As he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2019, Parasite 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.” His comment on American viewership for international films was right on the nose. For years, there has been an ongoing stereotype that Americans are unwilling to tolerate subtitles and thus are disinterested in foreign language films. Despite this reluctance to give international films a second glance, the past ten years or so have seen an increase of foreign language films in the mainstream American market. Notably, the popularity of Korean drama television (K-Dramas), Indian Bollywood movies, and Japanese anime has increased. Even in Disney films like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Coco, Encanto, and Luca, mainstream studios are beginning to gamble on using non-English dialogue for a majority English-speaking audience.
With American multilingual films like Minari and Everything Everywhere All At Once achieving critical and commercial success in the past few years, American audiences have gained a new interest in international cinema. This interest coincides with the rise of diverse film projects produced by Hollywood studios, and awards shows like The Oscars looking into the global film market for potential nominees (e.g., Norweign Romance Film The Worst Person In The World won ‘Best Original Screenplay’ at the 2022 Oscars).
There have been non-English language films taking home prizes years before Bong Joon Ho dominated the awards stage four years ago. In 2000, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was a commercial and critical success in the American market, creating an avenue for widespread support of foreign language films, particularly wuxia, or martial arts films, in the United States. While many non-English films have difficulty breaking out of the arthouse, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is often referenced as one of the first commercially successful foreign films in the US market, grossing over $213 million worldwide. It won Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Foreign Language Film at the 2001 Oscars and was nominated for six other categories, including Best Picture. Nevertheless, foreign films are nearly impossible to find at your local movie theater.
The Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film’ category, renamed Best International Feature Film in 2019, was created in 1956. In the Academy’s attempt to be inclusive, this category is reminiscent of the racist ‘separate but equal’ legal doctrine that segregates international films, conveying a feeling of ‘otherness.’ Having a separate category leads audiences to presume that non-American or non-English films cannot compete for big categories like Best Picture or Best Director. Few Best International Feature Film category winners have had commercial success in the United States, except Parasite and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
In a world that is constantly becoming more and more politically polarized, recognizing our similarities rather than differences is critical than ever. International films have the opportunity to provide new perspectives as they reflect social issues and shared human experiences around the world. Even within the United States, multilingual films can make viewers more understanding and empathetic, lessening fear and alienation. Everything Everywhere All At Once touches on familial relationships, particularly in Asian American households, that are constantly at odds with generational differences, while Minari addresses the difficulties that immigrant families face in the United States.
An overwhelming amount of Americans are plagued with an unwillingness to read subtitles. Despite recent efforts to normalize global films, like Netflix partnering with more international studios for Netflix originals, the relationship with subtitles for many remains strained.”I don’t want to have to read while I’m watching a film” is a common phrase used by those who refuse to watch international films. However, if that hesitance can be overcome, American audiences will realize they have missed and currently missing some of the greatest movies ever made.