A beginner’s guide to ‘foreign’ (non-English) cinema

Feb. 11, 2021, 5:15 p.m.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved watching movies with subtitles. I even use them for English and Korean movies, though I can fully understand spoken dialogue just by listening. I enjoy understanding exactly what characters are saying, which is hard to catch during scenes with mumbling, jargon or background noise.

American moviegoers generally cite subtitles as the reason why they don’t watch many foreign-language movies. However, my love for this “one-inch-tall barrier” (to quote Bong Joon-ho) has actually opened the door for me to explore phenomenal movies from non-U.S. countries and cultures. 

It is important to not think of English as the default language for movies. After all, France is the birthplace of cinema, and India produces the greatest number of feature films in the world. Though the spoken language is not the only measure for determining what country a film “belongs to,” I will focus on it as the key factor in this article. 

Beginning to watch foreign-language (non-English) movies is like unlocking a treasure chest to find a blinding pile of gems. These movies help you understand how other societies function and how their citizens think. They reveal cultural influences that shape people’s daily habits and interactions and can also delve into major historical events that served as turning points in their countries. Finally, I enjoy foreign-language movies because they often diverge from familiar Hollywood formulas and industry pressures. Without Hollywood’s obsession with maximizing profit from box office sales, or appealing to the “lowest common denominator,” other countries produce daring and innovative works. Other countries are not concerned with superhero franchises or Christmas movie ripoffs (we don’t need live-action versions of every movie in Disney history); they continue to test the limits of cinema. 

Here are seven recommendations featuring seven different languages, listed from most accessible to least accessible. Each movie is considered one of the best movies made in its respective language. I define accessibility as how much attention is required to enjoy the movie, how esoteric the themes and content are and how quickly the film progresses.

For content warnings, please search up the name of each film followed by “IMDb parents guide.”

1. “Cinema Paradiso” (Italian; 1988)

In three words: heartwarming, tearjerking, funny.

“Cinema Paradiso” is a love letter to the magic of movies and enduring friendship. Featuring one of the best child actor performances in history, this film begins in post-WWII Sicily, centering around the mischievous 8-year-old Toto. He befriends the initially grumpy Alfredo, the town’s movie theater projectionist, and falls in love with movies and moviegoing culture. This coming-of-age film is playful but also profound. The small, tight-knit Italian town is a sprawling stage for blushing teenage romance, undying dreams for success and commitment to your friends. Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest film composers of all time, gives viewers many heartstring-tugging melodies that will etch deeply into your mind. I’ve cried endless times watching this movie or even clips of it on YouTube! My interpretations of this movie have evolved as I have matured, resulting in an invaluable “thought trail” for me to reflect on. Whenever I watch “Cinema Paradiso,” I’m reminded of why I love movies, and how love and friendship can transcend time and great distance.

2. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Japanese; 2004)

In three words: spellbinding, wholesome, creative.

You haven’t seen animated movies until you’ve seen Studio Ghibli movies. Seriously, every time I watch a movie from this Japanese film studio, I’m blown away by their amazing world-building skills, complex characters and fantastic stories. You’ve probably heard of standouts like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” — take your first step towards exploring animation, a cornerstone of Japanese culture, with another amazing movie, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based off a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. The story features a young woman, Sophie, who is turned into a hunchbacked 90-year-old by a witch. Sophie wanders into the mysterious wizard Howl’s house to break her curse, meeting a living scarecrow, fire demon and boy apprentice at the same time. This eclectic “family” finds ways to survive during a destructive war and also battles Sophie and Howl’s personal crises. Every frame in this movie is breathtakingly beautiful. Whether it’s fireworks, cityscapes, swaying flowers or bedrooms full of ornaments, the animation is truly top-tier. The characters are adorable and fierce. The movie defies ordinary rules governing time and space to create a magnificent shapeshifting world, and the poignant and mystical soundtrack complement this visual feast perfectly. “Howl’s Moving Castle” is guaranteed to be totally different from all other animated movies you’ve seen before, and I highly recommend that you experience this enchanting film!

3. “Au revoir les enfants” (French; 1987)

In three words: pensive, innocent, gloomy.

Here is the Holocaust as seen through a child’s eyes — at first understated, then building to a heart-wrenching close. The autobiographical “Au revoir les enfants,” based on director Louis Malle’s own childhood growing up in a Catholic boarding school in Paris, combines scenes of childhood camaraderie with the anxiety of wartime turmoil. Protagonist Julien Quentin discovers that one of his new classmates, Jean, is a Jewish student who is being protected by the school headmaster from the Nazis. As Julien and Jean grow closer together, the Nazis’ grasp on France grows tighter, and Julien’s formerly mischievous school life crumbles to reveal the looming darkness outside. The movie avoids painting all French people as angelic caricatures, placing them at all points on the moral spectrum in between “Collabos” (people who collaborated with Nazis) and the generous, sacrificial guardian Père (Father) Jean. The characters are completely realistic and natural, and the camera moves with a tender care that captures all moments in these children’s lives. Alternating between moments of humor and gravity, “Au revoir les enfants” is a poignant portrait of how tragedy affected those who should be shielded most from it. I shed tears at the ending, and I feel that everyone should experience this deeply personal story. 

