When you hear the word cinema, odds are the picture of American or British films and television will come to your mind. But the world is massive and many countries have created incredible cinema that has been sadly left in the shadows of big budget Hollywood motion pictures.
So today I want to take a brief look at the ingenious non-English countries which have created brilliant feature films throughout the last century which could rival any Hollywood movie.
Similar to American and British cinema, German films date back to the late 1800s, and as the country changed (from the fall of the German Empire, Adolf Hitler’s takeover, World War II, and rebuilding), so did the films.
German cinema really became exceptional with German Expressionism in the 1920s, which produced incredible films such as Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), and Metropolis (1927). This was followed by an era of Nazi propaganda in 1930s and 1940s. These disturbing but interesting films include The Eternal Jew (1940)—which was anti-semitic propaganda—and Wunschkonzert (1940).
After World War II, East and West Germany split when it came to cinema. East Germany was…strange, as it lay in the Soviet occupation zone. West Germany, on the other hand, was reconstructing itself, but it took a while for people to be really interested in movies.
It was only during the 1960s to the present era that German films have grown quickly, mostly emphasizing characters and real life, not fanciful or highly computerized films. Famous films include The Tin Drum (1979), The NeverEnding Story (1984)—yes, the famous American movie, made in English, was actually made by West Germany—, Das Boot (1981), and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)—also made in English.
Often, we think of Thailand as being very poor and, though currently TV lakorns—or TV dramas—are on the rise, it is hard to imagine that the Golden Age of Thailand was actually in the 1930s. Foreign filmmakers were intrigued by the Siamese (as Thailand was known at the time) around the turn of the century, but native Thai films did not rise until the 1920s.
Unfortunately, only fragments survive of most of these films made from the late 1920s to early 1940s. One incredible exception is 1940s The King of the White Elephant, which was made in English as propaganda against the war mentality that was creeping into Thailand. After Japan’s 1941 occupation of the country, the cinema went on pause until after the war.
Most films (especially before the war but some afterwards) were dubbed—quick horribly, in my opinion.
It was not really until the 1970s that Thai films really gained traction, possibly due to political unrest and rebuilding after the war. Personally, I find that this country’s cinema really took off in the 1990s, where many great movies such as Nang Nak (1999), Bangkok Dangerous (1999), and later The Legend of Suriyothai (2001) and Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) came out.
For the past twenty years, Thailand has made increasingly exceptional films and dramas. Their horror movies rival even Japanese horror films (of which I will mention further on this list), and some of their Thai lakorns are exceptional. My personal favorites movies and dramas include Kleun Cheewit (2017), Padiwarada (2016), Sunset at Chaophraya (2013), and A Crazy Little Thing Called Love (2010).
Similar to Germany, Italy made beautiful films before the war, which changed in tone during and after WWII. Early great Italian films include Quo Vadis (1913) and Sun (1929). When Mussolini came to power, the tone of Italian cinema switched to light comedies to avoid scrutiny from the government.
After WWII, the Neorealism movement arose, which usually examined the difficulties facing the working class. My personal favorite movie from this age is The Bicycle Thief (1948). Others include Rome, Open City (1945), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Accattone (1961). Neorealism also inspired future European movements such as the French New Wave and the Polish Film School.
A fascination with comedy followed in the 50s and 60s, probably a reaction to the seriousness of previous decades. With the film Hercules (1958), Italian films began being popular in America. An age of horror and thrillers followed in the 70s/80s, including films such as Black Sunday (1960), the disturbing Cannibal Holocaust (1980)—no one should ever watch this movie—and Rocco and His Brothers (1960).
If I could use one word to describe Italian films, both historical and modern, I would say they are “artsy.” Some of the films I love, but most are just strange. Some of my favorite modern Italian films include Life is Beautiful (1998)—one of my favorite films of all time—The Great Beauty (2013), and Fire at Sea (2016).
I have watched few films from the beginning of Russian cinema, but frankly there does not seem to be a lot of information of films before the 1950s. Keep in mind, any film coming from this country is filtered through the Soviet Union, so certain topics will not be allowed. Saying that, many films especially fairytales and histories are beautiful.
