I don’t write as much about films these days, as I was recently reminded on another blog. Partly, this is because I watch fewer films than I once did, but it is also because more exposure to blogging has made me realise that many other film-dedicated bloggers do it better. Despite posting occasional reviews in the ‘Just been watching…’ series of posts, I have generally restricted my writing about film and cinema to longer articles, submitted for publication on other sites. As I get older, I also become increasingly intolerant of the countless remakes of films, both good and bad ones, that seems to me to typify the laziness of the mainstream film industry. I also have no time for blockbuster epics, comic-book franchises, and the seemingly endless series of fantasy films that pack the cinemas and rack up new box office records on a monthly basis.
However, that is just me. I am not suggesting that they are bad films, or that those watching and enjoying them are somehow unworthy. It is simply a change of preference, driven by previously unimagined marketing and promotional skills in part admittedly, but it is what it is. Social Media has changed many aspects of modern life, and has also impacted on film and cinema too. Although I may not have welcomed or embraced that change, I completely accept it. And of course, it is nothing new. Over the decades, tastes have changed, and the films I enjoyed in my teens might be regarded as classics now, but were often derided at the time. Compared to the current use of CGI, the special effects used in films of the 1960s and 1970s seem almost quaint now.
My own sanctuary was generally to restrict much of my viewing to foreign films. By foreign, I refer to those films made in a language other than English, and requiring subtitles to understand the plot. I often sat in a cinema in London, able to count the other patrons on the fingers of one hand, as we enjoyed the latest war film from Russia, or revelled in the complexities of a German film from the likes of Fassbinder. My VHS collection once boasted an unusually high percentage of films from countries as obscure as Argentina, and as European mainstream as Spain. I sat through all night showings of films about the Russian Revolution, and made difficult journeys across greater London to catch the latest Chabrol, in some tiny run-down cinema I had never heard of. Membership of the National Film Theatre was a must, for most of my adult life. This introduced me to the work of directors I had never heard of, from countries that I didn’t even know had a film industry.
I was a member of a minority, even then. Subtitles are notoriously unpopular with many film fans, even today. Some people would sooner sit through a scene by scene remake in English, as in ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, than subject themselves to having to watch the original with subtitles. In some cases, dubbing has been used to replace the original language, in an effort to attract more customers into a cinema to watch a film. A good example of this is the German classic war film ‘Das Boot'(1981).
I went to see this in central London, and was appalled to find it was being shown in a dubbed version. It didn’t sound right, and just didn’t feel right. Fortunately, the BBC picked up the full length version, and showed it in the original language on TV.
Once DVD had replaced VHS as the preferred format, life got a lot easier. Menu options allowed for subtitles to be on or off, and offered different versions of endings, as well as comprehensive extras in many cases. Foreign films started to become more accepted, and even got a new name, World Cinema. TV review shows began talking about films from India, Iran, Chile, Mexico, and China. Suddenly it seemed that everyone realised that talent and innovation existed outside of the English-speaking film industry in America and the UK. Then the ping-pong of remakes began to rear its ugly head. Canny producers took films that had received critical acclaim in Europe or elsewhere, and began to make versions in English, generally with different actors of course. They often took liberties with the scripts and plots, and regularly changed the endings too. ‘Nikita’, and ‘The Vanishing’ are two examples of this, both of which enraged me at the time.
This went both ways, unfortunately. Foreign film-makers found some popular films were making big money in the original English, and decided to have a go at remaking them, or an approximation of them, in their own countries. European directors were lured across the Atlantic to repeat their own success, with a cast speaking English, often in near-identical versions of their own film. Pretty soon, I was finding it increasingly difficult to work out what World Cinema was anymore. Was it a foreign director making a film in English, or an American remake of a European success? Fortunately, it still existed. I just had to look for it. Films from Argentina, Russia, Germany, and many other countries that had been left alone. They were just what they were, never remade, still with subtitles, and as entertaining and unusual as ever.
So here are just a few recommendations. After all, it wouldn’t be a post about films without some, would it? Grit your teeth and bear the subtitles. You will be rewarded with excellence.
A modern thriller from China. Very realistic.
An overwhelming Russian war film. You will never forget it.
A delightful film about a man and his dog. Far better than it sounds.
An Oscar-winning classic from Germany. Film making of the highest order.
A police thriller from Korea. As good as they get.