Available on YouTube

Stanford affiliates: Watch for free on Stanford Kanopy.

4. “Memories of Murder” (Korean; 2003)

In three words: eerie, immersive, authentic.

Fans of “Parasite” will love this earlier collaboration between actor Song Kang-ho and director Bong Joon-ho. Song has arguably been the most beloved and prolific lead actor in South Korea for two decades, and he is fantastic as a protagonist here. “Memories of Murder” is a slow burn — a suspenseful, high-stakes investigation based on a true story of the first serial killer in South Korean history. Set in the late 1980s, the movie details how a fistfighting, joke-cracking countryside detective clashes with an introverted, calculating city detective. “Memories” paints a vivid portrait of confused community residents and rudimentary forensics technology: The cops chase many suspects on foot and question them halfheartedly, resulting in physical comedy and riveting action scenes alike. Bong’s script naturally builds the gravity of the crimes, resulting in profound and unexpected character developments. Long takes are especially phenomenal here, and the great ensemble of actors fully embody the horror of tracing a brutal murderer’s footsteps. If you want to watch an engrossing character study and true crime drama, “Memories of Murder” is a must.

5. “Farewell My Concubine” (Mandarin Chinese; 1993)

In three words: devastating, nuanced, ominous.

“Farewell My Concubine” weaves together an astonishing array of themes and narratives. It is a crash course in 20th century Chinese history, an unrequited romance, the rise and fall of two successful Peking Opera (Beijing Opera) actors and an intimate look at homosexuality and gender roles. The movie is all the more impressive because these threads unfold so organically, and the director Chen Kaige succeeds in his ambitions. This winner of the Palme d’Or, one of the highest honors in the film industry, is widely considered the best work of the late Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung. Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi and Cheung make up a trio that is tied together by love, jealousy, friendship and hatred in turbulent China. Phenomenal cinematography, costumes and production design paint how the constantly changing political leadership created unstable psyches in our main characters. “Farewell My Concubine” changed my life, and this movie is as rewarding as it is emotionally taxing to watch. 

6. “Taste of Cherry” (Persian; 1997)

In three words: meditative, existential, soulful.

Another winner of the Palme d’Or, “Taste of Cherry” is a standout film from one of the greatest Middle Eastern directors, Abbas Kiarostami. Mr. Badii drives around Tehran, Iran with a peculiar goal: to find someone to cover his body with dirt after he commits suicide. The movie consists largely of Mr. Badii picking up various passengers and convincing them to help him. Interspersed are shots of our protagonist studying his own shadow, watching construction sites and driving through gorgeous orange-brown landscapes. Though a superficial summary of the movie makes it sound boring, “Taste of Cherry” is one of the most profound explorations of empathy, struggle, isolation and hopelessness I’ve seen on the silver screen. In this film, the golden earth emanates a spiritual aura — the land can take away Mr. Badii’s life by burying him under, but it can also be a source of renewal by breathing life into plants or people who wander above it. The script offers a fantastic commentary on how we sometimes reveal extreme information to other people in hopes of eliciting a reaction and forging a genuine bond with them. On a day you feel especially lost about how to navigate the future, I recommend that you sit down and watch this movie.

Available on YouTube

7. “Persona” (Swedish; 1966)

In three words: distressing, haunting, intense.

“Persona” is so elusive that movie critic Peter Cowie wrote, “Everything one says about Persona may be contradicted; the opposite will also be true.” The movie does not rely on plot to pique interest; instead, frightening images, haunting music and nuanced acting performances draw in viewers. “Persona” shows the mental breakdown of two female protagonists, Alma and Elisabet, who psychologically wrestle and comfort one another in an isolated cottage. Alma is a nurse taking care of actress Elisabet, who abruptly decided to stop speaking to anyone. At first, Alma is sympathetic and talkative, but then the two women grow more combative in this “psychological horror” film. Once I watched this movie, it was impossible to forget. Some of the greatest monologues in movie history are here, and the two leads are rarities in that they are excellently written, complex female characters. “Persona” is a mind-blowing movie you must watch. 

Stanford affiliates: Watch for free on Stanford Kanopy.

Contact Nadia Jo at nejo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Nadia Jo '23 is the Desk Editor of Music for Vol. 259 (and previously Vol. 258) and occasionally writes for Screen and Opinions. She is particularly interested in hip-hop, R&B, and classical music. Contact her at njo ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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