Being reel: Language should not be a barrier to watching good movies

A woman looks off into the distance.
Watching international films can help redefine the norms of filmmaking technique, says Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25. (Courtesy: mk2 Films)

When I was a little kid who loved playing baseball, my dad would always tell me that the sport was a “game of inches” — every little moment in the game could be a close call, and so it was worth it to put every ounce of effort into the play in order to get that extra inch. As I grew up and grew out of love with baseball, instead falling in love with movies, I began to learn a new game of inches — watching foreign films.

This game of inches is a bit more literal. I had to learn to keep up with the on-screen action and keep myself attentive to the dialogue in the subtitles that were going by rapidly underneath. Film became something I actually had to pay attention to.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to argue that films in the English language are all bells and whistles. Common Twitter discourse about the supposed “inferiority” of Marvel movies and the superiority of arthouse movies that are silent, black and white, avant garde, et cetera is not a serious argument in favor of watching foreign language films. The real reason one should watch films not in the English language is because they can be a point of unity, both technically and for the audience. 

In an age when there is so much discourse about the politics of representation in the media and the formulaic nature of what Hollywood has become, looking to other countries and their media for inspiration can fill in gaps that the American cultural industry has been slow to catch up on.

One of the strongest examples of this is the interesting approaches to thematic filmmaking that are present in countries like Norway, Poland, Denmark, South Korea and Iran, among other countries. Thematic filmmaking is different from genre filmmaking in that it loops together films that do not share characters, but rather share general themes and arguments. 

The most notable of these, in my experience, have been the “Dogme 95” films originating in Denmark, “The Vengeance Trilogy” from Park Chan-wook of Korea and both “Three Colors Trilogy” and “Dekalog” by Krystztof Kieslowski. These are all examples of thematic filmmaking, but all differ in their approaches to the technical aspect, the overall themes or the way of actually telling a story.

“Dogme 95” films are limited technically, in that the camerawork must be handheld, filmed with natural light and must not credit the filmmaker, among other rules. This approach to filmmaking is an example of how experimentative democratized filmmaking became popular for public consumption (even in English-speaking places) like Thomas Vinterberg’s film “The Celebration.” 

Similarly, in South Korea, Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy follows a more straightforward thematic filmmaking pattern in terms of plot, but all three films are searing cultural commentaries on South Korea’s struggle with the fallout of a military dictatorship and the constraints of American presence in the region. These films do not shy away from criticizing capitalism, yet are not preachy. 

Finally, Kieslowski’s “Dekalog” and his “Three Colors” trilogy follow more philosophical themes. “Dekalog” follows the people inhabiting an apartment building in Warsaw, with each film following a commandment from the 10 Commandments over the course of 10 disconnected episodes. The “Three Colors Trilogy” follows three couples in France and Poland, where each film corresponds to the colors of blue, white and red, with the themes of the films matching with the French motto of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité (Liberty, Equality Fraternity). The English-speaking world, on the other hand, seems to still value the potential of profit over experimentation with the medium at large.

This is still a time where most films, both international and domestic, that experiment with technique or theme are relegated to the independent movie festival circuit, which more often than not requires them to be short due to festival guidelines. Both looking back on these foreign films and looking at current foreign films allows us to experience experimentation with the pacing of films that otherwise is not happening anymore.

This is not to say that we should yell from the rooftops “we should watch longer movies!” but we should, at least, re-examine the way we watch movies. We should sit with them and not be involved only with plot but also with when the director chooses to change perspective or what the music is making us feel. This is all heightened when we — as people who speak English as a first language — watch movies in languages other than English, because we are suddenly paying more attention to what is happening in the movie. It is not mindless. Instead, we also pay more attention to the silences, and let the action (or inaction) on screen envelop us.

What we gain from seeing foreign filmmaking as separate from American and English language filmmaking is that it changes what we should expect from a film. It is a fair desire to want to see new and interesting practices in the medium from the United States, but this desire should not limit us geographically. As Bong Joon-ho said when he won his Golden Globe for “Parasite,” “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 is from New York City. He loves movies and logs all his most recent watches on his letterboxd @Adam0k and talks about movies on his twitter @ahoyvey.

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