The Future Is Foreignby Sihle Mthembu / 02.04.2011
Second only to the 1970’s New Wave, this past decade has easily been one of the most interesting in cinema history. We’ve seen the record-breaking commercial success of Avatar and the popular critical acclaim of The Dark Knight, pirate wars, copyright claims, downloading, the rise of the franchise and the fall of the star-equals-cash system, and lately, an unlikely industry saviour in the form of a cheesy low-end B-movie gimmick from the 1950s, 3D.
You may not have noticed, but the 2000s have also been about the rise of foreign language films (as in not Anglo-American) as the go-to alternative to mainstream fare. This used to be the case before the 1980s and the blokckbuster. Foreign language films used to be cool. So for them to return as solid commercial entities is a bit like walking into a back road café on the streets of Havana. Remiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club. Time frozen. A different era when foreign films were thrilling intellectual adventures (Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini). As soon as you walk in everything turns to black and white, and you’re taken decades back to a soundtrack of sultry blues. You look around and see young, eager revolutionaries in their fields. Albert Camus, Sembene Ousmane, James Dean and Andy Warhol. Great figures of the great ferment of the fifties and sixties. Don’t you want to stay awhile and have a nostalgic Cuba Libre? The relative renaissance of the non-English language film may seem like a romantic aberration amidst the detritus of contemporary cinema but the reality is altogether different.
More foreign language film directors are household names today than at any other point in cinema history. Obviously the Google era has enabled this kind of awareness, shifting the boundaries of what ‘mainstream film’ means, making room for foreign language product in a busy market. Asia certainly has a taste for cinema. It wasn’t always so. Even countries outside of the Anglo-American core were making films their domestic audiences weren’t paying attention to. Twenty years ago unless you won the Palm D’or, were French, or backed by Miramax, it would be very hard to get noticed, let alone regularly surpass the costs of making your film on the open market. Middle American audiences just didn’t care to read subtitles. At least that was the myth perpetuated by distributors.
But films like City of God, Battle Royale and Tsotsi have become cult classics and mainstream bench marks. In the last ten years filmmakers have realised cinema is more available than ever. Emerging writers, directors and producers know waiting for that big break and ‘being discovered’ by a Hollywood studio rarely applies today. Young filmmakers all over the world are making movies for themselves with the public in mind.
Shoe string budgets are behind many of the surprise successes of the past decade, like Florian von Donnersmarck’s gripping cold war Stasi thriller The Lives of Others. Importantly these films risk assuming the intelligence of an audience. They are smart enough to recognise that audiences are not stupid. A gripping story well told is always going to work for many. No matter whether its told in German or Japanese. Directors working outside of Hollywood are counting on audiences to go with them into locales, dialects, concepts and cultures they may not understand. In a globalised market, traits of ‘strangeness’ and difference can have wide commercial appeal. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” – a slow vivid uncompromising ghost story – won the Palm D’Or last year. Pedro Costa’s punishing pin-drop documentary-like films are amongst the highest artistic achievements in cinema this decade and online film lovers have turned the obscure 7 hour long Hungarian peasant comedy Satantango into a hip gallery must-see.
These foreign films and film-makers stay true to authentic social life. There is no compromise. As great as he was, there is something funny about Matt Damon’s accent in Invictus (or Di Caprio in Blood Diamond). Directors in mainstream Hollywood are beginning to see the value of the emerging markets, not only as a revenue stream, but an aesthetic guide. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed for example was actually adapted from Andy Lau’s Hong Kong excitable thriller Infernal Affairs.
You know the star system is sputtering out when pairing Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in a glitzy thriller is met with a global shrug. Their accountants must be shitting themselves. Fan boy directors increasingly want local stars outside the Hollywood machine. Tarantino cast Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill – a little known Martial Arts B-cinema legend outside of Asia.
But Hollywood proved this decade how virtually unlimited its budgets still are. A $100m production budget is now fairly standard at the top end. Foreign films seldom skirt those numbers so the Co-production model remains essential for getting that risky project off the ground. David Lynch has not been funded by Hollywood for decades (relying entirely on European financing). Jean Pierre Jeunet’s big arthouse hit Amelie starring a young Audrey Tatou was a successful co-production between France and Germany. But nobody has benefited more from the rise in popularity of foreign films than Latin American filmmakers.
With a population of over 2 billion people, most of whom speak Spanish, you’d think cross border appeal across the continent would guarantee success. But Latin American audiences can barely afford health care and prefer watching soccer than buying a movie ticket.
Latin directors, dreaming of the kind of cross-over success of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, achieved entirely on his own terms, often use non actors to cut costs – and it has inadvertently added to the vital sense of immediacy of new South American cinema. Amores Perros is a good example. Its multiple narrative sees different sets of characters (from different social classes) brought together by a car accident. The way the characters are played suggests a realism months of rehearsals with established actors could hardly match. Latin American directors also refuse to be confined by genre rules. The wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro mixes political fable and pubescent fantasy to tell the story of Ofelia and her family during the Spanish Civil war. Its use of CGI enhances its world instead of detracting from the storyline as is typical of many fantasy films. It grossed over $90 million and won three well-deserved Oscars.
Foreign language films are more likely to address socio political issues in a brave and telling way. Directors are edging towards stories of post-911 societies in conflict, given how wars and protest have defined American Empire. Paradise Now follows a pair of suicide bombers, taking us into their increasingly fractured psychological state. For a film about the urgency of Palestinian emancipation, it was surprising how widely this film was accepted. Not entirely in the United States though. Despite having won the Golden globe for Best Foreign Language film, there were protests outside theatres. It was shot in Israel so the film-makers were used to difficult conditions. Paradise Now opened the way for other Arab-Israeli hits like the dreamily affecting animated feature Waltz with Bashir and Salt of This Sea.
Foreign directors, less hampered by stockholder returns, are more likely to explore extremes from the absurd to the disturbed. Argentinean master Lucrecia Martel made The Headless Woman in 2008, a perfectly executed study of amnesia and corrupt bourgeois values, that sees a dentist drop into denial when she runs over something (or someone) and flees the scene. It’s an assured film exposing how privilege becomes a way of avoiding the world.
Asian film revels in sex and violence – making it the go-to choice for global fan boys – though often relegated in the West to B-grade status. But light martial arts flicks like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and J-Horror like The Ring isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. Korean cinema is daring and genre-busting. Pak Chan-Wook’s Old Boy – part of the Vengeance Trilogy – is a cult classic and well worth seeking out. As is Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer – easily one of the most irreverently violent films ever made. Audiences walked out of his elegant gore masterpiece Audition looking like they’d been operated on. A patron had to be hospitalised in Dublin after watching the film. Again its foreign cinema pushing the limits and bringing us the unforeseen. Michael Haneke is like Miike run through a cold European moral compressor. This cross-pollination of national cinema’s looks set to be the next big leap forward for movies. Get in on it now or you can wait for the overcapitalised Hollywood version years later.