Arts & CultureIssue 002

Can’t you read? What Parasite’s success means for the future of international films.

By 5th May 2020 No Comments

By Alice Longton

Hands up, who watches awards shows? Who actually, positively, wholeheartedly loves to sit around the television with a nice cup of tea to watch celebrities with no charisma, present an award to a white man, to keep the rest of the white men happy? I do! Awards season has had its fair share of drama and controversies (we’re looking at you Oscars) but the majority of us can’t help but hope that this year will be different, and maybe someone will be nominated who actually deserves it. And maybe this year, they have.

If we’re looking at it from a global scale, Bong Joon-ho’s complex social satire Parasite has won 154 awards among a variety of categories and has now made history as the first Korean film to win an Oscar, and the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture! While this ground-breaking feat could easily have been the focal point for an article, it was Joon-ho’s own words which prompted a conversation about international films and their place within the West.

At this year’s Golden Globes, as Parasite took the award for Best Foreign Film, Joon-ho’s acceptance speech certainly gave us something to think about:

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films […] Just being nominated along with fellow, amazing international filmmakers was a huge honor. I think we use only one language: the cinema.”

People would hardly think of subtitles as barriers, but maybe Joon-ho is onto something. What is it that strays so many people away from international films? Is it the subtitles? Is it the unfamiliarity? Or is it that the western film industry refuses to accept them?

Quite a few of America’s biggest hits have been adaptations of international films, particularly in the 2000s, when an insurgence of patchworked J-horror emerged onto our screen in the form of long-haired girls and ghost children. They’re easy to make because the story’s already been told, but these manufactured copies are never as good as their predecessor. Looking at figures alone, remakes such as Mirrors (remake of Korean Horror Into the Mirror) saw a critical response of 15%, a whole 41% difference to the original, which begs the question as to what 20th Century thought they could add to the already average story. Even worse than this, award-winning thriller Oldboy, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes 2004, was the victim of a Spike Lee adaptation that bombed at the box office and only got a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. These remakes could all come down to a lack of imagination, and in some cases it’s true, but I think it really comes down to fear, and I know it’s a big word, but maybe even xenophobia. We gravitate to what is familiar to us. When we’re on holiday, we cling onto the things – the food, the sights -that remind us of home. Maybe we don’t mean to, but anything that’s different from what we know is a complete culture shock, and so the West’s attempt to ‘normalise’ international film is, ultimately, an exclusion of the rest of the world. 

Now that we’ve covered the problem with remakes, we simply can’t overlook the fact that some people are just too lazy to read. It’s a common opinion, that the subtitles put them off, but not many people like to openly admit that it’s because there’s too much reading involved. Maybe this opinion isn’t as harmful at first glance, but if you think about it enough, the idea that subtitles are too much work may imply that anything not in English is less than it all comes back down to the fear of something different.

This, obviously, doesn’t apply to everyone. I recently did a poll on Overheard at the University of Hull, asking the students what their opinion on subtitles was. Out of 146 people, only 14 people said that they don’t watch international films because of subtitles, with 105 people saying that they enjoy watching them. More and more people are willing to give international films a chance, so why are they still being excluded? Yes, the incapacity to read subtitles is still an issue, but with more and more international films turning into Western copycats, it’s hard to ignore that this is the real issue. Western cinema needs to open its doors to other cultures so that people can be introduced to a plethora of wonderful films. And hopefully, in the wake of Parasite’s huge success, people are finally starting to break down their barriers.


Photo: Amazon