Communism. It's a bit long but it's well-made and has an excellent story. Another is "The Little Drummer" or something like that, about inter-war Danzig through the eyes of a boy who can't grow up. Not great, but a far cry better than most foreign films I've seen.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I think many European films are stuck in the 1960s avant garde nonsense, where they wanted to prove that requiring stories to have structure was oppressive and it was considered artistic to not make any sense. We had our share of those too and if you lumped them all together, you couldn't tell any of them apart. They were garbage.

One thing I find interesting, since we're speaking to the Euros now, is that they have such disdain for American violence, yet it fills their films as well. Sure, their heroes are cowards and ours aren't, but it still always comes back to gun play or some similar form of violence.

I have been meaning to see The Lives of Others, but just haven't had the chance. I'm told it's really good.

DUQ said...

As Jed said, you might be onto something Andrew. I've enjoyed a foreign film or two, but I've never seen them as anything special or super different like I'm told I should see them.

In terms of a favorite, I like everything I've seen from Kurosawa.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: You've just said what I've been thinking for many years. It often seemed to me that it has always been part of the "why can't we be more like the Europeans--they're so sophisticated" mentality. I'll have to work on coming up with foreign films that I particularly like (The Bicycle Thief comes to mind, as does Two Women). On the other hand, German films make me want to change my ethnicity to anything but German. Angry, or depressing. I really liked Visconti's The Damned, but like most "German" films, it was depressing. I think the Italian director and co-producers saved it.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's what I'm finding so disappointing -- that they aren't that different. And if you look at the newest batch, it's gotten even worse.

Kurosawa is great. I've liked everything he's done, especially his work with Toshiro Mifune.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I am not a big fan of German films either. There are a couple I enjoy despite the depression factor (Run Lola Run and Das Boot come to mind), but most are just wrist-slitting depressing.

I enjoyed The Bicycle Thief a lot. One film I did not like (and I seem to be the only person on the planet to not like it) is Cinema Paradiso.

On the idea behind these films, I do think this stems from the same impulse by some in America to see everything European as more sophisticated -- which you and I know is ridiculous.

Interestingly, even in countries with a strong film industry (Russia, China, France), US films still dominate. So who is really making the better product?

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent points, Andrew!

Most of the foreign films I have watched have been Japanese, Chinese, some Korean, and a smattering of everything else (Note: I don't really consider Brist films as foreign but I do think many British films tend to have more quality actors than the average hollywood film).

Like you and DUQ I love Kurosawa films and consider him one of the greatest directors of all time.

I also think Mifune is one of the best actors of all time. Not only does he have so much charisma, but he can say so much without unnecesary yakking.

By this I mean his body language, facial expressions...and his eyes!

Something the majority of modern actors in particular simply don't have (or can't do because of botox).

I think I mentioned before that Mifune had no formal training or experience as an actor before he got into it. Much like Robert Mitchum, except Mifune didn't get into trouble in his youth.

One thing about Japanese films that helps to keep in mind is they are much more enjoyable the more you know of their culture and history.

I reckon you can say that about any foreign film. Doubly if they are period pieces.

I like some of Jet Li's period films too. Once upon a Time In China, The Legend, etc..

I love Jacki Chan But Li is the better actor, IMO.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I recommend it. It's a very good movie, with a well-told conservative message.

I think that's a good point about the Euro films. There's a lot of mindless violence in many of them, much of it sexual and almost pornographic in nature. I guess that's okay in their case, though, because they're liberated in their thinking or something.

Is "District 9" a foreign-made film? Because I just watched it for the first time last night, and I was very impressed.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben!

I agree on Chan and Li. I like both, but Li has really proven to be a much stronger actor.

I totally agree about Mifune. In fact, he's probably in my top 3 of actors of all time. He's one of those rare guys who just has such an ability to project what he's thinking into every scene, whether verbally or non-verbally. I equate him with Steve McQueen in that regard -- you just can't help but watch him when he's on screen no matter what is happening at that moment. And I thought Mifune's conflicted portrayal in High and Low was super impressive -- some of the best acting I've seen!

I love Kurosawa too. He's made some incredible films and I have watched many of them over and over. It's amazing how influential he has been to films all over the world.

I find the Koreans interesting because they started as knock-offs of the Japanese industry, but they seem to be really stepping out in their own right. They've produced some excellent films in recent years and I'm hoping they keep it up.

CrispyRice said...