Some earlier movies which are quite good include Walking the Streets of Moscow (1964), They Fought for Their Country (1975), and War and Peace (1966-67).
A new era of films began in the 1990s, known as New Russian Cinema. Great films include Burnt by the Sun (1994), The Thief (1997), Russian Ark (2002)—one of the most beautiful but boring films of all time—and 12 (2007). Russia also produced beautifully animated films, including The Snow Queen (2012), The Miracle Maker (2000), and The Old Man and The Sea (1999). Russia also produces spectacular historical dramas, including Poor Nastya (2003) and One Night of Love (2008).
When I think of Japanese cinema, I usually think of its truly chilling horror movies. However, Japanese films have been around for over a century. Ironically enough, some of the first films were actually ghost stories around the turn of the century. During the 1920s, samurai or fighting type films became popular, such as A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (1927) and Roningai (1928).
Severe censorship began in the 1930s, especially concerning a movement known as tendency films. Like Germany, the late 1930s and 1940s was filled with war propaganda, often to portray the USA as the aggressors in the war and Pearl Harbor as a very different incident. These films include Hawai Mare oki kaisen (1942).
The 1950s was considered the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, usually dealing with the effects of the war. Some of these films are Tokyo Story (1953), Seven Samurai (1954)—which inspired The Magnificent Seven—, Rickshaw Man (1958) and Rashomon (1950). This was also the decade in which the first version of Godzilla (1954) was produced.
The following decades only increased the firm holding Japan had on foreign cinema. Currently, Japan is most famous for four types of films. First are the classic fighting movies, which I have briefly talked about before. The next is live actions, stemming from Japanese cartoons and comics known as anime and manga respectively, which are usually romance or fantasy. Some of these include Hana Yori Dango (2005), Death Note (multiple), and Attack on Titan (multiple).
The third are horror movies, such as Ju-On (The Grudge) (1998), One Missed Call (2003), and Dark Water (2002). Japanese horror is truly the creepiest in the world. The fourth is my personal favorite, which arose in the 1980s, which is that of animation. This includes anime, as well as animated movies, such as Studio Ghibli’s creations. My favorites include Princess Mononoke (1994), Spirited Away (2000), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
Bollywood films love singing. It’s the first thing anyone who watches Indian films will notice. During the 20th century, the Indian film industry was one of the largest in the world, along with Hollywood and China.
The beginning of the Indian film industry was actually encouraged by Britain, which controlled India until the 1940s. Like on the Shakespearian stage, at first female parts were played by men. Some of the early movies include Raja Harishchandra (1913) and Savitri (1933).
The 1940s to 1960s is considered the Golden Age of Indian films, following India’s independence. Some of these films include Nagarik (1952), Pather Panchali (1955), and Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957). These films seem similar to the neorealism of Italy, often observing the real life struggles of the working class and families.
Since the 1970s, Indian films seem to fall into typical, Bollywood style, filled with stylish music, beautiful costumes, and an artsy tone. Some of these films include Sankarabharanam (1980), Samskara (1970), Nayakan (1987), Black Friday (2004), and Kanchivaram (2008). Some of the best films produced by Bollywood tend to center around the horror, romance, comedy, and thriller genre.
Some of my personal favorite movies and series from India include Jodha Akbar (2008), Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) (Indian version of Sense and Sensibility), and Kaisi Yeh Yaariyan (2014).
Honestly, I only watch French movies because of the beautiful language…just kidding. French’s films have a similar history to that of Germany and Italy, rising around the turn of the century only to stall around WWII. However, one notable early movie must be mentioned: A Trip to the Moon (1902). It is a highly amusing movie and was beautifully groundbreaking for the era.
Fast-forwarding to WWII, many of the films in the 30s and 40s were realist with dark content, often having to do with the war. Some of these films include The Baker’s Wife (1938) and Children of Paradise (1945). The post-war French movies steadily grew weirder. If you thought the sexual revolution which permeated American television in the 60s and 70s was bad, you should see some of the strange films France came out with. This became known as the French New Wave. It also marked the era where many French stars became famous in America, such as Brigitte Bardot and Leslie Caron.
