Ken SubediKen Subedi The Power of SubtitlesMarch 6, 2020

The Power of Subtitles

When the South Korean film “Parasite” made history by winning four Academy Awards, including the award for the Best Picture, people started wondering if they have been missing out on some good quality foreign films that would undeniably enrich their cinematic experience.

Couple  watching "Parasite" movie which showcases the power of subtitles.

Why ” Parasite” was an achievement ?

Bong Joon Ho, the director of the film “Parasite” drew further attention to this matter by cleverly stating: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

The general consensus is that people have aversion to subtitles because they draw the attention to the wrong part of the screen and are generally distracting and take away from the visual storytelling and experience. Therein lies that barrier.

But the issue goes even deeper. One could argue that the concept of subtitles couldn’t possibly be associated with politics.This would be wrong. The underlying issues such as racism, omnipresent prejudice and cultural differences are key aspects that fuel the general public dislike towards foreign films and, by default, subtitles. Despite winning numerous accolades, “Parasite” still struggled to make a complete breakthrough and recognition among the English-speaking audience. People argued that they enjoy watching a movie, not reading it and even wondered why the director chose all Korean cast and production, even wondering what made the director do the film in Korean and not in English.

It wasn’t until “Parasite” won the Academy Award for the Best Picture, when people had no choice but to give it a recognition it deserved. It can be concluded that, in order to get recognition in entertainment business, a movie should be made in English.

Foreign Films vs Hollywood

Foreign films often have smaller budgets than their Hollywood counterparts, therefore, the quality of production, costumes, special effects, marketing, etc. is not as mega costly as it’s often the case with Hollywood movies, and the former simply can’t compete with the latter – production wise. This is something that keeps the English-speaking audience away from foreign films, which often has certain expectations from big budget Hollywood movies, an audience that frequently forgets that great budget doesn’t equal as great quality.

Nevertheless, the above-mentioned aspects result in certain expectations that the audience has from each and every Hollywood movie and when a foreign movie falls short of these expectations – the audience often generalizes the quality of foreign cinema, even in situations when the quality of foreign movies is far more superior and engaging than anything that Hollywood cinema has to offer. These attitudes allow the audience to perpetuate prejudice towards foreign films, categorizing them as sub-par or low quality and therein lies even greater barrier.

On the other hand, foreign films are far more superior in quality and are multilayered, covering obscure parts of life and culture, making up for budget shortcomings in an innovative and creative way. Therefore, one could argue that the role of subtitles is necessary and a vital part of cinematic experience, enhancing understanding, not only of a language but of culture as well, and allowing ease of comprehension. That is why , for the people who don’t speak the language, subtitles don’t represent a barrier, but a tool, a form of aid that allows them to understand the dialogue and actually get a chance to fully experience the film.

The issue with subtitles

The mechanism of subtitles is a complex one. It requires the accuracy of a translation that successfully and effortlessly shifts from source language to target language, without losing or omitting the original idea and, as such, are crucial in delivering the nuances and hidden, as well as obvious, meanings that a director wishes to convey to foreign audience.

What role can the subtitles play ?

Subtitles are crucial in the a success of a movie, because a badly translated or inaccurate subtitles limit and hamper the message a movie is trying to deliver.To further illustrate the importance of subtitles, we have as an example people that are deaf and hard-of hearing, even when the movie is in their native language. For them, subtitles are a tool that removes whatever limitations they may have and that may hinder their enjoyment and are of vital significance in making movie content accessible and inclusive.

On a more technical note, subtitles also serve as visual cues that allow a viewer to focus on what’s being said, if we take into the account background noise, a variety of accents and voice levels or even ambient dialogue, without missing a visual information. They are a physical manifestation of auditory information, which constitutes a rather important part of a film. Furthermore, subtitles aid in learning language and improve reading abilities, which is often an underrated effect. 

Are subtitles necessary ?

It’s always useful to be reminded that movies are not limited or exclusive to Hollywood. Keeping an open mind is necessary in every aspect of life and having an open mind makes a foreign movie more enjoyable. This exposes a person to myriad of different styles of cinematography and talented directors and actors. It is inspiring as it is useful.

Pleasing everybody all the time is not possible but we must strive to understand one another, without jumping to conclusions and relying on prejudice when we are met with something that is unfamiliar. When the South Korean film “Parasite” won an Academy Award for the Best Picture it broke the barriers and erased the boundaries imposed on motion pictures. It made audience to strive to understand the foreign culture. It truly made history. In other words – that night cinema won. And cinema is not exclusive to a country, language or culture.

There are a lot gifted filmmakers in so many countries, presenting us with outstanding films. It would be a waste to miss out on those amazing films just because they come with subtitles .

Subtitles have the ability to transcend, by means of making a part of a culture that is embodied in a visual storytelling accessible to everyone, therefore broadening the experience, which certainly demonstrates the resonance and power of that “one-inch-tall barrier.”


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