Oh, I went through a "I ooooh-nly watch foreign and art-house movies" phase in college. (Excuse me while I puke at my younger self.) Now I can admit that much of it was garbage, but I will say there were things I very much enjoyed and some things that I thought were just simply better done. I will also say that by and large, I think they are different than American films, even if it's just subtly. Sure there are stories that are universal (ie the ugly duckling) but it's in the telling of the story and the nuances that there is something to be said about different cultures. And film is a good way to see that.

One of my faves (which I think I've mentioned) is by a German director named Wim Wenders and is called Until the End of the World. The "real" version is like 5 hours long, LOL. It's kind of close-in-future sci-fi / end of the world and kind of travelogue and kind of love triangle. It just really works for me.

I find The Red Violin to be a wonderful movie. And something Chinese about a bicycle thief, if memory serves...

I adore the French version of Cyrano de Begerac with Gerard Depardieu.

Oh, and anything with Jeremy Irons, aka "the thinking woman's pin-up." (Ummm, did I just say that out loud?)

Anyway, I'd have to go look back and see what else I remember from my college days. But don't be so dismissive of foreign flicks. There's beauty and lessons in the nuances, too.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav,

What's funny is that the Europeans criticize us for being sexually repressed and violent, yet I've seen nothing in their films that isn't even more repressed and they also go in for the violence. So they're just being hypocritical in attacking us.

District 9 is a South African film, which is why I had to laugh the other day when a film "expert" described it as addressing the immigration problem in the US. It's actually an Apartheid story.

In terms of its quality, I was mostly impressed, but I think the ending really fell flat and became generic Hollywood. I was hoping for more at that point.

CrispyRice said...

Oh oh! And how timely! You mentioned a Canadian zombie movie called Pontypool recently. It's now streaming on Netflix and we watched it last night. Another one to definitely recommend. It left me thinking about several things, and was not your typical gore-fest zombie thing. Good stuff!

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, My problem with foreign films (to use a restaurant analogy) is that we're told it's the difference between sushi, French cuisine, and hamburgers, but in the execution, it's more like the difference between a McDonalds in France, a McDonalds in Japan and a McDonalds in Texas. There are differences, but they are very, very subtle.

And again, I'm not saying they stink, I'm just saying they aren't nearly as different as people make them out to be.

I believe the Chinese movie of which you speak is Beijing Bicycle, which was quite good.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I'm glad you liked it!

So for anyone who hasn't heard...


Pontypool is streaming on Netflix right now! :)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi CrispyRice:

When it comes to French actors, Jean Reno is my favorite, although I like Depardieu too.

I haven't seen all of Reno's films but I liked him in everything he's done.

Even in crappy films like Godzilla 2000 he shines. In fact, that's the only reason I still watch it from time to time.

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, Reno is my favorite too. I also like Tcheky Karyo.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I guess I can see that. I was impressed, though, by how they twisted the human-alien contact thing.

On Asian actors, I have never been able to take Jackie Chan seriously. I don't dislike him, don't get me wrong, I just kind of see him as a cartoon. And yes, he could kick my butt in five seconds flat, I'm just saying.

Ken Watanabe is a pretty good actor, from what I've seen of him (which admittedly isn't all that much).

CrispyRice said...

USS Ben, I love Jean Reno! Did you ever see Leon? Another excellent foreign movie, which I believe (??) they remade or perhaps re-edited for America to the film's detriment.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Chan plays the comedian. So he is rather cartoonish. Li plays much more serious roles.

I like what I've seen from Watanabe as well. I thought he was particularly good in Inception.

On District 9, I thought the idea was good and the human/alien contact thing was interesting too. I just wish the movie hadn't ended in a shootout.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I thought Leon was great! Another Luc Besson film. The American version was cut down significantly to reduce Natalie Portman's role, which they thought was too sexual -- given her age at the time (13).

CrispyRice said...

Sorry to keep littering your comments with stuff, but I was googling (ok, ok - BING-ING) for something and came across this, which I thought was appropriate for your thread. They are posters for US movies in foreign countries... which have nothing to do with the movie. Quite funny.

http://www.cracked.com/article_18542_15-grossly-misleading-movie-posters.html

Oh, and um -- LANGUAGE WARNING for those of you who care.

Ok, I really should go see about making dinner at some point, but now I just want to drink bitter coffee and watch bad foreign movies 'til late at night. Thanks, Andrew.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the link Crispy: LINK.

Have fun with the bitter coffee! :)

T-Rav said...

Isn't Portman supposed to be like a child assassin or something in that movie? Or do I have my wires crossed?

AndrewPrice said...

Leon is the assassin. Portman is the teenage daughter of a man who gets killed. She ends up befriending Leon and tries to get him to train her to kill the guy (Gary Oldman) who killed her father. In the European version, she tries to seduce Reno, which freaks him out. In the American version, that gets cut out. The European version is better.

