There is no greater testament to the importance of foreign language films than the current discussion surrounding the recent Academy Award- winning film “Parasite.” Following its historic victory as the first film to win Oscars for best foreign language film and best picture, “Parasite” has gotten the whole world talking about South Korean socio-political issues. While the growing interest in “Parasite” is great, I hope that, rather than creating an individual cultural fad, “Parasite” will instead usher in a period that will finally convince English speakers around the world to engage bilaterally in the cultural exchange of movies, to watch as many so-called “foreign language films” as the rest of the world watches blockbuster Hollywood English movies. Like music, art and literature, movies are cultural devices; they are both influenced by and create culture, and as such, they are a great way to introduce their audience to the cultures from which they are produced. This is why, in our increasingly global world, importing and watching foreign language films, similarly to importing goods, cuisines or other practices, can be a critical step to living a more cosmopolitan life and to fostering an identity of a more global citizen.
First, watching a foreign language film, like consuming any cultural artifact from a different region of the world, can introduce the viewer to a variety of perspectives. Although it can feel disconcerting to watch a subtitled foreign film for the first time, with practice, being able to enjoy these films is definitely worth the cost. For example, when I first saw “Kaze no Tani no Naushika” in highschool--or “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” as it was rebranded into English--I wasn’t sure what to make of it as a movie or piece of art. It didn’t look like American animated movies, and it didn’t feel natural to read subtitles in English as Japanese was spoken. Yet overtime, “Nausicaä” has become one of my favorite animated movies, particularly due to the story. The movie is about the destruction of war, particularly on rural life and the environment. While this idea can be seen in plenty of English movies, seeing how it is presented by a culture that saw its environment ravaged by the two atomic bombs in World War II yet still managed to rebuild itself, and the similar message that apocalyptic destruction can never be erased but can be adapted to is presented in a different way than it likely could have been had it been made in the United States, which has never seen that caliber of destruction. This makes its message feel all the more salient and genuine. Similarly, “Parasite” has introduced a lot of Americans to the politics of class and social inequality in South Korea, something that might feel at once familiar and different to an English viewer, regardless of one's stance towards capitalism or imperialism, but nonetheless, should be experienced, thought about and discussed by viewers all throughout the world.
Also important to being a global citizen is that watching movies from other countries can help the viewer not only glimpse the values and concerns of the culture that produced it but also recognize how they fit into this diverse, increasingly cosmopolitan world, specifically in terms with how much the majority of humanity shares in common. Even though one might speak a different language, one identifies with, is touched by and recognizes many of the same elements and problems that the audience who the film was linguistically intended to feel as well.
From my own life, I had an incredible example of this when I studied abroad in Hyderabad, India and made friends with a student at the university I attended who showed me many incredible movies, my favorite being “Kapoor & Sons.” Despite what some might consider to be a deceptively English-sounding title, this movie was in Hindi, and I had to watch with English subtitles. While I confess that I don’t remember that much about the plot, what I do remember was the bonding experience of watching this movie with my friend. Although the language was foreign to both of us--he spoke Assamese--the theme and conflicts that the characters struggled to overcome were familiar and deeply relatable. We stayed up late talking, venting and even crying about this movie, about the difficulties of familial conflict, both with parents and with siblings, and the overwhelming pressures and expectations that can be put upon children, elder siblings and friends, families and communities as a whole if those pressures and expectations feel impossible.
As much of the world consumes English, particularly Hollywood, movies regularly in the modern era of a more global culture, it is time for Americans to step up and make an effort to experience so-called foreign language films as well. As students, our knowledge of the world is limited, but our desire to explore is expansive, so there is no time better to explore foreign films than right now. Whether foreign language films provide a specific reader with an introduction to a unique cultural position or a reminder of the universality of human emotions and problems, as “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho said during his Golden Globes acceptance speech, once we are able to “overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles,” we will “be introduced to so many more amazing films,” and hopefully we will become more well-rounded, global citizens along the way.