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World cinema, let’s face it, has never exactly drawn in the masses. There have been stand-outs in the past such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Seven Samurai by Kurosawa that successfully managed the crossover whilst screen icons like Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot enticed audiences with their, ahem, talent. On the whole, however, world cinema has been viewed as a secret delight, a small treasure that only a few know about or watch. Yet, since the turn of the century, the popularity of foreign films has received an immense boost.
So, is it that foreign films have suddenly become immediately accessible? Have the surreal, silent images and stylized scenes disappeared? Well, no, not really. You only have to see a Haneke film like Cache – incidentally so good that The Times voted it the top film of the decade – and you realize that the flair and visceral brutality is still there. And, naturally, the thing that Western audiences fear the most still lingers: the subtitles. Of course, once you actually start watching a subtitled film you don’t notice it at all but the overwhelming threat that you may actually have to multitask when watching a film has been an off-putter from the get-go.
Hollywood might have had some bearing upon our recent interest, specifically horror. Remakes of foreign-films haven’t exactly been a recent development but the turning point has arguably been the influx of Asian-Horror remakes, kicking off with The Ring in 2003, five years after Ringu had become a cult hit. The success of the remake prompted a mass of others, including The Grudge and Dark Water, all of which were infinitely less original and terrifying than their sources.
Audiences thus began to delve into the remakes’ origins. Korean, Japanese and Chinese cinema was unearthed again, releasing a new sort of violent film, like Oldboy, adding a breath of fresh air to the genre. Martial arts films were revitalised as well. Who can forget the impact that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had on Western audiences?
It’s not just Asian cinema that’s been celebrated this decade. Europe is becoming a treasure-trove. France, Germany, Italy and Spain have come out top in recent years with films like Amelie, The Lives of Others and Volver receiving the big gold star that is Oscar recognition. Two noticeable remakes lined up for the Hollywood treatment are already successes without any need for English dialect. The first is The Orphanage, a Spanish horror, produced by upcoming The Hobbit director, Guillermo Del Toro. The other is Tell No One, a French action-thriller adapted from an American novel. Talk about complicated. Of course, this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it promotes the brilliance of foreign cinema; on the other, it seems mercenary to take a perfectly capable film, already successful in the UK and USA, and use it as a money-making tool.
The Oscars is the big draw for a Western audience. If a film has ‘Oscar-nominated’ in big letters above the title it looks bloody fantastic. It’s even better if foreign films sneak an award nomination or two in the major categories. Think Marion Cotillard winning best actress for La Vie en Rose; not only did her film become a hit on DVD, she walked off with starring roles with the hottest directors in Tinseltown.
Naturally, the greatest aide to foreign cinema is word-of mouth. The internet has galvanised the success of world cinema, catapulting cult films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away into our living rooms via DVDs. In fact, DVDs, much like the internet, have cemented the true popularity of foreign films rather than ticket stubs at a cinema. The World Cinema section at HMV seems to be forever expanding with more people becoming adventurous with their viewing habits. Rather than being seen as arrogant or artsy, foreign films seem to have finally been accepted by Western audiences. C’est magnifique!