Koshcat said...

I wouldn't say I am a foreign film fan, but there are a few that I have enjoyed. I think many of the Brit films should be considered foreign as they tend to deal with issues from their point of view, which is a little different. Of course there is Monty Python, but also Snatch, The Wall, and a movie several years back about a boy during world war II (can't remember).

I also like some of the Chinese film that came through a few years ago. Loved Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon and Hero. Can't say that I have seen any Russian films, but if they are like their authors (dark, painful lives) they could be good or suicide inducing. I remember seeing and liking Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down but it has been a long time.

I hate when I see a foreign film I like, it gets redone in the US. I liked the Norweigen Insomnia much better than the Alaskan. I think having well known actors ruined it for me. Same for le femme Nakita. Haven't seen the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo but I see they have remade it. I have read the book though.

I have been fortunate not to see many foreign dogs, but probably due to being picky and researching before watching.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I enjoyed Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down as well.

I agree very much about the remakes as American films. Although sometimes it works, it often doesn't. In fact, there are several foreign films that I really liked which were remade as American films and just pained me to watch. They sucked out all the neat intricacies and cultural aspects that made those films so endearing and replaced them with well-worn Hollywood cliches. It was like sucking the life out of these films.

A great example of this was Shall We Dance, where you have this really fascinating look at Japanese people learning to ballroom dance and all the contrasts between the very staid Japanese culture versus the very extrovert idea of dancing. Then the American version wiped out all of that and instead focused on a a romance between a student and teacher and a gay character coming out of the closet. Blech.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Crispy-

Leon was great! I didn't know there were 2 versions, or what version I saw, but one of my favorite parts was when Leon was in the theatre and he was enraptured (another great use of the eyes by Reno. He convey6ed his feelings and thoughts perfectly).

LOL at the cracked link! Speaking of European films I liked this part which summed up what Andrew said:

"Europe loves depressing, hopelessly bleak tragedies about people dying slowly, or perhaps in a concentration camp."

Yep!

T-Rav said...

For reasons I no longer remember, I saw part of "Shall We Dance?" once (the American version) before getting sick of it and leaving. It wasn't that any of it offended me, it was just boring and didn't seem to have a point.

"Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"? I keep hearing it's supposed to be good, but frankly, the lead character freaks me out a bit. Why would you want that many piercings?

T-Rav said...

Ben, that's because they also love realities about the same.

Joel Farnham said...

Wow, this depends on the definition of foreign films.

If it was made in another country, then I like Titanic, Aliens, Guns of the Navarone, Bedtime Story (Remake is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and The Yakuza.

The last movie is a Sydney Pollack film which starred Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith, a very young Richard Jordan and a relatively unknown actor, Ken Takakura. It also has one of the best character actors, Herb Edelman. It has the most believable sword fight scene I have ever seen.

I also like, don't laugh, The Last Samurai. It is just plain fun to watch. It matches a lot of what Shogun the novel was like. The depiction of seppuku (ritual suicide for Samarai) by the commander of the Japanese army is shocking to people who haven't read Shogun.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I really enjoyed Leon as well. There is a second version -- a longer version. I think they may call it the director's cut over here. If you get the chance, see that one instead. It adds a lot to the characters.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, The American Shall We Dance is every other American rom-com only with a male lead instead of a female lead. It bears little relation to the film that spawned it.

On Europe, yeah, sadly.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That's not quite what we meant by "foreign film"! LOL!

tryanmax said...

"I will give credit to the Russians, who are not afraid of 4-5 hours films"

Ugh! So their film making is just like their novel writing.

AndrewPrice said...

Da.

Yeah, their stuff is REALLY long and very, very slow. It's also very narrow. For example, you won't see big sweeping action and lots of characters doing grandiose things. Instead, they will focus on two men in an apartment and how one is slowly going insane.

A film I keep wanting to see is Solaris (which was a Russian film/book before being remade by George Clooney). BUT I can't bring myself to finish the film. I get 30-40 minutes into it and I just don't care anymore. It's like watching two people talk about another person's home movies... and no, that's not an analogy, that's basically what is going on.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, that was actually my reaction to "Solaris." I don't even remember what the movie was about or what I saw, I only remember I watched the first third or so and then...see my above comment about "Shall We Dance?"

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I wanted to like Solaris (the American version), so I stuck it out. I think it had some great acting moments in it and a truly inspired concept, but it suffered from dull execution. It just never quite worked on any level.

I wanted to see the Russian original because I thought the concept was so great and I wanted to see how it was originally treated. But I have been unable to make it through that film no matter how hard I try because it is infinitely more boring.

