It is a a sad, sad truth that most English-speaking movie-goers will not watch foreign (and therefore subtitled) movies. No matter the type of film… Regardless of actors, the director, or whatever – if it’s not in English and subtitles have to be read, the choice will usually be made to opt for something else that doesn’t require reading while watching a movie.

There are several weak reasons for this: The most basic reason is that one has to ACTUALLY READ (blasphemy!) in order to understand what’s going on. Then there’s the fact that (most) subtitles appear along the bottom of the screen and therefore takes some of a viewer’s concentration off the action that’s taking place. Finally, subtitles require more attention be paid to a movie that’s not in one’s native language (English).

But as a lover of all types of cinema, whether in English or any other language, I look at those above reasons as insufficient, and simply not good enough to warrant the sort of avoidance of foreign films we sadly see all the time, except for those film buffs who enjoy good movies whether they are subtitled or not.

No, I’m talking about the more general movie-going audience in English-speaking countries (the US and the UK are notable examples); the fact that (for the most part) subtitled movies don’t get the attention they rightfully deserve; and most importantly, how the shunning of foreign films affects the box office and therefore, the choices of movies we have to pick from when we go to theater.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is annoyed and perplexed by this issue. In an attempt to help, I have come up with (or rather pointed out) a few reasons why the general English-speaking public needs to stop avoiding subtitled movies.

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You’re Missing Out On Greatness

Breaking news flash: English-speaking countries aren’t the only ones which make great movies. Some of the best films ever made are in a language other than English, and by avoiding certain movies because they’re subtitled, people are effectively robbing themselves of a potentially great experience.

Also, much like the example of modern moviegoers not watching black and white films, a lot of English-language movies wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for certain foreign ones. A prime example of this is the work of late-great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. His masterpiece, Seven Samurai (which is foreign AND in black and white…Shock! Horror!), was one of the prime inspirations (if not the inspiration) for the classic John Sturges English-language film, The Magnificent Seven. Imagine if Sturges had shunned Kurosawa’s work because it wasn’t in English: no Magnificent Seven.

Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' (1954)


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Practice Makes Perfect

Much like learning how to ride a bike, once you’ve watched enough subtitled movies and have familiarized yourself with the process of watching and reading at the same time, you will barely even notice the subtitles, much less make the conscious effort to concentrate on them.

If someone has been avoiding subtitled movies their entire movie-watching life, it is obviously going to take a bit of getting used to. But if you stick with it and go through the process a few times, it becomes second nature (and I’m speaking from experience).


The Problem with Dubbing

One of the big arguments that will be brought up by some people with regards to this issue is that there are dubbed versions released so that the viewer doesn’t have to read subtitles. And this is true – you will find most foreign language movies will have a dubbed audio track as an option.

But what I find is most often a huge problem with the dubbed audio is that it doesn’t allow you to fully appreciate the subtleties of the sounds, the emotions, the true nature of what is being said by the native actors, because all you can hear is (often half-assed) English-language voice work. Sometimes dubbing is done well – particularly if it’s some sort of special edition of the movie – or in the case of animated movies, where dubbing is not as much of an issue (all animated films require voice-over work, after all). However, for most live-action films, dubbing detracts from the experience – especially if the voice-over person was not involved in the production, on the set, or directed by the film’s director.

Dubbing is often done by actors not from the country which the original film is from, and thus what is being dubbed over isn’t getting across not just what precisely is being said, but not getting across how it’s being said. One example of this that comes straight to mind is the non-special edition UK DVD release of Hard Boiled, which had Chow-Yun Fat and Tony Leung dubbed by American actors and it just sounded ridiculous going with the visuals of who’s meant to be speaking (the actors).

Thankfully a special edition of Hard Boiled was released with remastered subtitles…

Apart from the actual language, the actual way certain words are said in English is radically different to China, or France, or Sweden (and so forth) and dubbing doesn’t often reflect that. The sense of culture from one language/country to another is undoubtedly different, and dubbing doesn’t really get across certain parts of a word, or slang terms and so forth.

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English Language Remakes

Foreign/subtitled movies’ inability to make bank at the U.S. box office usually means that the big studios (usually American) will take the idea and remake it as an English/American film, rather than debut it in it’s foreign-language form. This often leads to the remake being seen by more people, and thus making more money. As an example, the original Japanese version of The Ring (called Ringu) went straight to video in the U.S., whereas the Gore Verbinski/Naomi Watts remake was released theatrically and made just under $130 million domestically.

'Ringu' - 'The Ring'


However, dollars and cents aside, English-language remakes are almost always inferior to the foreign-language original, and the lack of attention the original gets just means we will get more and more unneeded and unwanted remakes, not only of foreign films but of any film, new or old, which is deemed “inferior” or “past its prime” (the horror genre is a great current example). By watching a remake (whether they’re aware it’s a remake or not), people are (for the most part) exposing themselves to re-hashed version of somebody else’s inspired idea.

There are certainly other, more specific reasons why avoidance of subtitled movies should stop, but those are the main ones.

And, in case you happen to be one of those folks who have been actively avioding subtitled films, here are some great ones to get you started on becoming a convert:

  • Oldboy (2003, Korean)
  • Seven Samurai (1954, Japanese)
  • Amelie (2001, French)
  • Downfall (2004, German)
  • Hard Boiled (1992, Cantonese)
  • City of God (2002, Portugese)
  • Let The Right One In (2008, Swedish)
  • Audition (1999, Japanese)
  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, German)
  • Rashomon (1950, Japanese)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spanish)
  • [REC] (2007, Spanish)

In Conclusion

The next time you’re at your local movie theater or DVD rental store, and you see that word “Subtitled” on a poster or on the back of a DVD case, ask yourself:  “Why rob myself of a great experience just because of a minor inconvenience that, if stuck with, will eventually cease to be one?” Treat foreign language films the same as those in your own language: judged no worse or no better until you’ve seen the end credits roll.

Whether good or bad, cinema is cinema, no matter what language it’s in.

Are you a subtitle movie watcher?