An Ode To Foreign Film
During my time in the service, I have spent nearly ten consecutive years living overseas, having set foot in just as many countries. Movies had always been a significant factor in my development, and as my relationships with people all over the world enriched me socially and emotionally, so too did my growing relationship with international cinema. With each phase of my journey came a number of foreign films that deeply affected me, in concert with the experiences of my travels.
My first duty station was in Korea. As a first generation American born and raised in NYC, I already had an intimate familiarity with other cultures and customs, so I felt right at home in the bustling capital city megalopolis of Seoul. I stayed there for three years, developing professionally from an E-nothing private to capable Buck Sergeant, thanks to great leadership, terrific fellow soldiers, and the absolutely outstanding partnership between the US and ROK forces. I was blessed to live and work side by side with a Korean citizen, doing his mandatory service as a KATUSA assigned to a US Army unit, and we became close friends. Movies were one of the hot commodities involved in our ongoing cultural exchanges. I happened to have arrived in the country right on the cusp of the New Wave of Korean Cinema. As such, my fellow soldiers and I were at the epicenter of that cinematic explosion, the first in line amongst an eager western audience ready to consume these bold works of art. We were blown away by the famous quasi-genre of Korean Revenge Thrillers; films like Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. These films contain a special brand of outrageousness, the likes of which could only be wrought from a cultural milieu colored by that potently esoteric concept known as the Han. However, along with these masterpieces, I was also significantly moved by war films that would cultivate an integral part of my identity as a soldier and an emissary of the US living in a host nation.
As happens for western viewers, the first Korean film I ever saw was an absolute motherfucker of an emotional experience: 2003's Silmido. The movie is based on the true story of Unit 684, a black ops suicide squad created to infiltrate North Korea and take the life of Kim Il-Sung in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on the South Korean President in 1968. When the mission was called off, the beleaguered unit staged a bloody revolt and hijacked a bus full of civilians, only to be intercepted by the Army in battle where the members where either killed, committed suicide, or captured and summarily executed. The details of these events had been kept under wraps for decades until the film brought the matter to public attention, and in doing so became a box office smash hit, earning $30 Million and becoming the first South Korean movie to obtain an overall audience attendance count of over ten million viewers. I was overwhelmed by the uniquely Korean flavors of horrific suffering and melodramatic tragedy woven into a tale about the bonds of brotherhood and undying loyalty. In seeing the passion of these soldiers from the past, I felt that my role in maintaining the US/ROK alliance was a matter of grave importance. The importance of this bond was further amplified the following year with the 2004 movie Taegukgi: Brotherhood of War, which broke even more box office records and currently ranks as 10th highest grossing film of all time in Korea. The simplest way to explain its cultural impact is to say that Tae-Guk Gi is in many ways “The Korean Saving Private Ryan”. Knowing how Americans and Soldiers feel about that movie, it’s easy to see why this would become in immediate and effective touchstone between our countries.
My next overseas assignment was to Germany, but before I could enjoy the bounty of that great nation, I would first have to earn my stripes by way of two deployments to Iraq. Though constantly stressful, I was hardly ever in harm's way as a support personnel desk jockey. I gladly logged long hours behind dozens of computer screens, so long as it assisted the combat arms guys in some way. The initial shock and anguish of losing comrades unnerved me, as did bearing witness to the carnage visited upon the Iraqi people. Both there and at home, however, the reverence of fallen soldiers was given great circumstance, but the Iraqi casualties seemed to be treated as nameless statistics. It was during the first fifteen month tour where I watched the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which put faces to those afflicted by the war. I was enthralled by the story of Acrassicauda, “Iraq’s only heavy metal band", beset on all sides by adversity in their attempts to express themselves with their music. Along with ever present violence of war haunting their daily lives and at times directly interfering (at one point their practice space gets destroyed by an errant missile strike), the band members were also under constant threat by their own community who would brand them as Satan worshipers or Americanized infidels. Though not technically a foreign film, it nonetheless enlightened me to a perspective far outside my own, while simultaneously reaffirming the humanity shared with others from all walks of life and emphasizing what we have in common.
