Subtitles on Screen: The Expansion of World Cinema

When it comes to World Cinema, there is little that can be said without mentioning in some capacity the phenomenon that was Parasite. Winning ‘Best Picture’ (the first foreign film ever to win in this category) among many other awards at the 2020 Oscars it really felt as if the barrier of subtitles was finally dissolving. As director Bong Joon-ho said in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Yet if we think about mainstream cinema today, diversity is still not at the forefront.

Very few foreign films have the ability to surpass a Hollywood movie at the box office. While some are highly regarded, it tends to be that foreign films are stand-out rather than the norm. What is the reason behind Hollywood’s domination of the movie market that is making it difficult for films of other languages to elbow their way in successfully? The answer is as simple as laziness. When it comes down to what really bothers us about foreign films, it’s not that it’s by a director who is perhaps unknown to us or that it doesn’t star our favourite Hollywood hunk of the moment. The problem lies in the string of words that disappear and reappear at the bottom of our screens, often a little too quickly, which cause the major frustration of foreign films.

I have to read as well as watch?!’ The disastrous outcome suddenly befalls us as we realise we won’t be able to whip up a mug cake within hearing distance of the TV, text our friends love life updates from our phones and make tomorrow’s to-do list whilst still keeping up with the plot and movie action. The idea of solely concentrating on one screen only for two hours straight is rather an alien concept for today’s audiences who are used to multitasking and a fast-paced lifestyle.

Scrolling Bong Joon Ho GIF by Madman Films
From Giphy

Research into subtitled films has found the cognitive system is invaluable to ensure maximum viewing experience, and this means employing several parts of the brain to work instead of simply switching off. The main downside of a subtitled film is that we lose out on the little elements that give us indicators of how characters feel: amplitude, pitch, intonation, emotion. It can be the best translation in the world, but we still get a different experience to the one of a native familiar with small inflexions and mannerisms of the country’s language. This doesn’t mean that the viewing experience is less rewarding, it simply means we need to fully invest ourselves in the film and work to connect the floating words on our screen to the action we see unfold.

With cinemas being closed during various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign films must rely on other methods of exposure than arthouse cinema and signing with a large distribution service like Netflix is one of them. Netflix is now the biggest online streaming platform for foreign films, adding subtitles to its content in 28 languages allowing it to be marketable in different countries. But the competition of films on such a large platform is tough.

To turn our back on world cinema is to become ignorant to the world around us. Foreign films have the ability to give us an insight into someone else’s life, differing daily norms and routines, entirely contrasting settings and ways of living, new and enlightening perspectives of characters we haven’t seen before and all from the comfort of our cosy living rooms miles away. It is often said that foreign films have more importance and weight in cultural and prestigious circles consisting of arthouse cinema and innovative filmmaking. But why limit such a beautiful form of artistry into just one category of filmmaking when these stories could (and should) be reaching a much wider audience?

Personal favourites:

  • Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
  • Hors de prix (Pierre Salvadori, 2006)
  • In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
  • Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 2014)
  • Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

-Leila Lockley

Featured Image Source: Parasite trailer / Youtube

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