“Parasite” shatters the subtitle stigma

The categories of Best Director, Best Picture and Best Screenplay are not titles that are usually associated with international films, yet the 2020 Academy Award show proved this notion completely wrong. “Parasite” broke cinematic boundaries this year, making history for the Academy Awards and the film’s homeland South Korea. 

From Todd Phillips’ “Joker” to Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite,” the Academy presented audiences with a variety of films they believed met box office and critic expectations. Despite this, it’s no secret that generally English language films get nominated, while foreign films tend to get dismissed. 

During awards season, international movies are often excluded from major categories, such as Best Picture, and limited solely to categories such as Best International Feature Film. Considered as outliers in the Western film world, they never attain recognition further than showings in select theaters, and have limited attention from American audiences and film critics. 

In the Oscar’s 92-year history, there has only ever been 10 foreign films nominated for the Best Picture award, none of which have ever won. The 92nd Oscar’s finally changed this on Feb. 9, with “Parasite,” the first Korean and non-English film to win the prestigious award. Director Bong Joon-Ho’s highly praised film has swept through the award season, making history for the likes of foreign films. 

This monumental event in history isn’t likely in modern culture. 

In today’s age of technology, there’s been a sharp decline in any sort of reading; in fact, leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all time low according to the Washington Post. This decline feeds into why many people stray away from foreign films: subtitles. A stigma has formed around subtitles and many dislike having to read while watching a movie. It’s likely that people more often than not sidestep foreign films for the same reason they avoid books: a desire for passive entertainment. 

Non-English cinema faces major challenges, as its relevance is dwindling to many, seen in the foreign-language box office’s steady decline. This low demand forces an erasure of foreign film showings in theaters, with some not featuring these films at all. Big theater chains prefer to showcase the box-office features that will reward them a secure and plentiful profit, and foreign cinema’s often inability to do so, makes for showings to be held in the more obscure, or lesser known, theaters. The combination of both a disdain for subtitles and an opposition towards international films has made foreign film features a rarity. 

This was the case for junior Ariana Vidal.

“I don’t even think I’ve ever even heard of a movie theater that shows non-English movies… At least not anywhere near me,” Vidal said.

The U.S. marketplace’s demands are almost formulaic in what it deems as a ‘good movie,’ and a movie being in English is an absolute must-have, or, at least, was. Foreign-born directors are pushed to work in Hollywood and produce English-language films just for their work to receive recognition outside of its linguistic borders. This raises the question: why should these directors have to alter and often completely change their creative voices simply to appeal to what is considered “normal”? The English language may be a common one, but by no means should we expect everyone to speak and express themselves through it. Audiences must become aware of this and overcome their bias toward foreign language films.  

  The voices of thousands of directors are disregarded and never fully brought to light, simply because their films are in another language. In the case of Nigerian film “Lionheart,” the film was denied entry in the foreign language category on the grounds that the dialogue was mostly in English, yet the Academy considered it “too foreign” to be eligible for other categories. In the end, the film was completely excluded from the awards and director Genevieve Nnaji’s story of a Nigerian woman stepping up to prove her worth was never critically recognized. Western perspectives tend to dominate mainstream media and anything beyond that is rarely depicted.               

The Academy Awards were originally made to celebrate the work and production that go into creating films; yet, many are robbed of their opportunities in the spotlight because they do not meet a traditional critic’s standards. There always seems to be an excuse for excluding non-English language films from participating. 

With Bong Joon-Ho’s historic four time Oscar win, an achievement only ever done before in 1954 by Walt Disney, foreign films continue to prove that they should not be limited to a single category. Including Joon-Ho, six of the seven past winners for the Best Director title have been awarded to foreign directors, including Alfonso Cuaron’s  2019 critically acclaimed foreign film “Roma.”  

Even with this year’s vast progress in terms of foreign cinema, film fans are yet to see if foreign film creators and artists are truly being recognized for their work or are included to try to prevent a drop in ratings and appeal to public concern at the lack of foreign films. Are these nominations truly to celebrate the work foreign filmmakers have created, or, is it just a ruse to gain diversity points? 

Although “Parasite” is one of the most highly praised films of 2019, director Bong Joon-Ho feels that not enough American audiences are opening up to the idea of international productions still, an issue that is mutual amongst many foreign producers, directors and actors. This is likely the reason why movies such as “Marriage Story” rise to the top of critics choices quicker than movies such as Lulu Wang’s Chinese film “The Farewell.”

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” director Joon-Ho said in his acceptance speech for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language at the Golden Globe Awards. 

Joon-Ho’s statement has created a comedic irony amongst foreign-speaking people who have gotten used to subtitles when consuming American content. They have learned to love and appreciate what to them are foreign films and this historic win is a step forward for Western audiences to do the same. Throughout the night of the awards, the cast from “Parasite” received numerous standing ovations and even praise by well-known directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. 

Despite cultural barriers that tend to drift us apart, everyone in the filmmaking industry speaks the same language, and that is cinema.