In any event, the idea itself deserves a re-write.

tryanmax said...

I did see Solaris and I did watch the whole thing, but I don't remember anything about it. Hmm. I did not realize it was a remake, however, so maybe now I'll have to dig up the original and make a comparison.

I think the foreign film mythos is closely related to the indie film mythos: a hipster delusion of being the cultural cognizatti. It's just pretentiousness. (Says the guy using lots o' fancy words.)

Case in point, I lately watched the Swedish film Let the Right One In and its American remake Let Me In and, in my opinion, they are basically on par with each other. They each stress different points but they tell the same story.

Still, most of the reviews I had read beforehand comparing the films gave unmitigated praise to the original while bashing the remake as having sucked the life out of the film. I can understand how seeing the first film treat something subtly that the second film treats blatantly might feel like a club over the head. But a really objective comparison would note that the first film hits the audience over the head about some things, too. And in most cases, the remake treated those things more softly.

Frankly, while a tale about a vampire child is necessarily dark, I think the American version, through a few key scenes, made the whole thing darker. For this particular story, that is a win.

tryanmax said...

One more before I go. I don't go out of my way to watch foreign films, but I have seen more than the average Joe. Probably because I am always on the lookout for something from off the beaten path.

One film that jumps to mind as particularly interesting is a French film, Angel-a. It's about a petty criminal who has his life saved by a rather gritty angel with whom he falls in love. The French insist it is a fantasy-romance, but I insist that it is simply French.

Still, I thought the premise was rather innovative and the movie was successful in the most fundamental way: if found a new way to tell an old story. In this case, boy meets girl.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

If you mean foreign films that are made in foreign lands which are intended for foreign consumption, nope. I can't think of one I wanted to try long enough to rent it. I sorta did about "Das Boot", but once I found out that most people couldn't get the jokes unless they learned German, I passed. I used to watch the old Japanese monster flicks with English dubbed in. Does that count?

tryanmax said...

I lied, but I remembered earlier mention of Leon. Probably worth noting that Angel-a is also Luc Besson.

T-Rav said...

I forgot to mention, in my opinion Spanish/Mexican films are by far the strangest ones I have ever seen. Last year I had to show a film for a professor's class, which was from Mexico (I think) and was about a hermit monk standing on top of a post and being tempted the whole time by the devil, and then at the end they're whisked off to a modern city and people are dancing. No, really, that's how it ends. And at the end, there's the obligatory "Fin." That's not even a Spanish word, idiots!

Oh, and then there's "Pan's Labyrinth," which looks like it was produced by someone on LSD. Like I said, weird x 100.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I definitely wouldn't say that the American remake is always worse. Solaris in my opinion is an example where the American version is significantly better.

To me, the problem comes in films like Shall We Dance, where you have this really interesting story contrasting staid Japanese culture with an activity that is anything but staid, and you get to watch how these people handle their discomfort and you see why they want to break out of the culture that holds them back.

When this was remade in Hollywood, they sucked all of that. In its place, they crammed cliched American characters and impose a formulaic Hollywood wife-thinks-he's-having-an-affair romance plot as the new structure of the story.

Thus, you've gone from something truly unique and interesting to something Hollywood turns out every ten days -- a generic rom-com.

If you only saw the American version, would you say "this sucks?" Probably not. It's formulaic, but the formula is good enough to make for an enjoyable enough film if that's your thing. But when you see the Japanese version by comparison, you suddenly realize how they killed the essence of what made that film so interesting.

So unlike the example you mention, where both films highlight different things, in this instance, they just wholesale replaced parts that didn't fit the Hollywood formula.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I haven't seen Angle-a, but I am truly a Besson fan. He's provided some excellent films -- Leon, Fifth Element, Nikita, The Transporter, From Paris With Love etc.

Also, you put your finger on what I've been looking for in foreign films but am having a hard time finding: something "off the beaten path."

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Yep, films made in foreign countries, by foreigners, for foreign consumption. And not somewhere foreign like Britain or Canada because they're largely intermixed with Hollywood.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I thought Pan's Labyrinth was pretty bad. it struck me as another one of those films that was only popular among critics because it had a strong leftist theme.

As for Spanish films, I find them too slow to be all that interesting and are typically little more than copies of Hollywood films.

Mexican films, on the other hand, are much more creative. I've run into some good ones there... and some truly bad ones.

Koshcat said...

Hope and Glory, that was the film I was thinking about. I still say that British and Australian films are a little different. The Lighthorseman and The Man from Snowy River. Both enjoyable. Sure they had the same basic hollywood themes, but a different point of view than how an American may present.

