Do We Cut Foreign Films Too Much Slack?

February 28, 2012 — 15 Comments

I just watched the Japanese animated film, Summer Wars. I was interested in it largely because of strong word-of-mouth as well as the fact that it’s directed by Mamoru Hosoda. In 2006, Hosoda directed  The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which in my opinion is one of the best animated films of all time. It’s also one of the best, most insightful time travel films I’ve ever seen. To say I was disappointed by Summer Wars would be an understatement. It’s quite bad as far as I’m concerned, and I fail to understand why it’s considered in any way good.

The animation and design are decent at best. The story is full of contrivances. The set-up of the film’s world is entirely illogical and displays a complete misunderstanding of how the Internet and modern technology operate. I’m convinced that if the animation style had been American and the film was released by Disney it would have been mostly crapped on for all these reasons. Instead, it’s seen as a cool, stylish animated film for “adults” from a country that actually respects the art of animation. Is it possible that we in North America simply cut foreign films like Summer Wars a bit too much slack?

First, let me describe Summer Wars in a bit more detail. The film is set in the present, maybe a couple of years advanced. The Internet has essentially been replaced by an avatar-based, Second Life-like system called OZ. In the real world, a teenager named Kenji is goes with a girl named Natsuki to her grandmother’s 90th birthday party. It’s a big family event and there are tons of characters to keep track of. While there, somebody lets loose an AI bot within OZ that begins stealing avatars, eventually threatening to destroy the world by virtue of OZ being connected to every system on the planet. Basically, it’s a lot like the plot of Die Hard 4, only it actually makes less sense and full of even more idiotic plot contrivances.

One example of such a contrivance is when Natsuki’s idiot second-cousin steals huge blocks of ice being used to cool a giant supercomputer being used to do anime-style battle with and trap the AI bot. Just as they’ve got it trapped, the supercomputer heats up, melting the motherboards and freeing the bot. Why did the cousin steal the ice? Well, he decided he wanted to keep his now dead grandmother’s corpse cool. Did he not realize that ice was serving a function important to global security? I guess not. Why did he steal the ice at that particular moment? Because the plot needed it to happen. Did the plot really need it to happen? No, but I guess they needed the film to go on for 15 or 20 more minutes.

Maybe I’m off base on this, but I seriously believe that if the plot machinations I just described had occurred in a Hollywood film, critics would be deriding the film as childishly written garbage. Which leads me to wonder, are people just cutting Summer Wars slack? And if so, why? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the film being foreign.

Part of why I think this might be true is due to our false perception of foreign cultures. We see a movie like Summer Wars, and though a lot of it makes no sense and much of it is plainly stupid, we take the position that this is the product of a foreign culture with different traditions and styles of storytelling. There may be some truth to this. Japanese animated films are often extremely complicated, and almost always rely on wild tonal shift and plot contrivances. It’s very possible that to really appreciate these films you must be acclimatized to the culture they come from. I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse, though. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has wild tonal fluctuations and a few minor plot contrivances, but the story flows well and it never feels stupid. There’s a difference between accepting a foreign style of storytelling and ignorantly cutting bad foreign films slack.

Another area where I think this comes into play is in standard genre fare. Take, for example, the Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and got plenty of critical accolades. It’s a slick film with some great camerawork, and I really enjoyed it. But it really isn’t a great film by any means. It’s well made, but it’s totally typical genre stuff. The film is overly long and there’s a love story that takes up far too much time. It relies on a shocking twist, that while quite shocking and grotesque, is hardly different from other, better films, including many American ones. But for whatever reason, the film got praised as something greater than it is. The fact that it was foreign somehow made it more special for some reason. It’s not just another American thriller. This one is from another country! Isn’t it impressive that they could make something this entertaining while still having subtitles across the bottom of the screen?

