Just as the people who witnessed the disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost were alarmed, most people seem to be somewhat afraid of foreign films.

“The film is in Chinese?” they say, as if I have just said, “The film wants to eat Neapolitan ice cream out of your hollowed-out skull.”

“Yes, the film is in Chinese,” I say. “Mandarin.”

“Mandarin?” they say. “Like the oranges? Gee … I don’t know if I could watch a whole film about oranges.”

“Mandarin is just a language,” I say. “It won’t hurt you. And if it does, sue it.”

“But how will I understand it?” they say.

With the intercessory translation of the Holy Spirit, I want to say.

“Well, there are subtitles,” I actually say.

“You mean I’ll have to read?” they say.

“Yes, you will,” I say. “Consider it a form of multi-tasking.”

“But I’m no good at multi-tasking,” they say. “I once tried riding my bike and reading at the same time, and I was hit by a bus.” (Note: This reportedly happened to someone at my high school.)

“If a bus hits you while you’re watching a foreign film, I’ll be very surprised,” I say.

People seem to have something like foreign film phobia. At the mention of foreign films, they react as the woman below does in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s superb Les Diaboliques (the best Hitchcock film Alfred Hitchcock never made, as I like to say).

I, too, was once leery of foreign films. When Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon appeared on American screens in 2000, I was completely nonplussed. I did not want to read subtitles, as I had just graduated from college and I had already had my fill of reading textbook and test questions.  In my brave new post-collegiate world, reading was a thing of the past.

Then I saw the light – the light of the film projector, that is.

Despite my disinterest in the film, I ended up seeing it, and I could not believe my eyes. Within the first fifteen minutes, I was a believer. This was no kung fu film – No, no. This was a filmic drug that was certain to become illegal if word spread about its euphoric properties. Were all foreign films like this? I had to find out.

As I traveled the world within the confines of the theater, I discovered the works of Zhang Yimou, Hayao Miyazaki, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Werner Herzog, Majid Majidi, and Ingmar Bergman, among others. While my senses did not always find a feast of the same sort of dangerously delicious delirium I found in Crouching Tiger…, I did find that I liked other kinds of foreign films as well.

With the exception of Hong Kong’s films, which are highly caffeinated exercises in adrenal-gland exhaustion, most foreign films I have seen have a slower cadence than most American films, and I mean that in a good way. There are two types of slow when it comes to foreign films:  The first is the slowness of a flower blooming.  This is the sort of film that develops slowly like a photo in a darkroom, yielding beautiful, rewarding results in the end. The second is the slowness of paint drying. Really, if a film is legitimately boring you and you do not want to continue watching it, I think you are justified in shutting it off. All the same, I have seen some films that were initially boring blossom into full filmic flower, and I am glad I finished them. Use your own judgment when watching.

Having made these distinctions, I would like to recommend five foreign films for those of you who have foreign film phobia.

1)  Hero (Dir. Zhang Yimou, Chinese, 2002) – This film stands alongside Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an enjoyable example of the wuxia (martial-arts swordsman adventure) genre.  This genre was influenced heavily by the acrobatics of the Chinese opera, which is why the characters walk on water, fly through the air, and possess supra-human powers. While some people find these abilities unbelievable, I think they make great use of film’s ability to depict scenes from man’s imagination. Hero’s imaginary vision is unparalleled. This is one of the most visually stunning films you will ever see.

2)  The Color of Paradise (Dir. Majid Majidi, Farsi, 1999) – This film changed the way I think about the Middle East. Filmed in Iran, it is the story of a blind boy’s search for God. The cinematography and sound design of this film are among the most creative I have ever seen, allowing you to “see” what the blind boy “sees” with his hands and ears. Majidi’s other works (Baran, Children of Heaven) likewise celebrate children and their unique perspectives, exploring an innocence that American cinema has long forgotten about.

3)  Amelie (Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, French, 2002) – This is the cinematic equivalent of eating an Icee®  too fast. It is delicious, and your brain freezes for one whimsical, disorienting moment, until you realize that you have just been engaged by a playful yet transcendent muse that makes you a child and an adult all at once.  If you see this and still shudder at the thought of foreign films, not even “more cowbell” will cure your ailments.

If, on the other hand, you see Amelie and love it, you would be remiss not to see Jeunet’s latest film, Micmacs. His other films, with the exception of his foray into English-language film with Alien: Resurrection, are also excellent.

4)  Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japanese, 2002) – Many people equate anime with porn, or with a cultish clan of cartoonish fans who daydream of having been born Japanese.  This distorted perception obviously does not take the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s Walt Disney, into account. Watch Spirited Away for 20 minutes and tell me you are not mesmerized. I will, in turn, tell you that you might be dead.

5)  Life is Beautiful (Dir. Roberto Benigni, Italian, 1997) – While Schindler’s List is an indisputable masterpiece, it lacks the counterbalancing levity of Life is Beautiful, which mines similar historical territory with beauty and grace. It is a charmer through and through, and a soulful meditation on the nature of parental love.

Enjoy your adventures in the world of foreign films, and let me know what you see. Also, if you have any recommendations, I would love to hear about them. If I do not hear anything from you, I will simply assume that your worst foreign film fears came true, and that the ghost of Akira Kurosawa has taken over your body and is, even now, forcing you to dress as a samurai on casual Friday.