I saw a Japanese film years ago regarding Japan during WWII. There was definitely a translation issue when a young woman goes up to a man laughing and saying something to the effect "All the young men and boys becoming kamakazis and dying, ha ha ha!" I don't remember much else.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Translation issues can be a problem too. It's hard to translate the subtleties sometimes and sometimes it's even hard just to get the words straight. I've noticed this with German films because I speak the language, so I've often noticed that the translation isn't all that close to what was really said.

That makes me wonder when I see something that sounds like nonsense if it's something cultural or just a mis-translation? A lot of Japanese anime, for example, sound like nonsense. And I've often wondered if the problem isn't really the translation rather than the underlying script.

In terms of the Brits/Aussies, there is definitely a difference from American films. But I think whether you see that difference or not depends on who is making the film and for which market it is meant for consumption. Hollywood and the British film industry in particular are tightly entwined. So you will see things like Harry Potter, which is technically a foreign film, but is really made by Hollywood's British branch for American audiences. But on the other hand, they will also produce films for local consumption and those are much more British.

The Australians seem more independent than the British and their films feel more foreign. They've produced some really good ones too, like Strictly Ballroom, Breaker Morant, and Mad Max.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Andrew,

The one I saw (Leon) did have the seduction part, although I took it as her having a major crush on Leon and trying to give herself to him but it's been awhile since I saw it so I'll soon watch it again to be sure.

Good to know Pontypool is now on Netflix!

BTW, OT but I recently saw Thor and really liked it more than I thought I would.
I seem to recall some folks thinking it needed more action but I thought it had enough.
Much deeper film than I thought it would be too.

tryanmax said...

My 2¢ on the Aussie/Brit film thing: Building on what Andrew already said, I think based on intended audience one could separate films from those countries into both categories.

So, for example Trainspotting might be considered a foreign film whereas The Full Monty could be considered a Hollywood production. Is that complicating things a bit much?

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, She probably did have a crush on him. In either event though, it really added a level of characterization to the film. In the extra footage, she apparently also goes with him on a couple hits and you get more of his backstory.

I think this version is officially called "The Director's Cut" or "The Long Version." It adds 25 minutes to the film and I think it adds a lot to the film. Apparently they removed these scenes because they tested poorly with audiences in Los Angeles.... jerks.

Let me know what you think of Pontypool! :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think that's right. I think some of their films are made with the express idea that they will be sold in America and others are seen more as local interest. And some are simply Hollywood productions made in Britain.

Trainspotting is a good example of a film which could be considered foreign. It's about life/the drug culture in Scotland and is highly unlikely to appeal to Americans on its face. It ultimately does, but I think looking at it going in, it seems like something made for Britain rather than America.

EricP said...

Does Apocalypto count? Either way, ig’nant with a capital “E” American which I can be when using subtitles as a qualifier, that’s the first which comes to my mind. Also liked Il Postino, Kolya and Night Watch quite a bit, too.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, Good question? It's an American film, made by an Australian, outside the normal sphere of Hollywood, using a foreign language and subtitles. Hmmm.

I liked Il Postino and Night Watch as well. I haven't seen Kolya.

Outlaw13 said...

Since nobody has mentioned it yet, I absolutely love Kung Fu Hustle, it is funny, sweet and references many of your own Hollywood favorites...just a great bit of entertainment.

AndrewPrice said...

Kung Fu Hustle! LOL! Good call.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

I'm late to this so I won't rehash the discussion but my list would include:

Fritz Lang's M -- a tour de force by both director and Peter Lorre in the role that put him on Hollywood's radar screen.

The Lives of Others -- one of the best films of the 21st century thus far -- brutal and moving.

I second Kung Fu Hustle -- awesome.

The Russian Ark -- it's sort of a trick, but it's a 90 minute one take with one tracking shot through 300 years of Russian history via The Hermitage.

The Battle of Algiers by Pontecorvo. It's almost a textbook on how to wage and defeat an urban insurgency. Yeah it's sympathetic to the Algerians -- but the French are hard to warm up to.

And the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone of course

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, The Battle of Algiers is a fascinating film and I've never known what to make of it. It's almost believable that you're watching a series of newsreels stuck together. Very interesting filmmaking!

I love Sergio Leone! It's funny to think those films (which have completely infested American culture) are foreign! Good call! :)

El Gordo said...

There are lots of good foreign films (even excluding the Anglosphere) but they are not intrinsically better or more original than American movies, which always had their share of highly individualistc filmmakers. I mean, David Lynch is American, isn´t he? Case closed. Still, I value the choice they give me.

