A culture clash can be best defined as a situation where individuals from different cultural backgrounds find themselves at odds because of differing values, attitudes, or customs. It can happen on both a small and large scale, and is naturally going to be more frequent in the modern age, where technology lets people from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds communicate easily, and where international travel is more available than it was in centuries past.
Cultural clashes come up surprisingly often in the world of film, too. Just about every movie needs conflict of some kind, and having two characters (or groups of characters) who are opposed because of differing beliefs is one reliable way to have some sort of dramatic conflict in a story. The following movies all explore various cultural clashes well, and often treat both sides with a level of respect and empathy. This makes them insightful looks at why these clashes can happen, and how the parties involved can often come to an understanding with each other.
10 ‘The Farewell’ (2019)
The Farewell is a gentle yet very sad movie that offers small bursts of comedy within the drama. It centers on a Chinese family who learns the family’s eldest member – the protagonist’s grandmother – has a terminal illness, yet decides to keep the news from her, and create a staged wedding to give the family members one last chance to say goodbye… without explicitly saying goodbye.
As the main character has grown up in America, she struggles to understand why Chinese culture can encourage families to deal with illnesses in this manner. It’s a bittersweet film that looks at the way different cultures view something as difficult as death, and encourages a level of compassion and understanding towards both differing perspectives.
9 ‘The Yakuza’ (1974)
The simply titled The Yakuza is likely the best yakuza film made by a non-Japanese director. It follows an American man who travels to Japan to find a friend’s kidnaped daughter, but soon encounters members of the yakuza, who are the main organized crime family in Japan (sort of comparable to how Italy and the US have the mafia).
While most culture clash movies tend to be a little less explosive, and more focused on being dramas (or dramedies), The Yakuza stands out for being an exciting crime/action movie. The protagonist is at odds with those he comes into contact with, but he soon makes alliances, leading to a great final action sequence where fighting styles from both the East and the West are used at once to great effect.
8 ‘The Wedding Banquet’ (1993)
The first three feature films from Ang Lee were fairly grounded dramas that often dealt with characters who have differing points of view. The Wedding Banquet is a clear example, in this regard, as it focuses on a Taiwanese-American man living in New York City who keeps his same-sex partner a secret from his traditionalist Taiwanese parents.
Things get complicated when his parents interfere with his love life, trying to partner him off with a woman before traveling to America to take matters into their own hands further. There are language and cultural barriers, with farcical situations coming from the main character trying to convince his parents he’s doing what’s expected of them. Its approach to such issues may seem dated 30 years on (maybe it’s less likely these events would happen in the 2020s), but it remains a heartfelt and empathetic look at a protagonist who finds himself between two very different cultures.
7 ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ (1983)
Even if it’s not his most well-known movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence undeniably contains David Bowie’s best performance. In it, he plays a British soldier who disrupts the way of life in a prisoner-of-war camp run by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.
Despite the two sides not shown being in active warfare with each other, the British prisoners and Japanese soldiers clash throughout, often not understanding the other side’s way of life or values. It’s a movie that even splits its dialogue roughly fifty-fifty between Japanese and English, showing that it wants to show both points of view. Rather than picking a side, this esoteric and surprisingly moving war-drama is more interested in exploring how and why such sides clash during wartime in the first place.
6 ‘Black Panther’ (2018)
Even if one side of the cultural conflict in the first Black Panther heralds from a fictional nation – Wakanda – it’s still a movie that depicts ideologies caused by different backgrounds clashing. The film’s protagonist, T’Challa, and antagonist, Killmonger, likely wouldn’t be opposed if they’d grown up together, but their differing pasts cause them to clash.
Killmonger was raised in America and attacks Wakanda because he detests their politics, isolationism, and the fact they still have a monarchy. T’Challa is most interested in defending the Wakandan way of life, and is willing to fight threats like Killmonger and his forces. It’s a movie that shows cultural conflict can still be explored effectively, even if one side comes from a fictional land.
5 ‘Pushing Hands’ (1991)
Two years before The Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee explored similar themes of cultural conflict with a very different story. 1991’s Pushing Hands centers on a widower who leaves Beijing to come and live in America with his son’s family.
The widower doesn’t speak English and doesn’t understand American culture. His daughter-in-law doesn’t speak Mandarin and doesn’t understand Chinese culture. Since they’re forced to share a house – and the son is often out during the day – they naturally clash a fair amount of the time… at least at first, with the film showing the slow process of them accepting the other’s differences and eventually coming to a mutual understanding of sorts.
4 ‘Red Sun’ (1971)
French superstar Alain Delon is best known for starring in stylish French crime thrillers, but that wasn’t the only type of movie he appeared in. Red Sun stands out as an anomaly in his career, as it’s a fairly wild action/adventure movie that aims to merge a Western with a samurai film.
Honestly, it’s an unusual film for all of its main cast members, including Toshiro Mifune, Charles Bronson, and Ursula Andress. It’s a messy mash-up of styles, but at least it’s a consistently interesting watch, and does a decent job of showing characters representing the East and West who clash in a series of over-the-top action scenes during the late 1800s.
3 ‘Turning Red’ (2022)
You can often rely on Pixar movies to deal with fairly mature topics whilst remaining family-friendly. Turning Red is a good example of this, as it presents a less intense – but still impactful – look at a culture clashing, showing how a young Chinese girl raised in America butts heads with her more traditional mother, and the values held by much of the rest of her family.
Of course, it’s also a movie about a girl turning into a giant red panda, which is probably the part that stands out the most (especially to younger viewers). But the look at juggling an American way of life with Chinese values passed down through generations is still a significant part of Turning Red, and works surprisingly well within the apparent confines of a family-friendly movie.
2 ‘In the Loop’ (2009)
In the Loop shows that cultural clashes don’t always have to occur between two groups who speak a different language. It also shows that it’s possible to ridicule both sides and mine their arguments for comedy gold, which is what this profane, dark, clever, and very funny political satire does.
The UK Prime Minister and the US President both seem to want the same thing – to declare a new war – but the staff of each side frequently clash behind the scenes. Those from the UK fail to understand those from the US, leading to plenty of dark comedy and vicious insults. With two aggressive sides, there are no real winners from this conflict, and no real attempts from one side to understand the other – just mean-spirited hilarity throughout.
1 ‘Minari’ (2020)
Minari takes an interesting approach to two cultures clashing. The main characters belong to a family of South Korean immigrants living in the US, with the parents feeling more at odds with the culture than their two young kids, who seem to adapt to the American way of life surprisingly fast.
It’s not so much that there’s conflict between the parents and kids; more just that there’s some drama caused by everyone adapting to their new lives at a different pace. It’s a gentler approach to exploring the clashing of different backgrounds, yet remains a moving and effective one.
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