Then there are other areas where I often feel people give foreign films too much credit. The biggest is the acting. Performances in foreign films are often praised, and I have praised them myself. Still, I often wonder whether that’s right. So much of a modern speaking performance comes down to thinks like verbal intonation, and when you don’t understand the language, how can you properly gauge something like that? For all I know, the performance I thought was great came off as silted to people who understood the original language.

And then there are times when I think people really do give actors too much credit. Noomi Rapace, for example, was fine in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but her character was hardly dimensional. The way I saw it, Rapace did little more than wear make-up and carry an angry expression on her face for the entire film. Sure, it made the character into something of a super-cool badass, but it’s nothing people like Sly Stallone weren’t doing back in the 80s. Meanwhile, in the American remake, Rooney Mara, who was also deservedly praised, actually earned the praise she got. Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander was one filled with range and nuance. She felt less iconic, but much more like a real, living human being with great virtues and even greater flaws.

It’s possible I’m completely wrong about this, but I do think I’m onto something. I do think that in the same way people often cut tiny indie movies a little slack because they lack resources, people also cut foreign films slack for being “foreign”. Maybe that doesn’t explain why people rated Summer Wars so highly, but I’d like to think there’s a reasonable explanation. And not all slack is a bad thing. Many foreign films—last year’s The Skin I Live In, for example—are heavy on melodrama, which people are much more accepting of than in American films these days. More often than not, though, I feel like cinephiles are essentially dumbing it down, assuming “foreign” automatically means “better than Hollywood”.

Do you sometimes fall prey to this issue? Do you disagree that it’s an issue at all? Let me know. I’d love to hear some other opinions on this.

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15 responses to Do We Cut Foreign Films Too Much Slack?

  1. 

    I think I probably give foreign actors too little credit BECAUSE I can’t appreciate the full depth of the performance across language barriers. I don’t just assume it is great. In the case of Rapace, I think you are selling her terribly short.

    As to giving foreign films a free pass? Well, I certainly allow Bollywood films to be Bollywood films, which is to say there’s a simplicity and cheesiness in the plotting that if it were done in an American film would be painful, but when done in the context of how Bollywood makes films is successful. Maybe this is wrong, some form of bigotry of lowered expectations, but the film in that case is serving what I want out of it when I go for a Bollywood film. As for Summer Wars, it’s an animated science FICTION. Its world doesn’t have to operate just like ours and indeed the film goes out of its way to be absurd.

    As for The Secret In Their Eyes, that’s just not a very good film and I’m not sure the love it got has anything to do with it being foreign. “People” love not very good American films all the time.

    • 

      I don’t think it’s so much about giving these films a free pass. I don’t think most people do that. But there can be a thin line between rightly acknowledging the differences in styles between cultures and accepting poorer work, or work you don’t actually like just because it’s foreign. And my problem with the world of Summer Wars wasn’t that it wasn’t realistic, but that it followed no logic and made no sense within the rules it initially set up. I wasn’t able to buy into the world, fictional or not.

  2. 

    Considering how few non-English language film actually get any substantial degree of attention by American movie-lovers, I don’t think there is all that much slack being cut at all. When you look at bloggers’ top ten lists at the end of each year, you’re lucky if you see five different foreign films pop up here and there. For 2011, you have The Skin I Live In, The Artist (which is a borderline case anyway), A Separation, and maybe I Saw the Devil and 13 Assassins. Are these the only foreign language films of 2011 that deserve attention? Were there not more great films made in the entire world that could have used more love? But then there’s a difference between being seen/talked about and being liked. Your post deals with the latter.

    I can’t comment much on the specific films you mentioned as I haven’t seen them, save for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Being Swedish myself, the thing that struck me about that film was how American it felt. To me, it was a typical – if well-made – Hollywood thriller that just happened to be set in Sweden and with Swedish actors. Of course, it wasn’t a Hollywood film, but I’m certainly not surprised that it got attention and approval from Americans. As long as you’re not allergic to subtitles, there’s no reason why that film should feel alien to you. Like Bondo above, I too think you’re not giving Rapace enough credit for her performance. She certainly impressed me more than Rooney Mara did. Am I biased due to my nationality? I don’t think so, but who knows?

