With the Academy Awards coming up, everyone is talking about the best films of the year and their winning picks. And while I love the Oscars, too—they tend to remind me of how many great films out there don’t make the cut.
Some of my favorite movies, of course, are foreign films—stories that inspire me to travel to a new place, that capture the perfect moment when I am abroad, or that mirror my experiences interacting with and discovering a new culture. So, if you want to watch something a little different this year, let me take you on a tour of my travels throughout Asia and share some of the awesome films I learned about along the way.
At restaurant in Tokyo, I went to the restroom only to find a toilet with eight different buttons on it. For an American, this is a predicament: Which button do you press? I tried several—the first one shot out water, the second was an air freshener of sorts, the third played music, and so on. When I pressed the last button, several restaurant employees came running to my rescue—apparently I had pressed the emergency button!
Complex machines and quirky inventions like this are common in Japan, as I later learned from The Invention of Dr. Nakamats, a film about a Japanese inventor who holds over 3,300 patents. It’s a humorous look at inventing and entrepreneurship and a fascinating reflection about life and how much one can accomplish if he puts his mind to it.
Another great thing about being in Japan is the amazing food that’s on every corner. From Udon and (real) Ramen to the freshest sushi you can find, the experience of flavor and the access of good food in Japan is incredible. But would you ever consider paying $300 for a plate of sushi? For 3-Michelin-star Chef Jiro’s sushi, you just might.
Follow Chef Jiro on his quest to make the most perfect sushi in the world in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s fascinating, and it’s a great reminder to do what you’re passionate about and to always put your love into your work.
When I was working in Burma, I had the privilege of meeting some of the most inspiring activists in the world: the leading monks of Burma’s Saffron Revolution. Instead of just reporting the story, I decided to become part of it, and I worked as their English teacher in the jungles on the Thai Burma border. Since then, the monks have relocated as refugees to New York, and now are working to keep the Burmese Democracy Movement alive from America.
It’s a moving story, and it’s told well in the film Burma VJ. The documentary highlights the Saffron Revolution and the monks’ struggle as they peacefully protested against the Burmese military regime for the first time since 1988.
This past year, since Burma’s borders have opened up, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was able to travel to America for the first time during her house arrest. I had an amazing opportunity to see Aung San Suu Kyi, and I highly recommend watching her life story in the film The Lady.
While lecturing on a campus in Southern India, I came to realize how much pressure university students were under when studying for exams. Learning wasn’t about fun, it was about regurgitating information to do well on each test. (Teaching wasn’t always fun, either—I had to teach to a strict set of standards, and I found myself in the administrative offices constantly for using creative or innovative methods.)
For an inside look at the Indian educational system, check out 3 Idiots, produced by Aamir Khan, which reveals the struggle Indian students face and the pressure they’re under to stay on a certain career path. It’s humorous and unconventional, and it’s told with the same song and dance that’s common in most Bollywood films. For a more serious look at how challenging education for children can be, watch the endearing film Taare Zameen Par, which grapples with learning disabilities and dyslexia and was the film that got people talking about these important issues in India.
Every time I’m in Korea, I am forced to reassess my sense of fashion—I feel like most women in Seoul are two years ahead of the game! Coming off the plane for a long layover and feeling exhausted, it’s easy to feel far from perfect among the Korean women.
So I was fascinated by the film 200 Pounds Beauty, which depicts a young woman who acts as the secret voice for a pop singer until she gets plastic surgery and secures her own singing contract. The film is a fascinating lens into the culture of plastic surgery in Korea and searches for the meaning of true beauty in high-pressure city.
When I want to get away from Seoul, I head to the Korean countryside. For a taste of this, watch Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, a visually beautiful story about learning from ones mistakes and starting over again.
When I lived in Thailand, most of my time was spent on the campus of Chiang Mai University or in one of Chiang Mai’s many awesome coffee shops. The movie SuckSeed (“succeed” in English) depicts that lifestyle. It’s all about growing up and falling in love in Chiang Mai—and what happens when your rockstar dreams don’t pan out. It’s definitely worth a watch if you just want to laugh and relax.
All of these films are definitely worth checking out for entertainment purposes. But maybe they’ll also inspire you to travel somewhere—to try the best sushi, learn about the Saffron revolution, enjoy a great Thai iced tea in Chiang Mai, or just simply explore!
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author