The Barrier of Subtitles


When I was a little girl, my dad and I would walk through the aisles of the video rental store in search of movies to watch. We didn’t have cable, so this was how we spent our days. The store usually only showed the front cover, and you could only guess at what was within its tapes. Sometimes you would walk out of the store with a gem, sometimes a b-movie, and sometimes a foreign film.

At the 2020 Golden Globes, director Bong Joon-ho, stood at the podium, accepting an award for his film, Parasite. In his native Korean, he expressed that if people could overcome the one inch “barrier of subtitles,” they “would be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And he’s right.

I don’t even remember what my first foreign language film was. It could have been a Bruce Lee movie or Umbrellas of Cherbourg or The Seventh Seal, for all I know. Dad and I didn’t care if suddenly words appeared at the bottom of the screen. We watched silent films like Metropolis and Nosferatu, so the idea of reading while watching was never much of a barrier. In fact, when I graduated to watching Japanese anime consistently, I refused to listen to the English dubs because they homogenized the dialogue, dumbed down sections for Western audiences, and back then, voice acting wasn’t as it is today in the U.S. – often using the same actor for multiple parts or female leads with whiny, high-pitched voices.

When I became an adult, I learned that my appreciation of foreign films had not been shared. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard “I don’t watch movies to read. If I wanted to read, I’d get a book.” But, folks, stories are universal! Everybody has a right to tell theirs. Just because they don’t speak your language doesn’t mean they are any lesser than you, that your stories matter more than theirs. Parasite tells a universal human story about class and the parasitic nature of both the haves and the have nots.

In my lifetime, I can remember Life is Beautiful (La vita e bella) being nominated for best picture in 1998 Oscars. It was a tragicomedy about the Holocaust, a very important story to tell. It wouldn’t win that year, but Roberto Benigni did take home top acting prize. The next year, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for Best Picture and lost to the lesser Gladiator. It went home with cinematography, art direction, and best foreign language film. I can’t think of a more beautiful film, even in recent memory, and it’s now over twenty years old. Last year, the fantastic and underseen Roma took home best directing and best foreign film, and lost top prize to (shudder) Green Book.

All of these land on must-watch lists across the internet, but there are so many others that deserve to be seen. Train to Buson is easily one of the best zombie movies ever made. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Lives of Others are both great movies that came out in the same year and tell stories about different parts of history, one set in Spain (with plenty of fantasy to keep you going) and the other set in East Germany during communism. Anything by Studio Ghibli is better enjoyed with subtitles and is a great way to get used to reading. Your Name is an anime with gender role reversals, a subversion of romance tropes, and the tiniest bit of science fiction sprinkled on top. Also, did you know? You can thank the Raid movies for the John Wick franchise too.

Best of all, all these movies are available on streaming services. So unless you are physically incapable to enjoy movies with subtitles, give them a go (accessibility is a discussion I’m ill-equipped to make).

Still, now, as Parasite wins Best Picture at the Oscars, I wonder if this will change anything. Most people think the Academy Awards are pretentious, old-fashioned, inconsequential, or boring, and aside from a few headlines over the coming days, the loud conversation about representation, telling non-Western stories, will settle to a whisper and fade. Parasite was the best film of 2019, but entire groups of people will never watch it because it’s not in English. And they will all be missing one of the best movies of this century, let alone last year.

4 thoughts on “The Barrier of Subtitles

  1. I will admit, watching films with subtitles feels difficult for me, what with reading the dialogues and watching the scene. The eyes have to dance up and down for me to take it all in–what is being said and what is being shown. I steer clear of foreign language films as it literally gives me a headache. 😦


  2. I agree that there are some very wonderful non-English films out there!

    Another point to consider: I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” in the theater with a whole bunch of people. I was the only one in the group who actually understood Spanish, and ironically, what was being said and what was being put in the subtitles was not perfectly translated either. Afterwards, while discussing with my group of friends, it was clear that I experienced some nuances of the film by understanding the spoken language, that were missed by everyone else.

    Still, they enjoyed the movie immensely and all agreed that it would have been a shame to miss it, just because the idea of subtitles was off putting!


  3. This is such an interesting and important perspective, Mel. I’ve grown up surrounded by films in different languages — some I understand, some I don’t, some films have subtitles, some don’t. Film is a multifaceted medium and, as you allude to, the language is only one facet of the narrative. The only thing I’d add to what you say is that it’s not only non-Western films that will benefit. One of my favourite memories of watching a film in a language I don’t speak (French) is of watching Gerard Depardieu in Jean de Florette and also in Les Fugitives. As you say, we all stand to benefit from learning to expand our viewing!


  4. This post made me realize that I miss foreign films. I have two kids and most of the movies I’ve seen over the past decade were Disney. I loved Pan’s Labyrinth, and Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and many others. I’ll add Parasite to my list to check out.


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