Some favorites have been mentioned, like Kurosawa, Renoir´s Grand Illusion and Cyrano de Bergerac. I am crazy about Wong-Kar Wai´s In the mood for Love and Bertrand Tavernier´s Life and nothing but. Those would make my top ten list on most days.

Hirokazu Koreada´s After Life and Nobody Knows are small, quiet movies but incredibly touching. The Japanese also have Ozu and Miyazaki.

In defense of Fellini, his early movies, like La Dolce Vita and I Vitelloni, speak to me. His later works, not so much.

I do get a kick out of it when French filmmakers beat Hollywood at its own game, as in the Mesrine movies or the work of Luc Besson. Same for certain South Korean thrillers (check out The Man from nowhere!) except you have to be in the mood for something bleak and gory.

Interestingly, German filmmakers today have largely put the 1970s pretenious behind them and are making lots of romantic comedies - but the humor doesn´t translate very well. So they do entertainment now but "M" is still the best German movie.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, I agree. I think there are some excellent foreign films, but they just aren't something unique/strange/on-a-higher-plane as we're constantly being told. And I agree that there are some very creative American directors too. So the idea that somehow American films can't be creative is simply wrong.

I didn't know the Germans were doing romantic comedies?! I can't imagine! LOL!

I find the Koreans very interesting because I think they've been knocking off Japanese stuff for a while, but in the past 5-10 years have started to step out on their own and they've really put together some interesting stuff.

Thanks for the tips on the rest! :)

kwakerjak said...

I haven't seen many "foreign films" (except for wuxia and anime), but there was one that really stuck me as unique--Waltz With Bashir, an Israeli animated documentary about the first Lebanon War.

The fact that it is an animated documentary doesn't come off as a novelty, since you quickly realize that the story would lose all of its emotional power if it was in live-action (because it needs to be surreal), or if it was based on a pre-written script (because then you'd lose the emotion of the people being interviewed).

Of course, folks on the left like it, because it can be simplistically interpreted as a condemnation of the Israeli military, but I think that interpretation cheapens the emotional weight of the movie. Anyway, it's good stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

kwakerjak, I haven't heard of that one! It sounds interesting though. So thanks, I'll add it to my list.

The leftist bit doesn't bother me that much because so long as it's well done, I can overlook the ideology of a film -- though I do prefer an absence of ideology in most films.

Richard Jenkins said...

What are everyones thoughts on the dubbing and/or subtitling of films? I have to say that I much prefer the subtitling of a film, even if it mean I have to read and watch a film at the same time!

tryanmax said...

I definitely prefer subtitles. I use them even on English language films because I have difficulty comprehending words (as opposed to hearing them). The nifty thing is that, sometimes, the subs include inaudables. And oftentimes the spelling and punctuation give clues to meaning that the audio alone would not.

I can understand the preference for dubbing when one is not used to reading subtitles because one might miss some action. But once one is used to it, one can read with such speed that nothing is missed. The only exception is when the subtitles are broken into chunks that are too short. That can be very annoying.

I find dubbing to be distracting because, due to my aforementioned word comprehension troubles, I rely on lipreading to bolster my hearing. When the lips are out-of-synch, it is maddening to me. (Incidentally, the wonder of Muppets is that their puppeteers are so skilled, their mouths almost seem to match the words. Amazing!)

The other nice thing about subs is that the timing isn't upset. I am sure that voice over actors do their best to match the original, but one can hear when they are forced to rush or slow down. Subs maintain the natural connection between vocalization and action.

And, after one is used to reading subs, it almost "feels" like one is hearing the dialogue in your own language. I will recall dialogue from foreign films as though I heard it rather than having read it. It's difficult to explain unless you've experienced it.

AndrewPrice said...

Richard, I definitely prefer subtitles because that allows the original actors to still use all of their skills -- such as inflection and tone. Dubbed actors are simply too flat and you miss out on too much.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. Once you get used to subtitles, it actually becomes annoying to watch a film that's been dubbed because it just "feels" wrong.

I've also had to turn on the subtitles with some American films because the sound quality has gotten so bad in many films lately that I just can't understand the voices. We've talked about this before and Jed says that those problems go away once you have a legitimate home theater... but I don't. I have a television and I find it annoying that the sound is often so muddled in films.

I never noticed that with the Muppets, but they really do seem to be speaking quite naturally. Hmmm.

tryanmax said...

I heard one "Muppeteer" explain in an interview that the first trick is to move the mouth in synch with the consonants, but to only close it completely for sounds like "B," "P," and "M."

