Over the course of my time in this job I have acquired a reputation as someone who reviews and appreciates lots of foreign films. Of course, at the same time I have occasionally been accused of not understanding these films at all, which is partially true. It's not technically possible for one person to fully absorb and comprehend every facet of every industrialized culture in the world. For one thing, subtitles never accurately translate what's being spoken, and then there are little cultural things, certain behaviors, for example, that may not translate either. Conversely, it's impossible for any one person -- filmmakers included -- to represent a culture. It gets even more complex than that, if you want to boil it down. For example, I could say that I identify with the characters in High Fidelity (2000), but if you consider that I've never been to Chicago, and consider further that the book was originally set in London, then it creates a cultural divide. That movie has levels that will forever be out of my grasp.
You do your best. You keep an open mind. Although, I admit I'm usually disappointed when I see too many Western filmmaking elements slavishly copied in Eastern films (Mongol, The Counterfeiters, etc.); it shows the overwhelming influence of Hollywood on other parts of the world. I'm sure more people in Portugal saw Transformers than saw Manoel de Oliveira or Pedro Costa's latest films.
But Hollywood's influence is also opening doors and smudging borders. Filmmakers are making movies in foreign lands and bringing different sensibilities along. Right now there are several hybrids playing: Indian-born Tarsem Singh directed the English-language The Fall (111 screens), set in the 1920s, well before he was born. Two of Hong Kong's all time biggest stars team up for the first time in The Forbidden Kingdom (160 screens), directed, mostly in English, by a white guy and with another white guy in the lead role. Two other Hong Kong stars, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, are starring in The Children of Huang Shi (30 screens), directed by a Canadian, Roger Spottiswoode.
In Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (240 screens), a guy born in New Jersey (of Indian descent) and a guy born in South Korea are mistaken for terrorists. Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai came to America to direct the English-language My Blueberry Nights (32 screens). An English guy, Martin McDonagh, directs two Irish guys, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, in a movie set in Belgium, In Bruges (30 screens). The Band's Visit (19 screens) is directed by an Israeli filmmaker and features a band of Egyptians lost in Israel. The great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien headed to France to make The Flight of the Red Balloon (13 screens), in French. American Harmony Korine also set his new Mister Lonely (7 screens) in France and Scotland, with a Mexican actor playing the lead and speaking English. Here's my favorite: the Japanese-born Masayuki Ochiai directs Shutter (20 screens), an American remake of a Japanese horror film, with American actors filmed in Japan -- except that the actors are actually from Canada and Australia, playing Americans.
Then there's the re-release of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1 screen), which is in French, English, Italian and German as people from all over the world assemble in Italy to shoot a film of Homer's "The Odyssey." Godard deliberately plays with cross-cultural divides rather than simply ignoring them, using them to heighten the characters' sense of alienation. The great German director Fritz Lang stars as himself, and he was another example of a cross-cultural filmmaker. In Germany, he enjoyed unlimited budgets and power, and made astonishing, dazzling epics filled with special effects and fascinating criminal masterminds. Eventually he found himself increasingly at odds with the rising Nazi regime. According to legend (perpetuated by Lang himself), Hitler asked him to join the party to make propaganda films, Lang politely agreed and fled the country that night. In the United States he was relegated to second-rate pictures and though he never lost his exemplary skill and signature style, he never regained that level of prestige (he never received a single Oscar nomination, for example).Here's the question: what do any of these people know about working in other countries and cultures? Why should they be allowed to get away with it? Even if they research and study, they'll never fully grasp the thing outside their own realm of experience. It's a tough question. Well, let's consider the alternative: each filmmaker stays put, exactly where he or she was born and makes only contemporary films about things they know. That might be interesting, but we wouldn't have anywhere near the broad spectrum of film that exists today. The fact is that the best artists are curious about other cultures, and it's good to explore and learn, even if we make mistakes in doing so. And goodness knows, a lot of films have made mistakes (including some of the titles listed above), from the early depictions of African-Americans as humble servants to Memoirs of a Geisha, which tried to pass off Chinese and Japanese actors as an all-purpose, English-speaking, exotically Asian cast of characters. As long as we keep trying: it's better than ignorance, hate and fear.