What language barrier? – The case for subtitled films

by Craig Evans

It seems odd to me that there is still a generally accepted view of world cinema as art house, something pretentious people do between memorising Shakespeare quotes. This perception probably comes about from the language barrier that exists, and therefore the need for (at least among monolingual speakers) either subtitles or dubbing. As anyone who has watched old kung fu films will know, the strange effect of dubbing can bring its own kitsch appeal.

With subtitles, perhaps the sense of them being a part of some ‘high culture’ enterprise comes from the perceived effort of having to ‘read’ a film. The response I invariably get from people when suggesting they watch a subtitled film is along the lines of: ‘If I want to read, I’ll read a book, but with films I just want to be able to switch off and relax’.

Switch off? That’s what Hollyoaks and death is for, surely?

When I watch a film, I want it to be an experience: to be captivated by the spectacle of a great visual treat, to have my expectations manipulated in a way that eventually leads to a satisfying pay-off, or to be invited to perceive beauty in the mundane (plastic bags not included).

The sad truth is that there are only so many great films out there, and a load of really really good films too; but perhaps for the most part films are cynical bodge jobs rushed through production by money-hungry studios. All the more reason, therefore, to make the most of the best that cinema has to offer.

Which brings me back to subtitles. People shouldn’t let the mistaken idea that it requires effort to watch subtitled films get in the way of the rich experience to be had. Arguably many of the best films released in the last twenty years have come out of Spain, Latin America, South Korea, and Japan. To miss out on these wonderful works because of the requirement of a mental action that most of us perform without even thinking about it would be a great shame.

The ‘mental action’ I speak of, of course, is reading: a ‘process … based on a succession of quick eye movements, known as fixations, across the written line, each of which lasts for about a quarter of a second’ (thank you Columbia Encyclopedia).

In this way, reading words is not so dissimilar to reading visual images, and decoding their meaning blends seamlessly with everything else our brain is doing when we watch a film. This includes interpreting paralanguage, facial expressions, body language, character, setting, what’s happening plot-wise, any atmosphere created by visual and audio elements, and so on.

What then is a little bit of reading? Nothing that needs to disturb us from our slouching, semi-comatose states when watching films.

* * *

My five suggestions for subtitled non-English Language films to look out for (all with great plot twists):

  1. Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) – France, 2007
  2. The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) – Argentina, 2009
  3. A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) – South Korea, 2003
  4. The Devils (Les Diaboliques) – France, 1955
  5. The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) – Spain, 2011

What are yours?



reading, mental process. (2008). In The Columbia Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/columency/reading_mental_process [accessed 31-01-13]




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