Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
While accepting his award for Best Foreign Language Film for Parasite at the 2020 Golden Globes, director Bong Joon-Ho said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Bong Joon-Ho went on to win four Academy Awards this year for Parasite, including Best Picture of the Year and Best Director, making history as the first non-English-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Its landmark win just might set a precedent for how cinema is critically judged in this country. But if the South Korean director still felt he had to lightly chide his Golden Globe audience about their general aversion to subtitled films, can we really expect Parasite’s victories to change our aversion toward non-English-language foreign films? Does it even matter?
In a recent rally, President Trump mocked the selection of Parasite as this year’s Best Picture winner, saying, “What the h— was that all about? Was it good? I don’t know.” His censure, and subsequent call to “bring back” more classic American films was well-received by those at his rally and appealed to his political base, making it clear that to a large swath of the American public, at least, the inclusion of a foreign-language film was not welcome in the Best Picture category at the Oscars. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson (a fan of the film) was happy to be proved wrong on her prediction that Parasite couldn’t win Best Picture of the Year because, as she wrote in a paraphrase of Bong, “Americans just don’t like reading subtitles.” Trump’s mockery of the film supports the truism of Wilkinson’s words, but yet… Parasite did win. Perhaps the tides are turning. If so, it is a good thing for the soul of America.
Christians are commanded to love our neighbors, but we cannot love people we make no effort to understand.Americans might be—intentionally or unintentionally—creeping toward greater acceptance of viewing subtitled films, and the reason lies in most of our hands. Smartphone technology and the consumption of media on-the-go means we often view everything from YouTube videos to TikToks to Facebook videos in places where our sound must be set to silent for the consideration of others. This means subtitles are subsequently on. We are now primed to both read and watch as we consume.
But that doesn’t necessarily make us more accepting of story narratives that fall outside our cultural comfort zones. This is a second hurdle for many of us to overcome, and the one President Trump took the opportunity to mock at his rally.
To hear them telling their stories as themselves is a way to see them better.Our cultural comfort zones dictate that some stories make sense to us—not just linguistically but in other ways. They are filled with people who look like us, think like us, sound like us, and make decisions that flow with our predominant ways of rationalizing the world. All of these things are products of hundreds and thousands of factors. They align with our values systems and confirm our deeply held beliefs. There is nothing wrong with enjoying stories about our culture—indeed, most of the time we can’t help but do just that, and we certainly can’t help telling stories in such a way. But it is good to make space for stories from other cultural perspectives; we should be intentional about stepping into those spaces as foreigners ourselves.
Christians are commanded to love our neighbors, but we cannot love people we make no effort to understand. Storytelling (good storytelling) is participatory—inviting the audience in—so when we engage with it as audience members, we become participants in a new experience.
And a new experience in this way should be as immersive as possible to best love the people involved. “Overcoming the… barrier of subtitles” does not mean vanishing the cultural barrier by switching to a dubbed version of the film. When watching a film or show in a language other than English, it is important to—as much as possible—do so in its original format. Although dubbing performances allows accessibility for blind consumers of visual media, and is of course a good thing in those cases when blind English speakers want to enjoy entertainment in a language foreign to them, for those of us without visual impairments, dubbing erases nuance, inflection, and particularities of performances unique to individual actors and the cultures they are portraying. A voice actor’s interpretation of another actor’s performance will never be completely true to the original, and it will always be disingenuous to the unique cultural vision of the story—in addition to the fact that you are not hearing it as intended in the original language.
When we watch a film in another language with subtitles on, not only do we honor and preserve the integrity of the performances of the actors on the screen, but we immerse ourselves into the sounds and narrative rhythms of a culture other than our own. To hear them telling their stories as themselves is a way to see them better. And once you spend time reading subtitles, the brain, which is a remarkable organ, makes sense of what might otherwise feel like hard work. If you’ve ever watched a non-English-language subtitled film, you’ll know that reading while watching fades into the background in a matter of minutes, and all you’re left with is the film itself. The “barrier,” it turns out, is mostly in people’s minds—in their presuppositions. I’m certain that is no small part of why director Bong Joon-Ho felt the need to say what he did.
Parasite made history this year, but it is not the first non-English-language film to make waves both critically and with audiences. 2018’s Roma, written and directed in Spanish by Alfonso Cuarón, reached wider audiences than non-English-language films usually do when Cuarón made the decision to distribute the film on Netflix rather than via a traditional theatrical release. Roma was the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for Best Director (2019), paving the way for Parasite one year later.
Filmed in black and white as a sort of unfolding memory sequence of Cuarón’s own childhood in 1970-1971, the story follows domestic worker Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) as she goes through the rhythms of life within the confines of her service to a middle class family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Cleo and her “small” dramas—that might otherwise seem insignificant in the grand scheme of human affairs—are front and center in a story that takes place during a tumultuous time in Mexico’s history. The movie opens with water on paving stones in which is reflected an airplane flying across the sky. The airplane crossing the sky is a repeating image throughout the film—something Cuarón takes pains to draw the viewer’s eye to. According to Cuarón, one meaning of the planes is to point out that, “there’s a universe that is broader than the life that these characters have.” This “broader universe” is one that English-speakers are invited into through the medium of the film—especially when we view it as foreigners ourselves, peering into a world we do not necessarily know, humbling ourselves to submit to a perspective unfamiliar to us at first.
We can’t (and shouldn’t) always ask them to come to us and be like us.Once we submit to stories like these, however, we will find commonality, particularly in the things that need no words. Things like a mother’s loss, parental grief, a woman’s abandonment, a child’s pain. Watching non-English-language films can remind us of what we do have in common with people not like us—and they can educate us about what we don’t have in common. Not just family and human dynamics, but social and class inequalities and the economics of power, which are the same from one culture to the next regardless of what language we all speak. Yet each culture is beautiful in its own unique way. And each culture has its own terrible and dark moments of history that deserve the treatment and memory of the people who witnessed them. Roma depicts the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, when the Mexican government set loose trained paramilitary troops on protesting students in the streets of Mexico City. As told and shot by Cuarón from his memories, it has a ring of authenticity untainted by an outside perspective, interpretation, or vision. To say it is an affecting scene is downplaying it. And Cuarón chose to be his own cinematographer on the film so that he would not have to translate his experiences through an English-speaker.
We often want to tell the stories of other peoples’ tragedies, other peoples’ history and moments and trials. But when we watch subtitled films, it can be a powerful reminder that most of the time it is best to let them tell their own stories. We should better cultivate ourselves as listeners rather than tellers. We would all be better for it.
In college, I had to read authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louis de Bernières, and Carlos Fuentes in my Latin American History courses. My professor insisted it was important not just that we study the history, but that we read stories created by storytellers of the cultures we were studying. At the time, I had only an inkling of the gift I was being given in being forced to read stories of a culture not my own—stories that required some intellectual labor on my part because of the unfamiliarity of their context. But that labor was part of the good work of stepping into a different perspective to better see the world. Now I recognize this sort of art as a way to also gain perspective on how to love my neighbors better. With film and TV, when we listen to people’s stories in their own language, we see them more richly. Even when we can’t speak their language, we need to hear others. We can’t (and shouldn’t) always ask them to come to us and be like us. Christlikeness is not couched in the English language, nor is asking people to conform their culture to our image. This year I am going to make an effort to consume more stories that come from a culture not my own. I hope you will join me.