Some of the bigger movies in the 60s through the 80s include La Grande Vadrouille (1966), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), and Jean de Florette (1986).
When the 1990s came around, French films got even more international with hits such as Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), Nikita (1990), The City of Lost Children (1995)—I love this film—and Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998). French movies have since remained very close to the ideas of American films, often having Hollywood remake French movies in English.
Some of my favorite French movies include Amélie (2001), The Innocents (2016), The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec (2010), and La Belle et la Bete (2014 and 1946).
2. South Korea
Due to Japanese occupation of Korea officially from 1910 to 1945, Korean films were very much limited until after the Korean War. There are a few films from Korea during the 20s and 30s, but those they were usually politically driven, such as the 1926 Arirang, based on the classic folksong of the same name. There was so much potential in Korean film during this time, but it was often stomped out by the censorship of the Japanese. Foreign films were often snuck into Korea, including Ben Hur (1927).
After the 1950s, any cinema I will refer to will be a product of South Korea, as North Korea’s films are hard to find and usually highly censored or government propaganda. As for South Korea , it boomed into a Golden Age during the 50s and 60s. During this time, it produced movies such as Yangsan Province (1955), The Housemaid (1960), and Obaltan (1960).
Unfortunately, during the 60s, a pro-communist government headed by president Park Chung Hee started to censor films and allow only a certain number of movies made per year. This government lasted until 1980, and the last year was filled with much unrest, including Park Chung Hee’s assassination.
However, in the 80s the theaters slowly began to revitalize. And that pace has heighted through the 90s to modern times, giving us great movies like Shiri (1999), My Sassy Girl (2001), Friend (2001), and Oldboy (2003). For me, South Korean movies really shine when it comes to realistic characters and exceptional suspense.
Currently, South Korean dramas seem to be taking over the world, and more and more people seem to be fascinated by this small country’s growing film/TV industry. My favorite Korean movies include Train to Busan (2016), Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013), Monster (2014), and 4th Period Mystery (2009). Some of my favorite Korean dramas include Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), Liar Game (2014), White Christmas (2011), and Empress Ki (2013).
Now we arrive at the most populated country in the world. Chinese theater was massive in 19th century, so it made sense that they would transition to the film screen immediately. Initially most of the films with very short, and the oldest surviving complete Chinese film is Laborer’s Love (1922). During the 1930s, there was intense unrest between China and Japan, as well as contradicting ideologies. This produced films such as Spring Silkworms (1933), The Goddess (1934), and The Big Road (1934). This period in the thirties is considered to be the first Golden Age of China.
Following the Japanese invasion of China, and WWII, Chinese cinema began to gain ground in the late forties, considered to be the second Golden Era. This era produced films such as The Spring River Flows East (1947), Myriad of Lights (1948), and Spring in a Small Town (1948). Most of these films dealt with real people, often workers, dealing with struggles and family.
This era, however, did not last long either, as communists took over the government in 1949. During this time, the government banned many films and used others as Communist propaganda. Even up to today, the Chinese government carefully censors anything filmmakers produce. Martial art films grew during the 50s and 60s, but the government viewed these films as socially unacceptable.
However, by the 1980s censorship had waned slightly, allowing filmmakers to make extremely beautiful films. These filmmakers, known as the Fifth Generation, produced such films as Ju Dou (1990), Farewell My Concubine (1993), and The Raise of Red Lantern (1991).
This era of Chinese film was followed in the late 90s and beyond by the Six Generation, which produced some of my favorite Chinese films, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and The Promise (2005). This fantasy/historical type of martial arts films led rise to a genre known as wuxia, which depicts the martial arts of ancient China.
While some Chinese films/dramas set in the current day are quite popular, what is really internationally known are those historical wuxia filled with exquisite costumes and lots of flying in the air. Some of my favorites Chinese dramas include Palace Jade Lock Heart (2011), Rookie Agent Rouge (2016), The Lost Tomb (2015), and General and I (2016).
What is your favorite non-English movie/TV series? What is your favorite country for foreign films? Did I miss a country you thought should be on this list? Let me know and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventurer,