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An Intro to Non-English Language Coming-of-Age Films



When director Bong Joon Ho went up on stage during the 77th Golden Globes Ceremony at The Beverly Hilton to accept the award for Best Foreign Language film, he told the audience in Korean, which was then translated into English: “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many amazing films.”

His film, Parasite, not only became the first Korean film to win at the Golden Globes, it is also the first Korean film to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. While we used to only have access to the films that were screened at our local cinemas, the Internet allows us to explore cinema in a multitude of languages. As Bong reminds us, all we have to do is overcome that little barrier of reading on a screen and we would see a world of cinema beyond Hollywood blockbusters and dramas.

To start you of, we have explored eight non-English language coming-of-age films for the budding cinephile in all us, essentially an introduction to world cinema for the young and young at heart (but definitely not for the faint of heart):

Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)

Hayao Miyazaki, 1988 | Japanese

Two young sisters, Satsukei and Mei, are dealing with the emotional stress of illness in the family and rellocation. A slew of magical creatures come into their lives and fill it with joy and adventure. More than just a tale of escapism, it is an ode to childhood wonder and imagination. Fair warning, once you watch Totoro, Studio Ghibli can be quite addictive, each of the films warranting multiple re-watches.

Good Bye Lenin!

Wolfgang Becker, 2003 | German

This tragicomedy film is primarily set after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. After his staunchly Soviet mother has a heart attack, the doctors tell Alex (Daniel Bruhl) that any shocks could be fatal. In their apartment, East Berlin lives on. While he explores the marvels of the world behind the Iron Curtain, he also experiences nostalgia for a time long gone. Going through life with one foot still in the past, clinging on to what is comfortable and known, is something many of us can remember as we grew up. At the end, we learn that a little bit of humor, and a lot of heart, goes a long, long way.

Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries)

Walter Seller, 2004 | Spanish

Prepare to be inspired by a sense of wanderlust and adventure. Based on then-medical student Che Guevara’s personal diaries, The Motorcycle Diaries chronicles Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) and Guevara’s (Gael García Bernal) expedition across South America. Although the road trip begins with self-indulgent intentions, the film follows Guevara as he witnesses the plight of the forgotten and neglected, inspiring his vision for a united Latin American identity, and sowing the seeds for his own radicalization.

And if you fall in love with Bernal, which is hard not to do while watching the film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) is another “road film” waiting for you.

El labernito del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)

Guillermo del Toro, 2006 | Spanish

Arguably del Toro’s magnum opus, the film is a fairy tale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. Set in Francoist Spain, the fantastical elements mirror the dangers of fascism through the eyes of a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). It tests the virtues of selfishness and innocence by throwing them into the maws of del Toro’s lovingly crafted monsters, whether they be mythical or frighteningly real. This is a film best viewed with the lights out.


Vincent Paronnaud, 2007 | French

An adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novel, and animated in the same minamalist artistic style, Persepolis is about a young girl growing up amid the horrors of war and political unrest. As she goes from childhood to adulthood, she struggles with her own identity as an Iranian woman. A deeply personal account set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, it follows a rebelious Satrapi who lives in a society where even a small act of rebellion, a small act that many take for granted in their own societies, could get you arrested, or worse.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Tomas Alfredson, 2008 | Swedish

Discarding many of the usual horror genre conventions, the film tells an adolescent love story between a milquetoast 12-year-old boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and a two-hundred-year-old vampire child, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Although at times it is tender in its portrayol of a mutually protective and accepting relationship, the film avoids veering too far into the saccharine by infusing darker themes of loneliness, isolation, bullying, neglect, and, ultimately, the implication that first loves may build on misguided co-dependency.


Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015 | Turkish

Inspired by an event from Ergüven’s teenage years, Mustang is a cautionary tale depicting the perils faced by young women in puritanical socities. The devastating drama deals with themes of sisterhood, arranged marriage, sexual abuse, and even social conservatism. Driven by raw performances of actresses who mostly had no prior acting experience, the film presents an outraged narrative about prematurely truncated childhoods for those with an appetite for feminist stories.


Mikhail Red, 2016 | Tagalog

It may be a bit of a cheat to include a Filipino film since you won’t have to overcome the one-inch subtitle barrier, but we give recognition where recognition is due, and it still fits within our non-English language list requirement! Set against pastoral landscapes outside of the city, a young girl, Maya (Mary Jay Apostal), shoots and kills a Philippine eagle and sets in motion this tale of corruption and loss of innocence for herself and rookie cop Domingo (Arnold Reyes). He is on her tail, and their stories go continuously around the same axis, building tension and drama.

8mmovies is a weekly youth segment published every Wednesday that brings you eight film recommendations based on what is trending in the world of cinema and beyond. This list has been contributed by Ricardo de los Reyes, a recent graduate of Princeton University, who is currently managing a dental facility in San Francisco.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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