But there is obviously more to it than that. Some characters like Kermit have flexible mouths that can approximate more of the movements of lips and only the best Muppeteers get to operate them.

* * *

I too find myself annoyed that most of the audio is mixed for theater systems with no thought to people who have anything less than the state-of-the-art. It's bad enough that I have to keep toggling between aspect ratios all the time.

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, that's become a real problem for me, especially when I watch films with my parents. They have to turn the sound up almost the whole way so they can understand the dialog and that results in window shattering explosions and music. It's really annoying.

And sometimes, no matter how much you turn the sound up, it just doesn't come through clearly.

Although, I have found that the same DVD played through headphones on my computer has really good sound -- though I don't like watching films that way.

That's interesting about the Muppets. I assumed there were tricks to it. I wonder if they use the same tricks for animation? It would seem the principles should be the same.

tryanmax said...

Oh, I'm an animation nut, so I know the answer to that. Basically, there are a handful of standard mouth "shapes" that they eye will interpret as pronouncing certain sounds. Since most of the work of making sounds is hidden behind the teeth, few shapes represent many sounds. See Here

These shapes are synched to the soundtrack by recording the dialogue before even the storyboards are drawn. Rough timing of the dialogue is noted on the storyboards as they are drawn and are further elaborated as scenes are assigned.

The introduction of computer animation has allowed for greater accuracy to be achieved even in drawn and stop-motion animation as speech elements can be isolated and re-synched at will.

In some rare instances, the audio can be laid down after the animation, as is portrayed in an opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire, but this is extremely atypical and likely served mainly as a vehicle for Robin Williams' alleged ad-lib comedy.

tryanmax said...

P.S. If you have a copy of Coraline on DVD, one of the featurettes gets into this. They actually show a box full of interchangeable mouths, eyes, etc. that they stick on the puppets!

AndrewPrice said...

Alleged! LOL! I have to say his "schtick" has always rubbed me wrong in films, especially animation.

Yeah, I figured a handful of shapes was all they needed to make it work. I understand most of the motion is blurred too because the human eye can't perceive the difference. Animation is an interesting exercise in fooling the human brain!

Thanks for the link.

Joel Bocko said...

There are certain universals to storytelling that will be observed in any narrative, no matter how unconventional in most respects. And film, since it exists in time, tends toward the narrative.

But the difference between a classical narrative in the Hollywood mode and the type of foreign film that will be acclaimed for having a "different way of seeing the world" is a matter of emphasis. Is the story the point (as it tends to be in most Hollywood films) or is it just a framework on which to hang impressions, moods, moments, and so forth?

Personally, I like all eras and movements in film history but if I had to pick a favorite it would be sixties European cinema. This was a time when Hollywood was at a low ebb (sort of like it is now), but Europe was just flourishing - and it definitely WAS offering a fundamentally different way of seeing the world (both compared to American movies and also to European movies of a later era). Somehow, they found the trick to making narrative movies in which the narrative wasn't the point. In films by Antonioni, Bergman, Godard, Resnais, etc. the "plot" exists only to put you into a given moment or series of moments.

To me, fun as a good story is the true heights of filmmaking are reached not in the "what" but the "how" - the way a director shoots a scene, how the characters/performers interact, the way the camera presents the situation, how the editing conveys a sense of space or time. I think too often films are approached like novels, with the medium is just a vehicle for the narrative but they are also related to painting, photography, music, none of which we approach with very similar narrative concerns. What leads people to expect narratives are the previously mentioned time element and also the representational aspect - you see people in a recognizable world and your mind clicks into place to wonder what will happen next. I think sixties European cinema lets the mind wander (or feel like it's wandering - in fact it's being guided); it feels more like listening to a piece of music than reading a book to make inexact analogies. Hopefully this is not all too vague, haha.

In the present, I think the most adventurous movies tend to come from Asia. Europe has fallen into the same rut it rejected in the 60s (at least in France) - the somewhat pompous and (aesthetically) conservative "tradition of quality."

Oh and another great thing about the European films of the late 50s and 60s was that they fused two traditions - that of the avant-garde or art film, to be sure, but also of Hollywood genre movies because Truffaut, Godard, and all the others simply adored American films (something that intellectuals sometimes conveniently forget when making a sharp divide between art and entertainment films - hell, Godard himself seems to have forgotten it at times). What makes their movies so interesting - to me at least - is that in their attempts to make Hollywood movies in avant-garde/documentary/"art film" ways (often unconsciously) they created something totally new.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Interesting point. I think your analysis of 60's European cinema is right. It's interesting stuff. And that's exactly the kind of thing I don't see in foreign films anymore. Almost everything I've seen from overseas looks just like an average Hollywood film. The one exception, as you note, is some of the Asian stuff where I have seen some interesting things, particularly in the "moody" department.

