There is a level of self-importance held by native English speakers. As tourists abroad, we are lucky that English is the lingua franca amongst internationals and therefore we can get away with minimal linguistic effort. This translates (pun intended) into our attitude towards foreign languages and culture back in Blighty. As a nation we almost exclusively listen to English-language music and watch English-language films. We are used to the ‘Top 40’ being songs in English, and the box-office hits are Anglo-phonic blockbusters from Hollywood, while the rest of the world accepts subtitles as the norm and many learn English through constant exposure to English-language singers. In the UK, our education is so Anglocentric that we generally only start watching foreign films if we are studying other languages, at which point you are exposed to a wealth of remarkable literature, film and music. Suddenly you realise that great art is everywhere, regardless of language or country of origin, and it is our lack of cultural broad-mindedness as a nation that has been holding us back.
In the film industry, everyone is well aware of the existence of non-English-language cinema, but it doesn’t attract the proportionate appreciation when it comes to awards season. Great films are made all over the world and in all languages, but the top award shows are filled with English-language filmmaking and filmmakers and foreign language films are underrepresented. This year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars is the first non-English in history, getting the all-important promotional platform in that glitzy world of cinematic appreciation. It seems there has been, at least previously, an assumption that art must have been created in English to warrant our attention and respect, or deemed worthy of our time.
However, we should not expect non-English language filmmakers to make their work in English, risking the subtleties of their art, just to make it easier for audiences and awards festival juries to consume. They should not have to sacrifice the subtlety of native dialogue just for our convenience. A filmmaker’s job is to create art, not to spend hours translating their thoughts. Subtitles, although seen as daunting by many English-speaking consumers, serve as a window into another culture, while still retaining the original melody of the native tongue. After all, the joy of the “septième art” is that it combines visuals and movement with sound in a format that can be viewed countless times across the globe.
For these reasons, Parasite’s Oscar win for Best Picture is a triumph. Irrespective of your thoughts on the film, a Korean-language film beating out the titans of Hollywood like Tarantino and Scorsese (to whom Joon-Ho dedicated his Best Director win) marks the start of a new era of appreciation for films outside of our English-speaking comfort zone.
The South-Korean director’s film, which centres on a struggling working-class family that attempts to infiltrate a richer family, will be many people’s first foray into “foreign” film, and could open many eyes to not only the work of a director who has received critical claim elsewhere for years, but to the rest of South-Korean cinema and “foreign” film more generally. In the seven days after its triumphs at the Academy Awards, Parasite took an extra $8.8 million at the US box office, demonstrating the effect that the recognition of Hollywood can have on the success of a single film.
As Bong Joon-ho commented via his interpreter: ‘Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.’ Together with the ever-growing love for K-pop and Reggaeton across the world, perhaps this is the start of an era of non-English-language cultural appreciation outside of cinema, too.