Why is world cinema still so foreign to UK audiences?

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Thanks to a combination of awards season regulation and characteristic stubbornness, the UK is still allergic to subtitles.

The United Kingdom is – despite the xenophobia and aggressive racism – one of the most multi-cultural places in the world. While we might have our moments in the big melting pot, for the most part we all get along quite nicely. So why is it that the UK still won’t accept subtitled film into mainstream culture?

Ask someone in the street if they’ve seen Ringu; in most cases they’ll reply “isn’t that what they based The Ring on?” or, “is that a film?”

Ask someone in the street whether they have seen Ringu, and in most cases they’ll reply with either “isn’t that the film they based The Ring on?” or, “is that a film?” Follow that question up with “have you seen The Ring?” and sadly almost all reply positively, nodding and grinning as if that makes them fucking special because at last they were able to give a decisive answer. The Ring isn’t really a ‘bad’ film at all, but it has nothing on the brilliant Japanese original – so why have so few of us actually seen it? The Ring, helmed by Gore Verbinski (the man partly responsible for the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean films), managed to make an inexplicable $230 million worldwide, painfully more than Hideo Nakata’s original.

And it’s not just Ringu that got violated by the American studios; Ju-On turned into The Grudge, Gin Gwai became The Eye and Siworae was torn in two and stitched back together in the form of The Lake House. It’s not that every remake soils the reputation of its original: Martin Scorsese grabbed awards with The Departed, which did a decent job with the Infernal Affairs trilogy, while more recently, David Fincher managed not to shit on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so well done to them both.


But the original films certainly never needed remaking. Maybe 20 years down the line I’d accept a new take on a foreign classic, but the two year-turnaround that these films have been given suggests Hollywood is to blame for the hatchet job remakes of films most people still haven’t heard of. Like rebooting franchises, spamming sequels and the recent comic book adaptation frenzy, the English-language remake has money to thank for its abundance throughout the 2000s. After all, what other reason is there to translate something that has its roots in a culture so different to ours that its most important themes can’t be translated through a change in spoken language?

In some nations it is the norm to watch a film in English; in many Asian countries you might see both Mandarin and Cantonese subtitles running across the screen

There are facets of Japanese culture that would make no sense to the average English movie-goer, cultural takes on death and the supernatural that differ so wildly from ours that they at times convey completely conflicting messages. Curiously, these spoken translations do more to hinder our understanding of a new culture, because when people are exposed to a foreign environment, they are more open to new concepts than if familiarities such as language are present, which is why subtitles work so well. In some nations it is the norm to watch a film in English, where two different sets of subtitles run across the screen; for example, in many Asian countries you might see both Mandarin and Cantonese running across the side and bottom of the picture.

But hey! Why should we have to watch and read at the same time? Unfortunately we humans are creatures of habit – those who have watched subtitled film for a long time don’t notice the difference. Whatever language we hear the dialogue in, we remember it as English. And yet, thanks to a monolithic lack of news coverage and film distribution, the average viewer will rarely encounter subtitles unless they had gone out of their way to experience them.

Ringu Well

For most people the easiest, closest and most convenient cinema will be a multiplex, run by companies who know all too well that a subtitled film is in most cases a financial risk. So of course these films have been sidelined – there is always an easier, more profitable film to market. Do you pay £14 for a ticket to a film everyone is talking about? A film which offers visual spectacle, A-list names and promises to “scare you senseless”, or do you go to the film nobody is talking about? The film you haven’t heard of, that’s being marketed as a “a hit in Japan”? For most Brits, world cinema isn’t the norm. However, there is more than xenophobia and habitual laziness to blame for the failure of world cinema in the UK.

UK multiplexes know all too well that a subtitled film is in most cases a financial risk

Which brings us back to Ringu. Interestingly, in Japan, Ringu made around $6.6 million. When the Hollywood remake was released there, it made an astonishing $1.7 million more than the original despite being to that audience a subtitled film. You see, such is the influence of Western media that, as a result of wider news coverage, hype and distribution, a film financed through Hollywood has a better chance at financial success not just in the US and UK markets, but globally.

Wan’t more proof? Take a look at the Not In The English Language category at the BAFTAs or Oscars and you might notice that only a single film can be submitted from each country. This leads to a situation where (God forbid) a country like France might make two outstanding films and only get recognition for one, which is awards season’s way of making sure we all remain spectacularly un-aware of the brilliance of subtitled film and exactly what we’re missing.

At the Oscars, only a single film from each country can be submitted for the Not In The English Language category

The mass grouping of subtitled films into the ludicrous genre of ‘world cinema’ is perhaps the most damaging blow to foreign film. It’s as if under that category you’ll find a sort of greatest hits compilation of the efforts of directors worldwide who, of course, lack the skills to produce a horror film good enough to sit in with whatever Hollywood just shat out. We live in a country where, if you were browsing the DVD section while shopping, you’d have to make a special effort to pick up a subtitled film, instead of coming across it naturally as you would with any English language production. So, studios continue to rake in money off somebody else’s ideas and so long as that’s the case, we’ll all just wait until the English-speaking version comes out.


Featured image: Dream Venture Capital

Inset images: MGM/Columbia; Toho

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