Read Your Subtitles (They’re Good for You…)

By Yehudit Mam

February 26, 2020

The Oscars are my Superbowl. I scream in frustration at my TV screen for three and a half hours straight, roaring with joy on the rare occasion when the Academy gives the prize to the right winner. But this year was the rare exception.

On February 8, along with everyone at the ceremony and around the world, I cheered at Parasite’s historic sweep of the statuettes, rightfully earning Best Movie, Best Screenplay, Best International Movie and Best Director.

You may have heard it before, but it’s worth repeating in this age of short memory span: Parasite is a rare phenomenon; a rare subtitled movie that has grossed over 200 million dollars worldwide (about 50 million of them stateside), garnered an 8-minute standing ovation at the Cannes film festival, won endless awards, and keeps developing a passionate global fanbase, making many discover South Korean cinema for the first time.

Movies in languages other than English have had successful US domestic runs before (Amelie, Life Is Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso, etc.), but Parasite really hit a nerve. Why has a South Korean movie about two families in Seoul resonated so profoundly? Well, about 99% of the population can relate to a story of extreme disparity between the haves and the have nots, in this case, a family struggling not to slide into poverty. But Parasite does something else: it’s also fiendishly entertaining. 

Sadly, subtitles are poison in the US box office. Foreign films are rarely shown outside of big American cities and some college towns. Bong Joon-Ho, the director of Parasite, threw elegant shade at American audiences with this immortal quote: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He also cheekily referred to the Oscars as “these local awards”. He was only half-joking. Except in the US and English-speaking countries, most of the world has been watching subtitled movies since the dawn of cinema. In the rest of the world, Hollywood movies are foreign movies, and with any luck, they’re not the only fare in town. 

Why is something that’s completely normal for people around the world too hard an ask for American audiences? My guess is that it’s not just sheer laziness. Americans are used to the fact that English is the lingua franca of the world and the US global supremacy in language, technology, sports, marketing, and particularly in entertainment makes many Americans incurious. We rule, so why bother? This translates to a tragic lack of interest in other cultures. 

Will Parasite’s triumph help Americans conquer their fear of subtitles and enjoy the glories of foreign films? The good news is that money talks, and I’m afraid that we’re about to be visited by many Parasite wannabes, both in English and in other languages. A good sign is that the Academy changed the Best Foreign Film category to “Best International Film.” The word “foreign” sounds unwelcome, like a foreign object lodged in your throat, whereas “international” makes you feel classy. Also, since the advent of streaming services, Americans can now watch international movies and TV shows at home either with subtitles or dubbed into English. This exposure is unprecedented. 

Alas, our current xenophobic climate doesn’t bode well. For certain people, anything that isn’t American is suspect. Not one to waste an opportunity to mock and belittle the other, Donald Trump complained recently about Parasite’s best picture Oscar, pandering to his audience of insecure nationalists. Nothing signals ignorance as much as this resentment of other cultures. So here’s hoping that Parasite’s triumph encourages people to discover foreign movies, which tend to be so much better than tired franchises about men in tights. Read your subtitles and open your mind.




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