    Am I guilty of judging films differently depending on what country they’re from? I’d like to think that I’m not, but a semi-recent example leads me to think otherwise. I watched the French comedy Ruby & Quentin (Tais-toi!) a while ago. It’s very silly and kind of harmless, but I certainly liked it and found myself laughing a fair bit. But I also know that if the same film had been made by Swedes, I would probably have found it square and lame, like something aimed towards my parents. But then there’s always a lot of suspicion and automatic derision towards Swedish films by Swedes in my demographic. American pop-culture is everywhere in my country these days, to the point where US entertainment is the norm. Swedish stuff often feels too familiar. We want to be whisked away and escape from our everyday surroundings when we opt for films, TV shows and otherwise. We don’t want to envelope ourselves in it further. Somehow, I think Ruby & Quentin tapped into that bias when I watched it.

    What you said about judging foreign acting is pretty much what I’ve felt for a while. I find it so hard to actually say what’s good and what isn’t, due to exactly the things you mention: so much subtlety and nuances are inevitably lost when you don’t understand the language and culture present. A downcast glance during a conversation might imply one thing in the US, a different thing in Japan, a third in Spain, a fourth in Iran, etcetera. How can we possibly critique these things one way or another? Some foreign performances stand out all the same, but that tends to be when they play more visually than verbally. I’m thinking of internationally loved turns like Audrey Tautou in Amélie, whose every emotion can be read clear as day on her face, which suits the movie so well. But you can’t have a performance like that in, say, a quiet pot-burner of a political thriller. That requires low-key subtlety. For these kind of roles, it seems like we trust other people more than ourselves. If enough people say it’s good, we assume it must be and fill in the blanks of what we don’t understand with the established opinion, as well as make excuses for what seems strange to us.

    So how do we handle this in the best way? I don’t know. Just try to like what we like and be honest with ourselves, I guess. Nobody knows everything in the world. If we don’t understand something, we have to admit this. While it would be nice to able to judge any film objectively and unbiased for what it is no matter what country it’s from, this is a pipe dream. When I see a film like La Haine, I know it means something different to me than it does to a French person. And my experience with In the Mood For Love is different to the experience a Chinese had with it. We might like to think that cinema is something that transcends Earthly language barriers, but I don’t think it fully does.

    • 

      Wow! Great comment. You make excellent points, and I want to make clear that I don’t mean to call into question the honesty of people’s opinions. I feel like these things are slightly subconscious. You are completely right about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for example, but I think that’s a great example of a film that’s basically very American and has a lot of serious problems, but it seemed like the foreign-ness of it made American critics go gaga, calling it one of the best of the year. I feel like if it had been the same film but in English and directed by an American studio it would have gotten slightly less positive reaction. Still positive, maybe, but not with as high accolades.

      I spoke with some people at our blogger meetup tonight about this and one of them made an interesting point though. Maybe for a Swede the film wouldn’t be all that interesting, but being from another country makes the setting of Dragon Tattoo inherently more interesting. It’s different and unique and thus the film becomes more engaging. That’s a perfectly honest reaction to have, but it’s interesting that we would have it at all.

  3. 

    I don’t think foreign films are given much slack at all. In fact, American films are given much slack seeing as so many crappy movies are considered good and are Oscar nominated. For me, for a foreign film to be good, the actors/actresses have to give a stellar performance because for the most part facial expressions and body language are universal. Sadness, happiness, anger, frustration, are generally expressed the same. Tone of voice also conveys emotion regardless of language. So if I am able to understand what you’re saying and it’s believable plus you’re not speaking my native language, then the film is doing it’s job.

    Summer Wars was a fun romp. I did not find it as enjoyable as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time but it should definitely not be overrated. As the other responses stated, Rapace did a great job. She brought the character to life and was exactly as I pictured her to be and look like based off the book. Interesting perspective.

