His name was Hugh and he was a king.
Originally from New Zealand, Hugh had been traveling the world for
many years. He was still famed enough, back home, however, that
other Kiwis knew of him by reputation. He had been everywhere, done
everything. A friend’s story about the beaches in Greece was
dismissed by Hugh, who had been in Papua New Guinea for months. The
highlands of Scotland were nothing compared to the untamed tundra of
Mongolia. And London was utterly dull but if you really wanted
culture then Ljubljana was just the place to go.
Short of winning the lottery, most of
us cannot compete with the Hughs of the world. There is, however, a
way you can cheat. The following is a list of ten films that offer
insight into the different cultures that created them. Watching
these movies is the next best thing to actually visiting the places.
Natives may be surprised you’ve seen these movies—and they’ll
usually insist that you couldn’t have understood the references.
But you, the intrepid traveler, will have done just that.
The Castle – Australia (1997)
This is a character piece that features
hilarious performances from the entire cast, notably a young Erik
Bana. Describing the plot, the story of a bogan (redneck) family who
battle city hall in an effort to keep their house, doesn’t do it
justice. This film is great because…well, it’s just…the vibe of
the thing. It’s not anything in particular…it’s just the vibe.
Amores Perros – Mexico (2000)
Though his later films 21 Grams
and Babel received more critical attention, this debut from
Alejandro Iñárritu is relevant here due to its use of Mexico City
as a sprawling backdrop. Though the “intersecting narratives”
structure has been done before, the three viewpoints presented here
are uniquely distinct and morally complex. The characters are
presented in shades of grey—the first story is that of a young man
illegally fighting his dog in order to raise enough money to steal
his brother’s wife. And he’s the good guy!
No Man’s Land – Serbia (2001)
This bleak tale of two soldiers (set
during the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990’s) won the Oscar
for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002. This film initially features
a cat-and-mouse game of control between a Bosnian and a Serb, but it
really gets complicated once officers, reporters, and UN get
involved. No Man’s Land is not a comedy per se, but
it is filled with absurdly dark humor and dialogue reminiscent of
Beckett or Pinter.
Movern Callar – Scotland (2002)
Scotland has a
wealth of bleak movies, but this one stands out. Reminiscent of the
classic Being There, it’s not always an easy movie to watch.
But it features an inspired soundtrack, a stellar performance from
Samantha Morton, and an atmospheric plot that involves dead
boyfriends, dealing with grief, stolen manuscripts, Spanish holidays,
and ultimately examines the issues of identity and self-worth.
Kontroll – Hungary (2003)
This genius film about a crew of subway
workers on the Budapest underground is complex and fully realized.
Murder mystery? Check. Amusing comedy? Check. Great
cinematography? Check. Love story? Yup, they got that too. The
setting of the underground results in some really effective allegory
as well, should you choose to see it that way.
Intermission – Ireland (2003)
Along with The Castle, this is
probably the funniest movie of the bunch. While it has been
described as the Irish Pulp Fiction, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch
might be a better comparison. If you like the surprising
introduction to Colin Ferrell’s character, the rest of the movie
shouldn’t disappoint. An amazing cast (including Cillian Murphy,
Kelly McDonald, Shirley Henderson and Colm Meaney) mix together in a
meandering plot that manages to bring them all together by the end of
Slim Susie – Sweden (2003)
Tuva Novotny is a big star in Sweden,
but hasn’t broken through internationally yet. This movie is a
great introduction to her work, to director Ulf Malmros’s nervous
energy, and a view on “hillbilly” Swedish life you can’t get
from an IKEA catalogue. The plot involves death and tragedy, but
it’s done in a farcical, Cohen Brothers meet Twin Peaks manner.
This movie is about coming home after being gone for a long time, and
also about how different a person can seem, depending about whom
This movie is sort
of a Danish twist on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.
At the beginning of the film, Michael possess all the elements of a
happy life—a beautiful wife, two kids, and a successful career.
His brother, by contrast, is an ex-con drifter just released from
jail with nothing in world. By the end of the movie, they have
switched roles. Seeing what caused this change makes this movie
13 Tzemeti - France (2005)
Filmed in black and white, this film
overcomes a somewhat slow beginning and quickly immerses the viewer
into a twisted nightmare so dark and dreary that it makes Fight Club
look like a Disney movie. Reminiscent of Hitchcock with its
intensely layered suspense, this isn’t a story for those easily
upset by violence. The ending is perfectly done.
I’m a Cyborg but that’s OK – Korea (2006)
While acclaimed director Chan-wook
Park’s Vengeance trilogy is probably better known globally, this
technological parody is distinctly Korean. The main character is a
young woman who believes that she is a battle cyborg that doesn’t
need to eat or sleep but must charge herself up via batteries. Once
moved into an institution, she is aided by a fellow inmate—a ping
pong champion who can steal other people’s personalities. Some of
the imagery is particularly haunting.
Armed with knowledge of these, you’ll
finally be ready to take on the Hugh’s of the world. I’m not
suggesting that watching Mad Max is a substitute for a trip to
Uluru, or that renting The Beach is as good as a visit to
Thailand, but if you are currently in between travels, these movies
should help tide you over.