The beauty of a well told story is that it’s universal.
While we may be divided by frontiers in this world full of conflict, a great movie will appeal to what bring us all together: our humanity. An excellent comedy will make us laugh as one. A collective tear is shed by any great drama, regardless on where it was made.
Not to say that stories are told in the same way around the globe. Very much on the contrary. The best aspect of exploring foreign movie industries, especially if you want to become a masterful screenwriter, is to study their nuances. Traveling the world and experiencing different cultures without leaving your home. Learning what each of them can teach you about storytelling.
Last year, the amazing South Korean flick Parasite took the world by storm after becoming the first foreign language film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. So, you may be wondering, what else is out there?
In this post I’ll take you on a journey. I’ll tell you about five movie industries around the globe and what screenwriting techniques can be added to your arsenal.
Lesson: Finding beauty in the mundane and day-to-day life.
France is the home of Honoré de Balzac, writer of The Human Comedy, and brilliant existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In Sisyphus: The Myth, Camus’ closing line is “one must imagine Sisyphus happy." I mean, the dude had a positive take on the Greek character damned for an eternity pushing a giant bolder up a hill.
Finding meaning in this chaotic world and beauty in the most boring of tasks is sort of what they do. No surprise then that this is exactly the lesson you can learn in the greatest works of their illustrious movie industry.
Examples of this take on life can be seen in the hilarious 2008 comedy Welcome to the Sticks (original title: Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis), where a public servant tries to cheat his way into a transfer to Riviera but is caught and punished. Or the more recent Sink or Swim (o.t.: Le Grand Bain) in which a bunch or Class-A losers reencounter happiness after joining a male team of synchronized swimming.
However, none does it best than the brilliant and touching master piece Amelie (o.t.: Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain). In this movie, a young girl named Audrey Tautou is misdiagnosed with a heart condition. She then grows up in the countryside, is homeschooled and isolated from everyone. After turning 18, she moves to Paris. Because of her undeveloped social skills, she has trouble connecting with people, even though she’s very observant of other people’s affairs. So, she assumes the role of a guardian angels of sorts, helping everyone around her without directly approaching them.
If you watch this movie, try to notice how it uses the philosophical concepts previously mentioned. The characters portrayed aren’t celebrities or super-slick 007 type agents. It is just ordinary people, living simple lives. Yet, all of them learn to appreciate it.
For those screenwriters seeking to learn how to tell relatable stories, learning to portray this approach to day-to-day life is paramount.
Lesson: Explore human interactions.
Movie: Il Postino: The Postman
True story. I had the privilege to live in Italy for a year. When I was visiting Rome, I had the most interesting subway ride of my life. There I was, standing next to the exit door, back leaning against the wall. Suddenly, two middle age ladies siting next to me, one across the other, began to argue. For a foreigner like me, it seemed as if they wanted to rip each other’s head off. For an average Italian, it was probably no biggie.
Anyhow, one guy from another car, completely unrelated, eavesdropped their heated exchange. He proceeded to then approach the two, take the side of one of the ladies and completely bash the other. Not long after that, one by one, people began to choose their allegiances. Eventually, everyone was part of it. And I was left there, in my corner, alone, absolutely mesmerized as I watched what appeared to be a cliché stare down before an epic battle from a medieval movie. Now, what is even more impressive is that something like three or four stops after the altercation had begun, one of the ladies exited. She had arrived at her destination. However, even with her gone, the two factions kept at it as if she was still there.
You may be asking: why the hell am I telling you this? To illustrate a point, dear reader. No people have more intense human interaction than the Italians. This can easily be seen in their movies.
They sometimes dive deep into the dynamic of an entire town, like in Fellini’s Amarcord. Or they explore the town but also zero-in the individual level, like the relationship formed between Toto and Alfredo in Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.
The movie I choose, Il Postino, depicts the relation between two individuals. It explores the bond formed between Literature Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda and the mailman from the Island where he was exiled during his time away from Chile. Unlike my train story, this one is beautiful and tender. Yet, even more intense than the heated exchange described.
During the movie, the Chilean poet helps the uneducated postman to find the right words to win his crush’s heart.
Studying Italian cinema is great for those who wish to write convincing and compelling personal or family dramas. With this movie, you will have a lesson on how to depict the birth of a strong friendship.
Lesson: How to criticize society (with a very acid humor).
Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes
As a general rule, the political and social history of any country in South America is batshit crazy. Filled with military cues, corruption scandals, populist governments, economic meltdowns and a strong obsession for soccer.
Argentina checks all of the boxes above. And with great prowess, might I add.
Because of that, the Argentines have always been a very politicly engaged people in general. Holding strong views on many issues and debating national policies constantly. This is the strongest trait present in their movies. Which is, perhaps, why theirs is the greatest industry in South America, in my opinion.
Regardless of the genre, a critical view of modern life or political situation is always present in their works. You will hardly ever see a positive depiction of government, the judicial system or day-to-day bureaucracy. Also, they masterfully mash that with very personal stories that often serve as a mirror for the viewer to confront his own reality. Oh, and they do all of this with a very sharp, acid and intelligent humor.
A perfect example of this is the very original romantic comedy Sidewall (e.t: Medianeira), a love story of to loners seeking companionship in an indifferent metropolis. An unmatched depiction of modern romance. Or, for a more recent example, Heroic Losers (e.t:La Odisea de los giles), where a group of people that were royally screwed by the government and corrupt bankers decide to rob those who profited from their disgrace.