    • 

      Yeah, I think I’m slagging on Rapace a bit more than I should. She was excellent at doing what she did, but I don’t think the performance was very nuanced. She basically had two or three modes, which is fine, but I think Mara brought a whole new level to the character.

      I don’t think the Oscars are a good judge of critical opinion, which is somewhat what I’m talking about. Foreign films don’t make money in American and don’t win Oscars outside their category, but I think among critics and cinephiles they are sometimes not examined as closely and flaws are often brushed over. I don’t think this happens with every person on every film, but I do think it happens sometimes, and I think that’s an interesting thing. What causes that?

  4. 

    Some of the comments so far are right in the sense that, in the general picture, foreign pictures hardly get any shake at all in the public American consciousness. However, I do think there’s a tendency among those who actually DO get to see some foreign fare to not necessarily overlook things but to perceive them a certain way.

    For one thing, there’s an inherent novelty to foreign films that I think makes them feel fresher than they might be. One French comedy might feel so utterly unlike what gets put out here. Watch enough, though, and they start to feel as cookie-cutter as the “Apatow” movie.

    I couldn’t agree more about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Whenever someone says they find the Swedish version superior to Fincher’s, I wonder if they have any interest at all in direction, writing, thematic development, atmosphere, editing, or basically just the concept of “cinema” in general. I also don’t think that Rapace, talented as she is, brought half the amount of intensity as Mara. Rapace’s Lisbeth felt too much like we were meant to see her as an icon. Mara is just full-on batshit, which gets the character, frankly, better than even the author. If anything, Fincher’s version feels like what we might imagine the European version to be, while the tamer, more morally simplistic Swedish version fits more with what we expect of American movies. But the Swedish one feels different, it has that inherent “authenticity” which can make it seem so striking.

    But really, when it comes to foreign movies, I think we subconsciously ready ourselves to love it because we’re naturally predisposed to getting the best anyway. You live in Toronto so you at least have a festival where some foreign hopefuls can be seen, but for someone like me who has only the occasional theatrical showing and, often, torrents, the options have been narrowed to the films that won Berlinale, Cannes, TIFF, what have you. As it stands, I’ll likely never see the crap Chinese films we all know exist (you can’t have an industry that huge, or that censored, without some real nonsense) because I’ll only ever hear about maaaaaybe five or six Chinese films from a given year and I will get to see one within the same year if I’m lucky.

    Ergo, I, like many, lack the frame of reference for a truly good Chinese movie, or Iranian movie, or Spanish movie or what have you. I’ve rarely seen a foreign film I’ve disliked, because everything I’ve seen has gone through so many unofficial quality controls that I’m left only with a trove of consensus favorites, be it classics like Kurosawa or new films like A Separation or Dogtooth. I think that can have an effect, however subliminal. If the cinephile who relies on Criterion and Kino out of desperate necessity, will a foreign film have an inherent weight that an American film won’t? I think so.

    • 

      You bring up a really interesting point, which is that maybe we’re trained to think foreign films must generally be of higher quality or artistry because most of the ones we see are the high-minded artistic ones. Those are the films that make it across borders. Comedies don’t often cross borders because of subtle language differences being crucial to comedy. Standard genre fare is often dismissed at home and distributors here don’t pick them up (often opting to remake them instead, a la Contraband).

      One of the problems with this is that when all you ever see is the good stuff then you get a skewed idea of what foreign films are and what kinds of films come from various regions. We all know American cinema well, both the good and the bad, so it’s easier for us to sort out what truly is great by comparison. That isn’t really the case with foreign cinema. We only get “the highest quality” and so we have become trained to think that even if what we’re seeing is basically no better than a trashy American thriller, it must somehow be better because foreign films are better. We have this in the back of our minds and it might cause us to read greatness into the films when we might not otherwise be doing that.

  5. 

