When it comes to watching foreign cinema, the most common reason people will give for not watching films in a different language is the age-old ‘not wanting to bother with the subtitles’. Whether this is out of a dislike of being distracted by reading and watching at the same time, or out of a degree of laziness, plenty people miss out on some pretty fantastic films by avoiding films made in a language other than the one(s) they speak.
Another aspect of these films, however, that is less likely to be referenced as a reason for not watching is the vast cultural differences which exist from country to country, and which inevitably impact on our understanding of, say, a film made in Korea or Thailand, when we watch from a British, American, German or any non-Korean/Non-Thai perspective. Cultural differences can instantly change the way in which we read a storyline in a film and it is easy to miss certain moments, or simply assume actions of characters are personal decisions of the writer or director rather than a cultural norm in the country the film comes from.
Take The Happiness of the Katakuris (one of the films featured in our Top Ten Films You Should See But Probably Haven’t). A film made up of several different genres, the film includes countless moments where a lack of experience of Japanese culture can cause us to miss out on certain aspects of the film which would be meaningful or amusing to a Japanese audience. The karaoke-style scenes are extremely funny, and to a western audience may appear to just be another quirk of a wholly unusual film, when, in fact, they are referencing the popular seventies Japanese karaoke tradition. While we are amused, without the knowledge of Japanese cultural history, we miss out on some of the reasons why these scenes are significant to the film. The fact that the two lead actors (Kenji Sawada and Keiko Matsuzaka who play Masao and Terue Katakuri), are not only actors, but celebrated singers in Japan, again can lead an audience from a different culture to miss out on another nuance of the film.
Another example of this sort of cultural difference appears in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the third in the Vengeance Trilogy by Park Chan-Wook. This thought provoking film from South Korea includes a scene near the beginning when, as part of the trial, Geum-ja (who has been arrested for the murder of a child) is made to re-enact the crime she has supposedly committed in front of a large crowd, including not only journalists, photographers and members of the police force, but also members of the public. This scene is difficult to watch, but becomes even more meaningful when we realise that this is not simply a decision made on behalf of the director to create a chilling scene in the movie – this is a common (and often debated) practice in solving crime in South Korea. Without this knowledge, we again can miss out on why certain moments are included in a film.
That is not to say that, as an audience from another culture, we cannot enjoy or understand films made in a country outside our own. On the contrary, watching films from other cultures is a valuable experience; it is an enjoyable way to learn more about different cultures and can lead us to better understand the ways in which societies other than our own operate. Obviously this is something we have to be careful with – Takashi Miike, director of The Happiness of the Katakuris admits that when making a movie he doesn’t really think about the genre. He prefers to just make the film as he imagines it in his head, and then allow the audience to come up with different genres and ways of defining it themselves, rather than labelling his films for them. This then means that when, in the suicide scene of The Happiness of the Katakuris, Masao finds a note with the word ‘peach’ written on it, the director could simply be using a random word to highlight the futility of the Katakuris’ attempt to figure out the truth behind the man’s suicide, rather than referencing the importance of the peach as a successful Japanese crop, or the significance of the peach in ancient Japanese folklore.
Becoming overly keen to analyse a film in terms of its cultural heritage is probably not wise either. While we may not understand every aspect of the film, watching these films provides a welcome change from always watching films made in our first language. They can introduce us to cultures outside our own, and can often encourage us to do a bit of research into the ways in which other countries operate. So just remember, next time you settle down to watch a Japanese or an Iranian film, that chances are you will end up knowing more about a culture you hadn’t known much about before than you might realise.