During my second tour of in Iraq, though I had become seasoned and experienced, I felt myself growing desensitized to the bloodshed of the long drawn out war. I had become adept at discerning the activity taking place in the hazy black and white thermal imagery of UAV feeds, but I did so with a surreal sense of detachment, constantly monitoring almost a dozen separate cameras at any given time like a seedy voyeur looking for a good Hellfire strike or explosion; anything slightly "entertaining" enough to break the monotony. It was during this time that I saw the 2008 Israeli animated feature Waltz with Bashir. This film served as a powerful reminder of the real horrors being inflicted every day that even some of us in country in higher echelons of the war machine can sometimes overlook. The surreal imagery of director and writer Ari Folman’s animation recounting real life events directly paralleled my current waking nightmare: white hot silhouettes on grainy gray shaded backgrounds that would fall apart into tiny glowing pixelated chunks upon the instant impact of several hundred 20mm rounds, raining down from the midnight skies like the smiting lightning of a petty god. It can be easy to get lost in the video game of advanced warfare, but the mangled corpses of the aftermath, like the defining scene at the very end of the movie, remind you of the true cost of war.
While not being able to return to your home in the states after a deployment can be stressful for some, I took full advantage of the respite that was offered at my post located in a friendly and peaceful town in the beautiful southern German state of Bavaria. I partook in all the wondrous festivities and pleasures it had to offer, all the while taking time to feed my maturing cinematic tastes. One film that really stood out to me was a German drama from the previous decade, 1997’s Bandits, about a group of four female inmates with various musical talents who escape from prison and become a chart-topping sensation as their infamy gains attention for the great music that they play in impromptu concerts on the run, the feds hot on their tail at every turn. Though on the surface the subject matter wouldn’t seem to pertain to my sensibilities or interests, I found this tale of love, tragedy, and music to be on the same wavelength as many of the great American Hip-Hop films and their associated soundtracks.
Similarly, the more I dug through other European films old and new, the more I found stories that I could directly relate to, despite the language and cultural barrier. One film that I found to be particularly resonant was the 2008 French film The Class, a slice of life drama about the struggles faced by a literature teacher and his disillusioned students in a rough multicultural neighborhood. Even though the tongue was foreign, these kids and teachers were immediately recognizable to me and anyone who’s had to survive an inner city public high school, either as a student or one of the faculty; this could have been Bed Stuy or Compton or Any Ghetto, USA. With films like these, I was galvanized by the understanding that home was a state of mind and being for me, not just a place, so I knew I could truly find my own home wherever I roamed. I grew more and more assured that no matter where I end up on this earth, I know that there will always be a common experience that can be shared from even the most unlikely of circumstances.
After my tour in Germany, I elected to spend an additional year overseas in a combined forces command and control hub in the Persian Gulf. I was assigned under the command of Air Force personnel, and had a truly phenomenal time amongst another fine branches of service. This massive station served as operational nexus for the joint forces of over a dozen different coalition nations, and I spent a particular amount of time with our close Australian, Canadian, British, and New Zealand allies. It was fun exploring the idiosyncrasies of different cultures separated by a common language, and this experience was exemplified once again in my film viewing. It was during this year that I was floored by the one-two punch of the U.K. new hood classic Attack The Block and the English-language Irish spin on the tried and true buddy cop formula The Guard. In truth, I could make two whole other articles on these two movies alone. Suffice to say, these films resonated deeply with me thematically and aesthetically (though you can find more of my expanded thoughts on each subject with a google search or two). It was a wonder to see a treatise on the qualities and failings of the modern urban youth from a fresh and stylish lens, as well as a culturally unique take on the concept of the interracial buddy cop movie that I had for so long thought was only the province of American shoot-em-ups.
I finally made my back to continental U.S. soil in 2012, but even though I was finally back home, my hunger for international cinema was as strong as ever. Fortunately, I managed to be stationed within a day’s driving distance of my birthplace in NYC, thus having relative access to all the great art house and international screenings offered in the many fine specialty theaters throughout the city. The ability to see the most obtuse foreign art house flick followed by a crowd pleasing big budget film from overseas was a source of immeasurable joy. In the same year, I was consumed by the cinematic masterpiece Holy Motors quietly by myself, while bursting out roars of bloodlust with my best friend and a crowd of hyped up movie goers during the American release of The Raid: Redemption. But more than ever before, the magic of VOD and streaming has truly knocked down the boundaries between audiences and great films from around the world. I’ve been able to return to my old stomping grounds of Korea and see what’s new, while checking out some fresh new talent from the other side of the world that I’ve yet to visit.
I am forever grateful for being able to travel around the world, and I am continuously humbled by the fantastic people I’ve met and friends I’ve made. I am equally thankful to have been able to immerse myself in cinema from across the globe, which has enriched my understanding of different cultures and myself. Even so, although I gained much from my time overseas, you don’t need to enlist or abandon your life at home to experience the great wonders the world has to offer. Film can be your magic ticket, the ultimate passport to a whole wide world of experiences beyond your wildest dreams.