Many films, past and present, have been about exotic locales featuring foreigners. It’s always fun to visit a country through the eyes and experiences of someone else in movies. Here’s a way to increase your DVD collection, check out these 10 excellent cinematic masterpieces about travel around the globe featuring tourists who are just visiting, or expats living and working in another country.
One common theme in each film is the life-changing experiences they encounter abroad. Sometimes you have to go out of the country to see things in a whole new light. These 10 films list their title, year of release, and the country (or continent since one film travels to many countries) location its set in.
“Lost in Translation” (2003) (Japan)
Set in Tokyo it's about two American travelers. One female traveler accompanies her husband who’s a photographer on business. The other is an aging actor making a lucrative income by filming a Japanese television commercial. They’re both lonely living in a city crowded with millions of people in a very foreign land. You literally get a feel of Tokyo’s uniqueness and quirky attitude in “Lost in Translation,” mixed in with some traditional Japanese customs. The amount of culture shock they feel is extremely evident.
“The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) (India)
Three spoiled and materialistic American brothers come together in India after not speaking to each other for over a year since their father died. Now their mission is to look for their reclusive mother who is living in a monastery somewhere in rural India. During this journey across the Indian subcontinent by railway, you’ll see spectacular scenery throughout to behold.
Along the way the brothers get into some dangerous adventures that bring them closer and a new perspective. They attend a traditional Indian funeral that brings back memories of their father. “The Darjeeling Limited” is more about a spiritual quest they must go through in a country that’s highly spiritual in nature.
“The Beach” (2000) (Thailand)
While backpacking his way through Asia, this American traveler stops in Bangkok. At his hotel he meets a Scotsman who tells him about an untouched and uninhabited island. It’s the perfect paradise out in the Gulf of Thailand. When the Scotsman commits suicide, he leaves behind a map for the American and his other travel companions.
After a long and dangerous journey they reach this beautiful and mysterious island. Unfortunately they meet up with other travelers who now live there. The people in charge live under a dictatorship, something the American was trying to escape from. During the filming of “The Beach,” a lot of controversy was made about the film company’s damage to the unspoiled island of Phi Phi Le for its location shots.
“Seven Years in Tibet” (1997) (Tibet)
Brad Pitt portrays the famed Austrian mountaineer climbing the Himalayans set in 1939. In the film you'll see some magnificent cinematography of those mountain vistas. The climbing scenes in "Seven Years in Tibet" with Pitt will leave you breathless. During his climb he’s caught by Allied Forces, and becomes a prisoner of war. While escaping he goes to Lhasa, the holy Tibetan city. There is some actual secret footage of Tibet in this film. The arrogant and haughty mountaineer meets up with the very young Dalai Lama. Between the two of them, they strike up a friendship and deep bond that radically changes the Austrian completely.
“South Pacific” (1958) (Vanuatu)
During World War II, the story of “South Pacific” took place in New Hebrides. Now it is known as the Republic of Vanuatu. This film is one of two musicals on the list. Films made from Hollywood back in the 1940s and 1950s rarely went on locations outside the U.S., especially this remote. It was actually filmed in Hawaii on the island of Kauai and in Ibiza.
“South Pacific” begins with the U.S. Navy setting up its military base in this tropical paradise. It centers on a Navy nurse in love with a wealthy French planter. A Marine is sent to the island on a secret mission who becomes lovers with a French Polynesian girl. The romantic music and storyline contrast its wartime setting. Issues of racism are made clear, since the nurse is from Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Summertime” (1955) (Italy)
Romance is in the air for this American single lady, a secretary from Ohio, while on holiday in Venice. She meets a charming Italian man, only to find out from his son he’s married. They begin a love affair and take you all over the Venetian canals, plazas, and other points of interest. There is one famous scene in "Summertime" where the main female character falls into the canal. It is strongly recommended not to try to re-create that scene today. The waters are highly polluted. Realizing this clandestine romance will only go so far, and not have anyone get hurt.
“Out of Africa” (1985) (Kenya)
Meryl Streep and Robert Redford star in this Oscar-winning best picture. Streep is the Danish writer, Isak Dinesan. In the film "Out of Africa," her character uses her married name, Karen Blixen-Flecke. Redford is the American hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. They are both living in Nairobi, Kenya and soon begin a love affair. After Karen’s husband wants out of their marriage of convenience, she’s all alone with taking care of the plantation. There are numerous breath-taking scenes of Kenya throughout the film, thanks to David Watkins brilliant cinematography. Watkins also won the Oscar for his category.
“The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) (South America)
Hitch a ride on a motorcycle road trip throughout the South American continent in this real life adventure. It's from the travel journals of a medical student and his biochemist friend, Alberto Granado, both from Argentina. Set in 1952 they volunteer their services at a leper colony along the Amazon River. Ernesto Guevara is the 23-year old medical student who specializes in leprology. You’ll become enthralled with the sweeping landscapes of the Andes Mountains, Chile, and Peru. “The Motorcycle Diaries” journey takes an unexpected turn when they witness first-hand, the injustices of the indigenous people they encounter along the way. It also ignites Ernesto Guevara’s political views (later on he becomes the revolutionary leader, Che Guevara).
“Midnight Express” (1978) (Turkey)
Billy Hayes from Long Island, New York is in Istanbul, Turkey ready to smuggle drugs out of the country back to the U.S. Little does he know what his actions will cost him at the airport. Decades before National Geographic Channel’s “Locked Up Abroad,” this movie is based on Billy’s real-life experience in a Turkish prison. Initially he was to serve only four years. In the early 1970s (when this all took place) President Nixon angered the Turkish government, so the Turkish court decided to extend Billy’s prison sentence to 30 years.
Thus begins his journey to take the midnight express, slang for escape (and likely based on the Orient-Express train based in Istanbul). In the beginning of “Midnight Express” you see scenes of the Grand Bazaar. Billy encounters another fellow American, a drug-addicted Brit, and a gay Swede he becomes rather friendly with in prison. One thing is absolutely certain; you will never forget this movie and his harrowing tale.
“An American in Paris” (1951) (France)
During a time when American artists, musicians, dancers, and writers flocked to Paris to soak up the City of Light’s artistry, this Hollywood musical is the story of an American painter and his band of starving artist friends. They all share in their struggles to make it big in their fields on day. Jerry, the painter, attracts the attention of a socialite who’s willing to be his benefactor in more ways than one.
Instead, Jerry falls in love with a young and beautiful French dancer. The story gets complicated by one of his friends who are dating the dancer. There are a number of recognizable sights of Paris, though the film is set largely on the sound stages of MGM for its numerous musical and dance productions. “An American in Paris” truly epitomizes the expat experience with the character immersing himself in French culture and its people.