Monday, February 17, 2020

Watch Your Language: Your Guide to Subtitled Cinema

by Rosalie Lewis
The first non-English language film I ever saw was purchased from a rotating wire rack of “Pre-played” VHS at a grocery store in Colville, Washington for $9.97. It starred Robert Benigni and it had just won a bunch of Oscars. Yes, you guessed it: La Vita e Bella, aka Life Is Beautiful. I watched it probably five times in the next year, and while I have no idea if I would still feel as moved by it today, at the time it felt revolutionary to me.

I wish I could say that I immediately started voraciously consuming any and all subtitled cinematic fare, but truthfully I wasn’t lured back to the world of non-English language movies until I stumbled onto Run Lola Run a few years later as a college student. Now that movie changed me, y’all. I dyed my hair a very bright shade of red and made my roommate Lindsey cut it to loosely resemble Franka Potente’s cool as hell tresses. I went around telling everyone to watch it (sorry not sorry) and immediately catapulted it into my top 3 of all time (the other two were Fight Club and Donnie Darko, duh). When I realized how exciting and unexpected world cinema could be, I never looked back. My next obsession was Pan’s Labyrinth, my first theatrical experience of a subtitled movie, and I of course gobbled up Amelie and City of God shortly thereafter thanks to my local library.
All of this preamble to say, when Bong Joon-Ho took the stage at the Golden Globes and encouraged audiences to “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” because “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” I cheered extra loud. Not just because I love Bong and his films (do I ever), but because I wish that every time I heard someone bemoaning the state of the movie industry and how it’s all superheroes and remakes and there’s nothing original out there, I just want to Clockwork Orange them into a specially curated movie marathon of international movies that prove originality is alive and well outside of Hollywood.

I’m hopeful that Parasite’s unstoppable appeal will raise audience interest in other cinema where reading is fundamental. In case you want a little inspiration in that direction yourself, I’m here to share some of my favorite discoveries. I’d love to know yours!

To start, let’s calibrate to your taste. That’s how to make this feel less like homework and more like an extra helping of dessert.

If you like: Julie and Julia or romantic movies with unconventional plot resolutions

Try: The Lunchbox
This movie makes me hungry, makes me sigh, and makes me wish Irrfan Khan starred in as many movies as Adam Driver and Florence Pugh did last year. Set in India, the story begins when a food delivery goes awry. A homemade lunch a woman named Ila (Nimrat Kaur) makes for her husband goes to a man named Saajan (Khan) instead, along with her handwritten note. This mix-up leads to a correspondence between the two, as well as many more mouth-watering home cooked lunches. I dare you to watch it and not immediately want to order food afterward.

If you like: All the President’s Men or Aaron Sorkin at his most upbeat moments

Try: No
You may recognize director Pablo Larrain’s name, because he directed Jackie a few years ago. Before that, he made this energetic and vibrant political comedy about the efforts to defeat Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Most of the story centers on a young advertising genius who isn’t afraid to try some new tactics to persuade the people to vote for a change. You’ll be pleased to know Gael Garcia Bernal plays this role with all the charisma you probably already love.

If you like: Pitch Perfect, Sing Street, or movies about rebellious teenage girls

Try: Linda Linda Linda
Doona Bae may be a familiar face if you’ve ventured into Korean cinema by way of the aforementioned Bong Joon-Ho or Oldboy’s Park Chan-Wook. She appears in both The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. She’s also in several Wachowski sisters projects, including Cloud Atlas and Sense 8. In this movie, she plays an exchange student living in Japan who gets recruited to join an all-girl rock band as they prepare for a talent show. When she’s not rehearsing, she’s rebuffing the affections of a male classmate and giving advice to her new bandmates. It’s all a super fun time, and the music consists primarily of covers songs by Japanese punk band Blue Hearts, as well as some instrumental tracks by James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame.

If you like: Captain Phillips or other movies involving hostages and tense negotiation

Try: A Hijacking
This came out the same year as the Tom Hanks film, but with all respect to Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, A Hijacking is the captain now. This is the definition of a thriller. Tense, suspenseful, exciting, and completely engrossing. The story switches back and forth between the guys on the boat that has been overtaken by pirates and the CEO back in Denmark who has hired a professional negotiator to try and cut a deal for their release. Just writing these few sentences makes me want to revisit it. So good.

If you like: Enemy by Denis Villeneuve or anything involving doppelgangers and parallel universes

Try: The Double Life of Veronique
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film is filled with so many beautiful images and sequences you’ll wish you were back on Tumblr so you could post gifs from it for all your followers to admire. It’s a mysterious film about a girl in France and a girl in Poland whose lives are different but they are played by the same actress and appear to be either doppelgangers or the product of some kind of multiverse. It’s a film about identity and yearning and music and love and things we can’t understand but we can feel. Thinking about it makes me want to board a train and go out searching for my shadow.

