One of the most talked-about films in 2020 was surely Parasite, the Korean-language film that made cinematic history. Amongst its six Oscar nominations, it was the first South Korean film ever to be nominated (and go on to win) Best Picture.
Parasite is a darkly comedic thriller that tackles themes of class and inequality. It was met with great critical acclaim and also won the Palme d’Or at its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival back in 2019.
Critical reception aside, Parasite has garnered perhaps the most attention from the conversations it has sparked: About Hollywood, the perception of foreign-language films and the role of movie subtitles in audience enjoyment.
Parasite and the Golden Globes
2020’s first of many major red-carpet events kicked off in style at the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards in The Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, California in January.
Stars and filmmakers from Hollywood and beyond flocked to the prestigious awards ceremony, all with the hope of bagging the top accolades of the evening.
But it was Sharon Choi, a 25-year-old Korean-American interpreter (also a filmmaker), that unexpectedly hit the headlines the following day. Choi had been working alongside Parasite director Bong Joon-ho throughout 2019’s promotional circuit of the film.
Parasite went on to bag the Golden Globe award for best foreign-language film on the evening, making it the first Korean film to even win in that category. Director Bong Joon-ho rose to the stage to deliver his acceptance speech predominantly in Korean, and so Choi was entrusted with interpreting his speech for the mostly English-speaking audience.
The ‘barrier’ of movie subtitles
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Bong Joon-ho in his now-viral speech, as interpreted by Choi.
“Just being nominated along with fellow, amazing international filmmakers was a huge honor. I think we use only one language: the cinema,” he continued.
His comments were soon quoted in news outlets across the world. They were widely seen as a not-so-subtle dig at the Anglo-American cinema-going public and their “perceived aversion to subtitles.”
Indeed, it’s what film critic Justin Chang calls the “cultural myopia of Hollywood itself, which reserves special prizes each year for movies shot in countries outside the U.S. and in languages other than English.”
What’s particularly interesting is Bong Joon-ho’s use of the word ‘barrier’. Is he being ironic, or simply reflecting the truth that foreign-language films generally earn smaller audiences (and consequently less money at the box office) than English-language films? As a result, are movie subtitles really a barrier to audience enjoyment, or to a film achieving wider success?
The truth about the so-called subtitling barrier
We can dig deeper into Bong Joon-ho’s comment when we consider its literal, direct translation from Korean. According to @AskaKorean on Twitter:
“A more direct (and worse) translation for Bong’s remark might be: “The barrier called subtitles… well, it’s not even really a barrier. It’s barely an inch. Once you jump over that barrier, you can enjoy many more films.”
“Choi combined those three sentences into a single sentence. That takes real skill.”
“In doing so, Choi elected to drop Bong’s sidebar note, “well, it’s not even really a barrier.” She knows what he’s trying to say, and decided this note didn’t advance Bong’s point.”
From Choi’s skillful interpretation, we can deduce that Bong’s reference to movie subtitles as a ‘barrier’ is ultimately a sarcastic one.
He seems to point out that movie subtitles are perhaps only a barrier from the point of view of a hearing, Anglo-American audience – an ethnocentric audience that may consider subtitles to be an inconvenience rather than an enhancement of the cinematic experience.
But why? And where, then, does that leave the rest of the world?
Movie subtitles as a bridge
For a hearing, Anglo-American audience, this perceived aversion to subtitles could stem from one simple truth: They are not used to seeing them.
Far from being ‘annoying’ or a ‘distraction’ from the movie, subtitles may put English-speaking audiences off because they haven’t yet trained their brains to perceive them as just another part of the cinematic experience.
Take it from a native English speaker like myself who has studied several foreign languages and has gone on to become a translator in the said languages… Reading subtitles may feel uncomfortable at first, but they soon become second nature when you want to catch up on the latest Spanish-language drama on Netflix, or revisit a Fellini classic.
Of course, for those who don’t speak English as a first-language, or speak it at all, subtitles are often necessary for enjoying global cinema. Although there are signs that the global movie industry is beginning to diversify, English-speaking Hollywood still dominates the industry as a whole.
In this way, subtitles are quite the opposite of a barrier: They can act as a bridge to extend the enjoyment of cinema to an international audience.
What’s more, movie subtitles are utterly indispensable for those who are hard of hearing. Going forward, accessibility must be at the heart of the movie industry, and movie subtitles should be viewed as a way to enrich the moviegoing experience rather than diminishing it.
Normalising movie subtitles
So, in 2020, let’s work towards normalising the presence of subtitles in movies.
No matter whether you’ll be using them to enjoy the rich and vast world of so-called ‘foreign’ cinema, to stay focused on the plot or, for those who are hard of hearing, to enjoy the nuances of the movie…. Subtitles are for everyone.
This year, let’s celebrate the role of movie subtitles as a bridge for a better cinema experience for all.
Want your multimedia subtitles to be seamlessly integrated into your content? Want subtitles to act as a bridge rather than a barrier? Then get in contact with a member of our subtitle team today for a quote.