This new year, make a resolution to watch more foreign cinema: Here are some hacks
Every day, we hear about some hot new Netflix show that we just cannot afford to miss, and it’s become harder to find the time to watch that Godard classic you’ve been meaning to catch up on.
This new year, allow me to tempt you with a relatively easy resolution, that you will watch more foreign films.
Many of you already do this, but maybe some of you have fallen out of the habit. Let’s face it: it’s tough. With the glut of entertainment options around — every day, we hear about some hot new Netflix show that we just cannot afford to miss (as of this writing, it’s the interactive movie, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) — it’s become harder to find the time to watch that Godard classic you’ve heard so much about and have been meaning to catch up on. It’s probably right there, as a DVD or a download on your computer, but every time you think you should get to it, you get distracted. That’s one of the reasons I’m grateful for this column. It forces me to keep watching foreign cinema.
Watching foreign films in a theatre (particularly during a film festival) is easy, even if the film itself is a difficult watch. There’s something about a big screen, with big sound, that draws your attention and keeps it fixed — plus, the buzziness of a festival is contagious. It makes you more invested. You hear about, say, Chung Kuo, Cina, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 220-minute documentary, made in 1972, about the working-class Chinese, and you say, “I want to watch it.” But try watching the same film at home and it’s different. It’s often impossible to give such a film — especially given that it runs 3 hours, 40 minutes — the undivided attention it needs. You keep looking at the phone. You say you’ll take a ten-minute social-media break, and find, a few hours later, that it’s time for bed.
I find I have changed, too. There was a time I’d watch a foreign film, and then watch it again on mute — so I could concentrate on the visual storytelling alone. Or I’d watch a film, head to the USIS or British Council libraries (no Internet back then) and read up about those films, and then watch them again with renewed understanding. Now, I’m lucky if I get to see a film once. But that’s certainly something I’d recommend, and you should do it this year.
Make a resolution. I will watch a foreign film once a week (or fortnight, or month).
Stick with it — and yes, there are hacks. Too arty to watch at one stretch? Try breaking it up into 30-minute chunks. Ten minutes in, and the film isn’t really grabbing you? Speed up the DVD, race through the film and get the plot, and now watch it again to really savour it.
Not really understanding what’s going on? Try reading the synopsis on Wikipedia and familiarising yourself with the narrative, so now you can focus on the how rather than the what.
Not really able to get into the aesthetic of preordained classics by François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard? Try a more recent French filmmaker like Olivier Assayas or Bruno Dumont. Don’t let anyone bully you into liking a movie, and don’t forget to reward yourself constantly.
For every “tough” foreign film you watch (say, anything by Apichatpong Weerasethakul), treat yourself to a film whose rhythms you are more familiar with, a film that has suspense and action and checks a lot of your “entertainment” boxes (say, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy).
The point is that it shouldn’t become a chore, the cinematic equivalent of a guilty helping of broccoli, because you’ve been junking on films from Hollywood or Bollywood or Kollywood or whichever mainstream, commercial industry you prefer.
One trick I sometimes use to keep things interesting is to watch the Hollywood remake and then watch the foreign original (or vice versa). Watch The Magnificent Seven (1960) and then watch Seven Samurai. Watch Purple Noon, René Clément's 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, and then watch the lusher, more sentimental Anthony Minghella version of the novel. Watch David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and then watch the Swedish original from 2009. Watch Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (2002) and then watch Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle (1969). And compare notes about how the passage of time, the evolution of filmmaking technique, societal values, the director’s sensibilities, and a host of other factors (including box-office considerations, for Hollywood directors are much more commerce-minded than the French New Wave filmmakers like Chabrol) influence how the same story is told.
Why is this important? If you say you just seek entertainment and are happy with whatever pops up while channel-flipping or as a Netflix recommendation, then of course, please go ahead — this article is not for you.
But if you are interested in cinema, if you want to expand your horizons of art, then you should try and make this effort, if only to snap out of your comfort zone. This can be achieved through books, too, but finishing a novel takes a lot more time. For the two-odd hours it takes to watch a foreign film, you give your senses a workout. It’s like learning a new language. It sharpens how you think — not just about cinema, but about the world.
Then again, before the Internet, “learning about the world outside” was reason enough to watch foreign cinema. But now, it’s more. It’s about making peace with the fact that not everything is about instant gratification. It’s about learning to slow down and breathe a different way. Happy 2019, all.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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Clément’s version of The Talented Mr Ripley, released in 1960, was called Purple Noon, though its French title, Plein soleil (full sun), is far more descriptive of the film’s technique