Joel Bocko said...

particularly in the "moody" department.

Definitely. Some of the best ones I've seen have virtually no plot but work really well in capturing the feel of dreams. That's another thing I should have mentioned in the non-narrative department - maybe more than any other medium, movies can tap into the experience of dreaming. Lynch obviously does this really well.

AndrewPrice said...

Very true. I've been working on a couple novels and I've really gotten into writing through the process. And one thing that amazes me is how hard it is to do something like a dream sequence or something ephemeral in writing compared to how easy it is to do it on film. In film, you can do so much with a light touch, suggesting things in the background or introducing odd inconsistencies, etc. On paper, those things either look like mistakes or become very obvious right away what is going on. It's very hard to just give an impression on paper.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Andrew: I think very few authors are able to write in a dreamlike manner.

Joyce comes to mind in Finnegan's Wake as a good example but most folks don't get it or can't appreciate it or films and music that use those concepts very deeply if at all.

The symetrical and asymetrical aren't opposed so much as complementary which rises above the horizontal to the vertical.

I've always been fascinated by films or any other medium that could do both, since they are so deep.

Something that can evoke intelligence and emotions to create something more than either one is another, more simplistic way to put it, I suppose.

The same goes for linear. I know more than a few folks who don't like when a film or book jump around in time a lot.

Of course, many films and books are poorly executed, but some are real gems in that regard.

Coltrane is a good musical example of what I'm talking about.
He was a master at improv but he also never gave up on the boundaries which actually gave him more musical freedom than no boundaries at all would've.

And to be fair, it's difficult for many folks to appreciate the dream world from a concious perspective because they have never conciously thought of anything outside that perspective nor do they know how for a variety of reasons.

I think our public education system is at least partly to blame since it no longer encourages people to think for themselves.

And if one can't appreciate many if not all of the concious levels of a film or book (that has more than one) they certainly can't conciously appreciate the subconcious portrayals.

On the same token there are some folks who can't ever get past their emotions or who can't master their emotions and everything is seen through that filter exclusively.

That would explain why we see so many passionate people that just wanna do something (anything!) to solve a perceived or real problem but who never think about the consequences of their actions (or the actions they want done).

The climate of pc-ness has done much to stifle creativeness.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, Ideas like shifting time and dream sequences are very hard to deal with in writing because the clues just stick out to the reader like a sore thumb.

Basically the problem is that there are so many things you can do subtlety in the background on film which can't be done in writing because you automatically call attention to them as soon as you mention them. Indeed, in writing, people think every word has significance so they instantly tune in to oddities.

These things can be done, but they are difficult and need to be handled somewhat differently than on film. Bascially, I think you have to be more upfront with the reader.

I also think it comes down to the writer's reputation. If the readers know to expect funky ideas then they will keep reading. If they don't know that you're a good writer who is doing something odd intentionally, then they will think it's just a mistake or gibberish and they may stop reading.

Joel Bocko said...

Another point is that the novel uses intellectual means to evoke an emotional state, whereas film has elements that are more purely visceral.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Very true. Writing is very much a left brain activity because that's where the word center of the brain is. But emotion plays out in the right brain. So it's much harder to generate emotion in writing than it is to generate it on film, which can move back and forth easily. It's certainly not impossible, but it takes much greater skill to describe something in a way which generates emotion than it does to show it -- especially when you're talking about fast emotions like fear because it's hard to activate someone's fight or flight instincts when they're reading at their own pace.

P.S. I love some of the artwork on your website. :)

Joel Bocko said...

You mean the screen-caps? Yeah, that became something of an obsession with me in the past year or two. At times I found I wanted to write a review just for an excuse to find a pristine frame from the film in question and post it full-size, haha.

AndrewPrice said...

Actually, yes, "screencaps." Sorry, I don't know why I wrote "artwork"? I like the fact you're using interesting frames that you don't normally see... "off the beaten path."

Joel Bocko said...

Well oftentimes a good screen-cap is as alluring & transporting as anything hanging in a museum! I love the fact that technology has created a new way to appreciate and contemplate movies (obviously books included frames in the past, but they were usually supplanted with stills which don't actually come from the movie - and even when they were frames they usually weren't very high-quality and used more often to demonstrate a point than stand on their own).

AndrewPrice said...

Same here. I'm often impressed with how interesting the screen caps can be especially when they show you how much work goes into building a set or costumes that you only see briefly in passing in a film. There is so much craft in filmmaking it's incredible.

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