4 Reasons to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of foreign films

Arifah Badlishah explains why subtitles are king when it comes to watching films not in the English language.

Arifah Badlishah
2nd March 2020
Director Bong Joon Ho made a profound statement while accepting the first-ever Best Foreign Language Picture Golden Globe for the South Korean film Parasite: "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. 

The black comedy thriller continued to carve history when one month later, it won four awards at the Oscars including Best Picture Award. As the film began gaining significant attention from Western media, it rekindled a long-running debate: are subs or dubs the best way to watch films that are not spoken in one’s mother tongue?

Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was subtitled when released in the West, but was still very successful at the Box Office. However, upon its home media release in the West, these subtitles were changed and over-simplified, meaning much nuance was lost. Image:IMDB.

When I started studying media in the UK, I was absolutely shocked to find out that some people actively avoid watching non-English films that are not dubbed. In my home country, Malaysia, I have never heard of subtitles being a huge nuisance for anybody since we have been raised since childhood to watch films and television shows of various languages, produced in several different countries including our own.

In the span of one year, it is not uncommon for a Malaysian to enjoy films in multiple languages such as Malay, English, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese and Thai - and we usually only understand only one or two of those languages. Reading subtitles is something that comes so naturally to us, we don’t even notice it. I remember a Malaysian friend studying in the UK who joined the Anime Society at her university but was severely disappointed to find out that the other members watched dubbed anime. 

Yet, I understand that it would be difficult to get used to reading subtitles if you have been watching dubbed foreign films your whole life. Pro-subbers argue that instead of distracting the viewer from the film, subtitles are able to enrich the cinematic experience. Here are some reasons to watch subbed foreign films instead of dubbed ones.

Bad dubs ruin an entire movie

Dubbing removes an essential element of a film: the original dialogue, and substitutes it with something else. This can make a huge difference when it comes to things like emotion, intonation, timing, and pauses - which can directly affect how you perceive certain characters or scenes. This is the number one reason that pro-subbers think that dubbing is an abomination. The worst part is, you could be watching a film that has been terribly dubbed but not notice it at all. 

Exposure to more brilliant films

Without the willingness to engage with subtitled films, audiences would have missed out on recent classics such as the Oscar - winning Italian drama The Great Beauty (2013). Image:IMDB

Not every production can afford dubbing, but subtitles are available for almost every film or television show. As Bong Joon Ho said, when you read subtitles, you are doing yourself a favour by opening the doors to several different kinds of wonderful movies and television shows to enjoy. 

Improved reading abilities

Once you get used to reading subtitles, it might be as effortless as breathing. Getting used to reading subtitles is often a lot easier than you’d expect! You will also benefit from enhanced literacy skills and a higher reading speed. In fact, some people even turn on subtitles for films in their native language because they want to thoroughly understand what is being spoken. 

Learn new languages

Of course, you might not immediately become fluent in Spanish or Arabic if you watch films with subtitles, but you’ll definitely pick up on certain common words or phrases. It could help if you’re taking a foreign language class, or to engage with people from different ethnicities and nationalities. Let’s get #cultured! 

In the end, the matter of subs versus dubs is a matter of one’s personal preference and many valid factors can contribute to one’s decision to watch dubbed films, including dyslexia, visual impairments and sensory overload. However, if subtitles are not too much of a bother for you, it’s worth giving it a shot for the benefits mentioned above. Baby steps are key, for example, maybe start by trying to watch a subtitled film at least once a month? It will certainly be an enlightening experience to challenge yourself to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles! 

Swedish Vampire horror Let The Right One In (2008) was remade in English two-years later as Let Me In (2010). American studios knew it would be more financially successful to re-make a film shot-for-shot in English rather than release either a dubbed or subtitled version of the original on home media. Image: IMDB
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AUTHOR: Arifah Badlishah
Media student | Lover of words, visuals, and ideas ✏️🎨📷

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