    I’m not really an animation person, so I can’t comment specifically on this film or animation in general, but I think I a lot of people definitely cut foreign films some slack in many regards. Honestly I might even be making a different point than you are, but here goes:

    About 10 years ago I went to my hometown’s art cinema to watch a French movie (I can’t remember which movie it was, though; I was watching about three movies a week there at that time, so all the films kind of jumbled together), and before the movie started, a couple behind me kept deriding “unsophisticated” American movies for their unnecessarily vulgar humor. Then, when the French movie we were watching had a scene with vulgar toilet humor, the couple behind me laughed the hardest. Apparently it’s not vulgar if its in French.

    • 

      This is basically exactly what I’m getting at and I’ve experienced the same thing many times. I don’t always think it’s so conscious or snobby as what you describe, but it’s the same idea. And what you bring up about how people who consider themselves as sophisticated look at Hollywood films is spot on. It’s not just that people see foreign films as being automatically more sophisticated, but also that very few American films can actually be sophisticated too.

  6. 

    This argument came up before, back when Wong Kar Wai’s english-language My Blueberry Nights opened up. Critics wondered if his dreamy poetry didn’t work verbally. That it needed that barrier of being in a foreign language.

    Also I remember people praising the performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but people who speak Mandarin thought the mostly Cantonese cast was terrible.

    • 

      I haven’t seen My Blueberry Nights, but I do know that in both Hong Kong and Japanese films there is a tendency towards bluntness in poetry or song. For example, in The Secret World of Arrietty there are a bunch of songs dubbed into English, and the lyrics are clearly translated from the original Japanese, and there is no subtlety to them at all. It’s lyrics describing what you’re watching without any artistry. Now, maybe in the original language these songs are at least a bit more artful, but I doubt that they are too much better. It’s just a stylistic thing there and it’s something I was able to ignore and thus cut come slack. But I acknowledge that if those songs had been in an American film I might complain about how bad they are in a review. So maybe with Wong Kar Wai it isn’t so much that his poetry doesn’t work verbally, but that it comes off as way too blunt and unusual for an English film.

  7. 

    I don’t agree with you about Rapace vs Mara. Mara was too young, to much of a child. I think Rapace was far better. But you already know my view on that.

    I think I probably give foreign movies a green card easier than with Swedish ones. This include English language movies, which are foreign to me. The problem with movies in your native tongue is that you’re far more sensitive to nuances. For instance in the case of She Monkeys, which has gotten some international acclaim, I thought the acting was absolutley terrible. But I think it might be harder to tell for someone who isn’t from Sweden.

  8. 

    I think you raise some interesting points Corey. I work at a cinema, and whenever we get a French comedy (pretty regularly) all of the regulars come out praising it. “Better than those vile American ones” they say. A couple of times I have gone to check it out (Women on the 6th Floor is one example) and sure, it is sweet, charming and funny at times, but certainly nothing special. Yet, because it is ‘different’ it appears to be fresh – and one can easily overlook the flaws.

    Within the small range of foreign films that hit cinemas in Australia, most of them are over-praised. It is rare you see one get panned as much as an American (or English language) film. Are these the best in world cinema for that year? I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so. But they do get off a little leniently.

    Also, could not agree with you more about DRAGON TATTOO. I thought Mara brought a great deal more to the character, and while I thought Rapace was good too, I never got into the Swedish trilogy. I didn’t feel like she was a compelling central character. She was a tough nut to crack. She was too intense and rarely opened up, and I found it hard to like her at all. Mara’s Lisbeth is just as badass, but also cool and entertaining. Zaillian and Fincher understand that the film is called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is Lisbeth’s story, not mostly Blomqvist with a bit of Lisbeth. Hers was my favourite female performance of the year, and I think Fincher’s version is infinitely better. I did wonder why the original was so praised, because I didn’t find it to be a particularly strong film at all.

    Nice write up.

  9. 

    great points altogether, you simply gained a brand new reader.

    What may you recommend about your post that you made some days ago?
    Any certain?

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