“Everything I learned I learned from the movies.” — Audrey Hepburn

So many of our expectations, hopes and desires are taken directly from what we see at the movies, where happy endings are not only ubiquitous—but also requisite. This is the reason why we often demand the same feel-good climaxes in our own life stories (which, unfortunately, rarely occurs).

What films have taught me is that real life, compared to that of the silver screen, is oftentimes, quite disappointing. I have come to realize that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will never whisk me off to an adorable date at IKEA, nor will the greatest artists of the 20th century invite me to an after-hours party in Paris, and most sadly, hoverboards will likely not be available for purchase in 2015.

In other words, most films are fantasy. They live and breathe in your mind for about 90 minutes and then you swiftly return to the regular world, just as you left it. Sure you were entertained, but did the movie actually move you? Did it make you change? Did it make you realize something you hadn’t before?

I recently saw a film that did not leave me after I left the theater. In fact, I have thought about it so profusely since I saw it a few weeks ago, that it has inspired me to write this blog entry. After watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about the world’s most renown sushi chef, I couldn’t help but feel completely mesmerized by his story. From the moment the lights came back on in the theater till now, I have been saying to myself: Wow, I learned something and I want to be a better person now.

How often does this happen? Rarely. Maybe three times—so far.

1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Lesson Learned: Don’t half-ass your life


At first I thought Jiro Dreams of Sushi was going to be similar to typical gastronomical shows reminiscent of The Food Network, but in fact, the film is less about food and more about the story of one man’s incredible journey toward pursuing excellence. Jiro, who was awarded the highest distinction of three stars by Michelin, is an 85-year-old sushi chef who runs a tiny, unassuming restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. The documentary chronicles his extreme skill and intuition (e.g., he cuts smaller pieces for women, because they take smaller bites) as well as his insatiable appetite for perfection, which has not waned during more than 70 years of practice. Even as an octogenarian, Jiro maintains a rigorous work schedule with no plans to retire — he even dislikes holidays because it keeps him away from his restaurant.

So often, I have always leaned toward giving up in times of difficulty, but Jiro asserts that one should never complain about their job or their work. They should do their best every single day and seek to become the best. To him, that was and is the only way to live his life.

 It is suffice to say that I have never experienced the type of dedication and pride that Jiro has as a sushi chef. It’s not love, per se, but rather, an intrinsic part of his being. He and sushi are essentially part of the same fabric—they are the two parts that comprise his whole.

It’s a beautiful thing to maintain that kind of drive, especially in the twilight of his years. For someone who has never really sought to do her absolute best before, it is obviously a challenge—but when I think of what Jiro has accomplished, I see that the pursuit of excellence is the epitome of fulfillment, and really, the only way I should live.

2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2005)

Lesson Learned: Life goes on

Wes Anderson’s fantastical dramedy is about Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer, who hunts down the elusive “Jaguar shark” that killed his best friend. It is also my favorite movie of all time. It goes without saying that I adore all the characters, the cinematography, and the wonderful soundtrack, but what has stood out to me most are the film’s simple messages about heartbreak, loss and redemption. Zissou, played by the great Bill Murray, is an aging, egotistical, once visionary that has lost his way since his friend’s passing. Throughout the film, Zissou struggles often with his identity and work—often dubious of his accomplishments. In the final climax, which brings me to tears every time, he at last encounters the shark that he has been so vehemently hunting. But instead of killing it, he is overcome by its beauty and discovers that his existence and life’s work has meaning, after all.

The first time I saw that scene, I felt a tug at my heart. I realized that life will always be filled with turmoil and heartache, but once in a while, we receive gifts delivered as brief moments of clarity—their messages are usually succinct, but so important: Don’t give up, because life goes on.

 This may be trivial, but believing that something good will come out of something terrible is one of the hardest things for me. This movie helps me to see that it is not entirely impossible.

3. Waste Land (2010)

Lesson Learned: Regular people can do extraordinary things

Waste Land is a documentary about contemporary artist Vik Muniz who visits Brazil for a year to collaborate on an expansive art project with garbage pickers in Rio de Janeiro’s largest landfill. To create art from trash—Muniz assembles the scavengers to create large-scale self-portraits from the materials they collect. The art is eventually sold at auctions and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo. While the art is fascinating, most compelling are the garbage pickers—who divulge their intimate stories of how they came to their present circumstances. Their revelations are at once heartbreaking and uplifting, as you see their humanity, their suffering and their joy, as they create art that transforms their lives and bestows unto them a new sense of pride. This motley group of artists are also inspiring, as people who had nothing, but were still able to create extraordinary art—all they needed was the opportunity that Muniz provided.

Self portrait from landfill materials

People make all the difference in our lives—we can choose to help and inspire others or never go beyond our own selves. Waste Land demonstrates that it is only through the former, that the most amazing things can happen. 

What movies have changed you?


Follow me on Twitter: @thisjenkim