Abstract black-and-white depiction of "Parasite"
Why is the public so unwilling to deal with subtitles? (Illustration by Elizabeth Wong, University of Rhode Island)

‘Parasite’ Sparks Critique on Rejection of Subtitled Foreign Films in U.S.

The Academy Award Winner for best picture has sparked debate regarding the use of subtitles in foreign films.

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Abstract black-and-white depiction of "Parasite"

The Academy Award Winner for best picture has sparked debate regarding the use of subtitles in foreign films.

South Korean film “Parasite” has gained critical acclaim since its release in 2019. It won recognition at the AACTA Awards, Blue Dragon Film Awards and BAFTA Film Awards, among other Korean and international film awards. Most notably, it became the first foreign-language film to win best motion picture at the Oscars.

The film itself, though boasting a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, may not be for everyone. It’s described as a “dark-comedy thriller” and some have criticized the film’s take on the issue of class divisions. Regardless, the rise of “Parasite” has brought some bigger issues to light: to watch or not to watch the un-dubbed, subtitled foreign film?

Following the Oscars, many rushed to various streaming services like YouTube, Google Play and Amazon Prime to watch the film. However, some left reviews critiquing its subtitle-use and foreign language: “we did not watch this movie as it was all in subtitles,” while others requested a refund simply because “Parasite” was “not in English.” Another reviewer complained that renting “Parasite” was a “waste of money unless you speak whatever language they were speaking,” despite having English subtitles available.

Many took to Twitter to discuss whether films should be subtitled or dubbed. While the majority of users under this particular thread seemed to advocate for subtitles, there’s still a reluctance to embrace foreign-language films in America since “foreign-language box office has shown a steady decline.”

One argument against subtitles criticizes the distraction of reading while trying to watch a film, advocating for dubbed movies. However, for most, subtitles are quite easy to adjust to. Several studies have found that subtitles can improve literacy and reading speed.

With a little practice and an open mind, many audiences stop thinking about subtitles and adapt to reading them automatically — especially considering that the majority of American films are shown with subtitles overseas. Among all of this subtitle discussion, some have also pointed out that when subtitles aren’t available in their native language, they’ve adapted to reading them in English.

Another argument against subtitles proposes non-English movies should “just be dubbed.” Of course, dubbing is a good option for those with dyslexia, visual impairment or those who are blind, otherwise, there’s quite a few down-sides to dubbing. First, it’s more costly than subtitling. Dubs require not only translating the script of the film, but hiring an entire cast of voice-actors, recording over the original actors and editing them all together cohesively.

Dubbing is a luxury that many films aren’t able to afford. For those who don’t necessarily need dubs, why only consider films in English? This drastically limits the number of movies that could otherwise be enjoyed.

Furthermore, dubbing rarely emulates the original actor’s performance. As film critic Joyce Eng put it, “no disrespect to voice actors, but they never truly capture the greatness or intricacies of the original performance via dubbing, and oftentimes might convey something else entirely — even worse when the dubbing is out of sync with what’s on screen. Watch — and read — the show the way it was meant to be seen.”

Additionally, dubbing can often rid the film of culturally-specific references, and change context to fit the American audience. In some cases, it can be harmless and perhaps helpful (like when Pixar’s “Inside Out” changed Riley’s broccoli to bell peppers for Japanese audiences). However, sometimes dubbing can make drastic changes to foreign shows and movies, simply in an attempt to accommodate the American audience.

For example, when “Sailor Moon” was dubbed for America, it “cut out most references to Japanese culture, both in the audio and on the screen.” Overall, dubbing takes away from the foreign film experience by removing interesting cultural quirks that audiences wouldn’t have otherwise learned.

Some insist that watching movies with subtitles makes it difficult to multitask, as they prefer to play films in the background while tending to other tasks. I find this baffling as the film is essentially being used as background noise. Watching films, especially foreign ones, will often demand the complete attention of the audience. Otherwise, it becomes easy to miss crucial plot points that may seem to be small details.

Among all this discussion, an even greater issue has unfolded: Why is there so much discourse over whether or not to watch films with subtitles to begin with? Truthfully, I have never understood the intense reluctance for subtitles. In attempt to share my foreign film favorites, I’ve been met with disappointed remarks like, “Oh, it’s not in English?” My question then becomes, if the film is from a country where English isn’t the native language, why would the film be in English?

In an article that explored why foreign films have difficulty penetrating the U.S. market, box-office president of Hollywood.com noted that, “in order to make films palatable to an American audience, they have to be in English,” and “that’s why you see American versions of films like ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ The Scandinavian version was perfectly good, but nobody saw it in the U.S.”

Arguments claiming American audiences could never watch a film that isn’t in English because they wouldn’t understand it is where the glory of subtitles can be fully appreciated, especially since they allow for more accurate translations. Not every film will be dubbed over or remade for American viewers — they shouldn’t need to be. That’s part of the beauty in watching foreign films: They open new world-views and perspectives, capturing authentic cinema with fresh cultural ideals.

In films like “In the Mood for Love” (2000) and “Il Postino: The Postman” (1994), audiences are transported to different countries and cultures. They explore the suffocating social life of 1960s Hong Kong and the poverty and politics of 1950s Italy.

These aren’t the main focus of the film but, rather, are subtle references that can enrich the understanding of a country’s history. “Parasite” isn’t the first and only critically-acclaimed foreign film, however, I can only hope its win at the Oscars will open new doors for future foreign films to be received without bias.

As Bong Joon-ho said himself at the Golden Globes, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

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