But the best of the best is The Secret in Their Eyes (e.t: El Segredo de Sus Ojos), Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Movie in 2010. Like the history of Argentina, this movie ticks all the boxes (including a very well-done depiction of the South American passion for soccer).
This movie is a gripping crime story of the investigation into a rape followed by murder of a young woman in the prime of her life. Unlike many American movies of the type, in this one the detective has to go out of his way to catch the bad guy not only because it’s a hard case, but because the bureaucracy and lack of morals of some of his colleagues very often make his work seem impossible.
It’s hard to dive any deeper without spoiling the plot. But I guarantee it has every element previously mentioned. Even the hilarious humor. It is worth watching. The perfect example of what they can do.
If you are a screenwriter seeking to develop political dramas or social justice stories, this is the industry to study.
2. South Korea
Lesson: Delivering a kickass ending.
Were you impressed with Parasite? I guarantee you this is not a fluke. The South Koreans have ascended to the top of the foreign language film industries in the past couple of decades. They have many, many, many great titles.
The cool thing about their industry is that, even though there are evident cultural differences and settings, what you can learn from them is actually the Art of Storytelling. With discipline and rigorous study of the craft, their filmmakers achieved mastery. I swear, some of their works certainly bring Robert McKee to tears of joy.
Their grasp into the structural elements of the plots is incredible. But, unlike many formulaic Netflix movies, the South Koreans are willing to take risks. Especially with the end, which very often doesn’t have the hero coming out on top. What could be a cliché story in the hands of an untalented or undisciplined writer, in theirs becomes surprising and unpredictable. Making the audience gasp for air at every turn.
A great example of this is a previous entrée by Parasite’s director Bong Joon-ho: Memories of a Murder (e.t.: Salinui chueok). An incredible crime story where we follow two detectives trying to track down a serial killer. Or 2018’s Burning (e.t.:Beoning) a movie filled with twists and mysteries.
My favorite, though, has to be the incredible Oldboy (e.t.: Oldeuboi). I’m a sucker for revenge stories and this, dear readers, if the greatest tale of vengeance I’ve ever seen in a movie.
A drunk is mysteriously kidnapped in the middle of the night. He is put in a tiny prison cell and given no reason where to why he is being captivated. There he is stays. After losing hope, he tries to kill himself. But he is always nurtured back to health. Finally, he decides to escape and start to dig a tunnel. However, the following day after he finishes the tunnel, he is freed. After 15 years, he’s set loose as mysteriously as he was abducted. The question is: why? This is only first ten minutes or so of the movie.
He proceeds to seek answers and revenge. The ending of this movie is mind blowing.
If you are screenwriter tying to learn how to structure a story, deliver twists and, especially, end your film… this is the movie industry to explore.
Lesson: Turn the location into a character of the story.
Movie: City of God
I’ll finish this post with my favorite foreign language movie of all time: City of God. First, full disclosure, I’m Brazilian. There is definitely a bias here. The movie is killer, though. Trust me.
Before I get into the plot, let me share a bit about my country with you. Brazil is a beautiful place with some of the nicest and most welcoming people. It arguably has the most natural riches amongst any nation on Earth. Home to five very different ecosystems, you can find sceneries here that look like the Caribbean cost as well as the Saharan desert. There are beautiful fields and extensive clear meadows as well as the very dense Rain Forest.
Along side all this beauty, we also struggle with many social issues. Intense violence, huge economic inequality, a flagrant corrupt government and many broken institutions.
In other word, in Brazil beauty and ugliness walk hand in hand. In the greatest works of our film industry this is brilliantly shown by making the scenery an integral part of the story. So much so, that it almost becomes a character on its own.
In the brilliant comedy A Dog’s Will (e.t.: O Auto da Compadecida), the setting in the very arid Northeast Region of Brazil is integral to the movie. By the end of it, you feel that you actually have visited the small town where it was set. In the more recent Bacurau, the first 45 minutes are basically dedicated to make the audience get the feel of the village.
Coming back to the cream the la crop, though, in City of God we follow the development of the suburban region of Rio de Janeiro that goes by that name. The story is told by a narrator who was born there and saw it all. The tale of the area unfolds along with the story of criminality there.
The movie has a bunch of great characters. None more memorable than the villain Lil’Zé. Probably the scariest bad guy in the history of cinema. A psychopath so ruthless, yet very realistic, that makes the Joker seem like a stand-up guy.
However, the greatest ‘character’ is the City of God itself. Since we begin at its founding, we are able to see it clearly develop and become gradually more danger and broken as the plot moves along. As the tension increases and the stakes get higher, we are able to see how this affects and changes the neighborhood.
A screenwriter looking to improve his skills in creating multi-plot narratives linked by their environment, can find in these flicks some great points of reference.
As a screenwriter, you are an explorer of the human condition. If you want to be a more complete explorer, capable of smoothly transitioning between genres, studying the many movie industries around the world should be a consciously chosen duty.
If you want to become the reference in one genre in particular, that is fine too. But it will be impossible to do so if you don’t consider the benchmark set by the greatest at it around the globe.
Be adventurous. Be curious. Be a storyteller.
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.