Seeing Past the One-Inch-Tall Barrier


The South Korean film “Parasite” made history at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday, becoming the first non-English language film to take home the coveted Best Picture award. The film’s director, Bong Joon Ho, was also awarded Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. While one night cannot erase the Oscars’ historical lack of diversity, the award marks a momentous occasion for the often-disregarded genre of non-English films.

In the past decade, foreign language films have struggled to find commercial success on the same scale as English-language films. While diversity in the Academy Awards has been a hot topic in the last few years, non-English language films face even bigger challenges. Many viewers are deterred by the presence of subtitles.

The obstacles that these films have had to achieving success is a “psychological barrier,” as veteran producer Janet Yang told TIME magazine. Some believe that the subtitles are distracting, causing the viewer to miss visual aspects of the film. The aversion to subtitles has been so well-known that it has led companies like Netflix to emphasize dubbing over foreign-language media with English. There seems to be an illusion of added effort in viewing a film in a language other than English, as if reading the subtitles is a challenge that the everyday filmgoer does not want to deal with. 

Just like an aversion to the “effort” of reading novels that leads many to prefer film or television, there is a world of imagination that is being shut out by continuing to ignore this genre. In some ways, the subtitles can work in the viewer’s favor, as they may promote focus. With the increasing preference for watching films at home on streaming services, viewers are often distracted by cell phones in their home compared to a theater, where phone use is not allowed. Subtitles draw the viewer in, keeping their attention to the screen while the movie plays.

In addition to these notions, Asian films, filmmakers and actors have grappled with an inability to truly resonate with American audiences. Though the victory of “Parasite” should not be downplayed, it should be noted that none of the film’s stars received any acting nomination at the Oscars. With a history of whitewashing Asian roles and simply excluding Asian actors from playing nuanced characters in Hollywood as a whole, it comes as no surprise that they have not received the recognition that they deserve at award ceremonies.

Even with as massive a success as “Parasite,” its actors did not receive the recognition that they deserve. The film was just the 11th Best Picture winner to take home the top prize without receiving any acting nominations. In a likely not unrelated circumstance, the last time this happened was 2008, when “Slumdog Millionaire” –– a British film with a primarily Asian cast –– was awarded Best Picture with no acting nominations.

Podcast host Jeff Yang told the Washington Post, “Both Asian and Asian-American actors tend to be (perceived as) anonymous and vaguely foreign, and therefore sort of invisible in the minds of prospective academy voters.”

This year, the Academy Awards did make an effort to alleviate this stereotype: the category once known as Best Foreign Language Film is now called Best International Feature Film. “Parasite” is the category’s first winner.

While the name change hoped to shift away from the notion of international films as something “other,” the new title adds more questions to an already complicated category. Though the new has been updated, the qualifications for the category remain the same. Each country must choose a single movie for the category each year, which is approved by a committee.

Additionally, the title’s use of “international” is misleading, as many of the films that are nominated across all categories are not from American production companies. For example, films from British production companies are often nominated in some of the biggest categories each year. “1917” and “Marriage Story,” two nominees for Best Picture this year, were both produced by British companies. 

Unfortunately, the issue of representation of Asian cinema was far from the Academy Awards’ only diversity problem. Not a single female director was nominated this year for Best Director  –– despite the strong work of directors such as Greta Gerwig for “Little Women.” In the history of the award, just five female directors have ever been given the nod, with Kathryn Bigelow taking home the only award of the group for 2009s “The Hurt Locker.” 

The problem does not start and end with the Academy Awards. Female directors must be given the opportunity to prove their abilities and talents in the first place. As with racism, the rampant sexism in Hollywood will not be erased with one award win, but it may enable a new generation of aspiring female and non-white filmmakers and actors to envision themselves on that stage one day. 

The stigma facing foreign-langauge films will likely still persist despite the success of “Parasite.” However, the demonstration that a non-English film can break barriers proves that, as viewers, we must make the conscious decision to immerse ourselves in films that are outside of our comfort zone. 

Film, and art in general, is not about telling the same story over and over. Instead, we hope to step inside the shoes of someone else, to understand the complexities inside each of us. While international films like “Parasite” highlight the cultural elements of their setting, they also prove the global community is capable of empathizing with the experiences of those outside of our culture. They expose the Western world to perspectives they might not have confronted otherwise. 

The very notion of a foreign film is contingent on one’s context. When accepting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s ceremony, director Alfonso Cuarón told the audience, “I grew up watching foreign language films and learning so much from them and being inspired.” These films included “Jaws,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather.” 

The Academy’s decision to update the category’s title is ultimately a step in the right direction. While it complicates the category’s qualifications, the new title serves to show that “foreign” may not be the best way to refer to these films. The victory of “Parasite” also proves that these films are far from limited to this category alone. 

For the Fordham community, we are privileged to have access to movies that are not awarded general wide releases, as is the case of most non-English films. New York City theaters such as Film Forum, The Angelika and IFC Center are just some of the many cinematic hubs that showcase these unique works. Step out of your comfort zone and see what you have been missing. 

Bong Joon-ho said it best: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to many more amazing films.”