“Parasite” and the American Aversion To Subtitles: An Evolving Story

February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

“Parasite” with English subtitles

Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.

Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.

Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.

Japanese subtitles with kanji, hiragana, katakana and furigana

After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”

Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.

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