In the final film feature of the year, Dermot O’Rourke casts a critical eye over the relationship between English-speaking audiences and foreign-language films
We, as native English speakers in Ireland, are in a privileged position. Not only are we part of a diverse multinational economic community in which there is a free trans-cultural exchange of ideas, but our native language (albeit our official second language) is the dominant mode of communication in which those ideas are exchanged. Although it is not the language with the most speakers worldwide, English is now used as a ‘lingua franca’ in the global linguistic system, and current globalisation processes are reaffirming its position in the technology industries, in the flow of scientific knowledge, and especially in the global consumption of popular culture. Therefore, when it comes to international cinema, our unique position means we have open access to films that are not in our native tongue, but mass audiences always ditch the original subtitled version in favour of the filtered Hollywood remake because they have bigger marketing campaigns; we are more familiar with the actors having seen them in magazines and on the internet, and, most pertinently, the dialogue is in English.
But why do native English-speaking audiences have such an aversion to subtitles? The usual complaints about having to “read a film” and how subtitles break the illusion are invalid, and is a demonstration of native English-speaking audiences’ complete unwillingness to engage in any way with a foreign language film, in much the same way we travel to a foreign country having not bothered to learn even a few words of the native language and then are frustrated when no one understands us speaking English a bit louder and slower. Subtitles are something that don’t seem to bother other cultures. For example, in China films often have two sets of subtitles, usually Mandarin and Cantonese, for their foreign language films, and at international film festivals, such as Cannes, films are often projected with more than one set of subtitles to cater for the international audiences.
Native English-speaking audiences are subtitle-phobic to the point of ignorance and it has, in recent times, allowed for the emergence of the needlessly large market of Hollywood remakes of foreign language films. Hollywood capitalises on the phenomenon by recycling stories from successful foreign language films – which by virtue of being successful abroad, have proven track records in attracting an audience – supplying them with a healthy budget, sticking in English speaking actors and generally giving the whole thing a sterile gloss. Take 2010’s horror film Let Me In, for example, a completely redundant remake of Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In. Let Me In relocated the story from the chilling isolation of 1980’s Swedish suburbs to modern New Mexico. In solely monetary terms, Let Me In was more successful and attracted a larger audience than its far superior Swedish counterpart. With its budget of twenty million dollars (five times that of Let the Right One In) it managed to take approximately eleven million dollars more than the original did at the box office. However, it is important to note that despite its smaller budget and distribution Let the Right One In made a higher gross profit than Let Me In, which only just about broke even.
Moreover, the culture of remaking foreign language films has led to foreign directors remaking their own films for English-speaking audiences. Japanese director Takashi Shimizu remade his 2002 horror film Ju-on as The Grudge in 2004, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar and enjoying enormous success in the US and Europe. Even more pointlessly, Michael Haneke brought out a shot-for-shot remake of his masterpiece Funny Games, albeit it being set in America, with English-speaking actors that cost three times what the original did. Even recently, Icelandic director Blatasar Kormákur’s thriller Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg is, in fact, a remake of a film called Reykjavík-Rotterdam in which Kormákur played the leading role.
The primary problem with Hollywood remaking foreign language films is that the process is not just a simple task of translating the dialogue and replanting the story in America. There are underlying cultural, language, and locality issues specific to its origin that means no film can just be directly extracted without fundamentally altering the core elements that made the film great, and attracted a remake, in the first place.
Amongst all this, there is a central question that still remains: in a time of unprecedented globalisation and independent international productions in film, what really constitutes a “foreign film”? Is Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, for example, with its setting, cast, and subject matter an Indian film, or with its British director, financers, and (predominantly) English dialogue, a British film? Or is Irish-directed, Irish-cast, Belgian-based, English-financed thriller In Bruges an Irish film?
It does appear that in the English-speaking West, certainly, that a film is deemed “foreign” not by the virtue of what it looks like, but what it sounds like. Yet what native English-speaking audiences must realise is that the real beauty of this medium is the universality of the language of cinema, and as such, that any really great film can be simply enjoyed by any audience, and in any language.