Alright. That’s enough to get you started. Check back for future installments of this column where I review or recommend even more subtitled cinema.


  1. I was really taken with the French comedies The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jakob (which finally got a US release) and The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (and sequel). Never saw the Tom Hanks remake.

    1. I haven't seen those but now I am adding them to my list!

  2. So many of the great films in the history of cinema were not shot in English. I have particularly loved delving into French, Italian and Japanese cinema since the 1990s.

    These films have stuck with over the years.

    Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) - Czech
    Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1971)- German
    The 400 Blows (1959)- French
    Fat Girl (2001)- French
    Kwaidan (1964)- Japanese
    The Mirror (1974)- Russian

    1. Valerie is really weird film, but it's so worth it

    2. It's been at least a decade since I've watched KWAIDAN. Same with 400 BLOWS and FAT GIRL. Thanks for reminding me! Patrick and I watched ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL for one of our "Shelf Life" pieces, and we really, really liked it. I'll have to find the other two you mentioned! Thanks!

    3. Valerie is awesome and bizarre all at once! I adore The 400 Blows. The rest on this list I still need to see! I'm quite looking forward to them.

    4. Creating a list like yours is not easy, Rosalie. I had so many titles come into my thoughts putting mine together that narrowing the options down was difficult.

      As a fan of the darker side of fairy tales, VALERIE naturally appeals to me. The theme of innocence encountering corruption and ugliness is handled beautifully in it.

      THE 400 BLOWS was my introduction to French cinema and to foreign language films in general. The dynamism of the acting and filmmaking was a revelation to me at 19. Though I wanted to avoid famous films in the list, I could not leave out The 400 Blows.

      Thank you for reminding me that ALI was featured in one of the Shelf Life pieces, Erika. There were a few Fassbinder films that came into my head, but that one is the perfect introduction to his work.

  3. This is great, Rosalie! *Running to my shelves/a store/a streaming service now

  4. As a German, subtitled movies became normal for me since I started to watch nearly exclusively in the original language. There are obviously a lot of great Asian films out there. From a German language perspective, I would like to throw in movies like the following:
    - M (1931)
    - It Happened In Broad Daylight (1958)
    - World On A Wire (1973)
    - Fitzcarraldo (1982)
    - The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
    - The Dark Valley (2014)

    Obviously, there are a lot more. We also have some probably weird but maybe interesting tics, like the "Edgar Wallace" movies, which are based on the American author, but were produced in Germany, starting with the 1959th "Frosch mit der Maske" (37 movies followed).

    As an extra, I would like to give a shout out to Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill, two Italian actors who became overly popular in Germany, due to their 18 movies together (spanning from 1959 to 1994) and their great and inspired German synchronization (I know, off-topic here).

    1. Great recommendations, Derk! I love M, the others on your list I definitely need to watch.

    2. I have enjoyed German cinema over the years, Derk.

      I guess a giallo like What Have You Done to Solange? is the closest I have come to watching a krimi (those Edgar Wallace films). It is disappointing to me that Europe no longer produced large quantities of genre films.

    3. What Have You Done To Solange is incredible! I watched it during a Junesploitation a couple years ago, thinking it would be a run of the mill Giallo, ie. a mystery with some nudity and weird stuff thrown in. But it was one of the best things I watched that month.

    4. True, despite the lackluster DTV/S-action-flicks. But sometimes, there are glimpses of the greater past (only in a cinematic way). e.g. the French/Mexican/Swiss movie Knife+Heart is somewhat a dream for Giallo fans, without even being one truly.

  5. Great article and thanks for the recommendations.

    My first subtitled movie was Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, which I borrowed the VHS from the library as a teen (or tween?). I kept renewing it until my renewal limit was reached. Then I returned it and immediately borrowed it again. I don't remember exactly what age I was, but young enough I was still fantasizing about being a explorer, and travelling to the jungle.

    From there, I got shipped to my little library a bunch of Herzog's other early films. It was a very small library in the country, but part of a network which included a major city, so I could get whatever I wanted. Good times. The interlibrary loan system also allowed me to get my hands on every Beatles and Stones LP's which I recorded onto cassette. I loved that library.

    1. Thanks for reading, Paul! Glad to see you share my love of libraries. ;)

      Aguirre is an incredible film! What a way to get acquainted with international movies!

  6. Oh, before this thread falls down and ends up in eternity. I want to stress out the Chinese movie Ash (Zhui zong - 2017). If you somehow can get a hand on this, watch it. I can't believe that this is not known better.