Hollywood’s New Era Of Translation And Subtitles

The sequence is emblematic of a significant shift in how Asian languages are featured in American film and TV.

Just a few years ago, when his Korean dark comedy “Parasite” won the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the writer and director Bong Joon Ho ribbed Americans for their aversion to “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.”

Bong Joon Ho and his interpreter, Sharon Choi, at the Golden Globe Awards in 2020.

Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal Media, via Getty Images

But in 2024, “The Sympathizer” is among a growing number of American works — including the recent prestige films “Minari” (2020), “Past Lives” (2023) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022); the television epics “Pachinko” (2022) and “Shogun” (2024); and the family-friendly series “Ms. Marvel” (2022) and “American Born Chinese” (2023) — that use Asian languages to bring additional depth and nuance to their stories.

“I don’t think it is just a temporary blip,” said Minjeong Kim, the director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at San Diego State University. “The trend has shifted.”

It’s a startling evolution from how Asian languages have typically appeared on American screens. Don McKellar, the co-creator of “The Sympathizer,” said that after the show’s multilingual writing staff watched the 1978 Vietnam War film “The Deer Hunter,” there was confusion about what language that film’s Vietnamese characters were even speaking.

“No one could understand them,” he said. “They were either Thai speakers who had been given a word or two of Vietnamese or they were just speaking Thai with a ‘Vietnamese’ accent.”

McKellar has seen a shift, though. When he wrote the 1998 film “The Red Violin,” which has dialogue in several languages including German, French and Mandarin, he had to tally up the percentage of English dialogue to reassure studio executives who were nervous about an American audience’s tolerance for subtitles.

“It was one of those understood things,” he recalled. But with “The Sympathizer,” which has long stretches in Vietnamese, “I never had to count.”

“The Sympathizer”

Hopper Stone/HBO

Nowadays, some 50 percent of Americans would prefer to watch videos with subtitles regardless of the language they’re hearing. Videos on social media are increasingly closed-captioned and, as sound mixing becomes more complicated across devices, the near universal accessibility of subtitles — a rarity before the rise of streaming — has made them more of a boon than a barrier.

The internet’s broad entertainment ecosystem has also diversified the American media palate. “YouTube, social media, TikTok, those things that are really open — people can actually access and be exposed to content in different languages,” Kim said. That means “they might be less reluctant to watch movies or TV shows that have different languages.”

Many experts point to Netflix’s 2021 hit series “Squid Game,” a Korean import, as an early catalyst. The monumental success of the dystopian thriller, which is the platform’s most-watched show, took even the streamer by surprise. “You have a non-English show, a Korean show, that ends up being the biggest show in the world ever,” said Bela Bajaria, the chief content officer for Netflix, whose overall subscriber base is largely outside of the U.S. “We did not see that coming.”

“Squid Game” topped a growing wave of non-English worldwide hits, such as the Spanish “Money Heist” and the French “Lupin.” The success of these projects helped shift the industrywide perception of non-English dialogue: Where it was once seen as a liability, it became an asset — a change that coincided with a rising number of Asian and Asian American filmmakers helming major Hollywood projects.

“Amazon is all over the world and they are trying to tap into international audiences,” said the filmmaker Lulu Wang, whose recent Prime series, “Expats,” takes place in Hong Kong and has portions in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Punjabi and English. “So the word they kept using was: ‘We see this as a global show for us.’”

The making of “Expats” was a stark contrast to Wang’s experience pitching her acclaimed 2018 film “The Farewell,” she said. Back then, skeptical executives asked her to relocate the story, which is set primarily in China, to New York and translate a majority of the dialogue from Mandarin into English. Wang refused.

“There was just this constant awareness that we were doing something that was on the periphery and that was in the margins,” she said. “And in order to make it successful, we had to find a way to take it out of the shadows and bring it into the light.”

The market, it seems, has changed. This year’s FX/Hulu adaptation of the James Clavell novel “Shogun,” a heavily subtitled series that includes Japanese and English dialogue, notched one of Disney’s most watched debuts. While much of the show’s political and emotional intrigue is managed through the act of translation between characters, its predecessor, a 1980 series adaptation, was mostly in English and didn’t even bother subtitling its sparse Japanese lines.

Across many films and series about Asians and Asian Americans, language is increasingly used as a world-building tool. On “The Sympathizer,” McKellar said, there was a committee of people across all levels of production that was meticulously tweaking the Vietnamese dialogue.

“The Northern accent and then the Southern accent, they’re vastly, vastly different,” said the show’s star, Hoa Xuande, who plays a spy for the North who is planted in the South. Then, he added, there were prewar and postwar accents that had to be accounted for.

These finer details of language are, in other words, positive markers of stories told with “authenticity,” that vaguely praiseworthy term that nevertheless is viscerally felt when, for instance, you hear the “Chinglish” patter, a mélange of Mandarin and English, between Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in an early scene in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Their back-and-forth, dancing seamlessly in and out of English midsentence, is a mode familiar to most Asian Americans — 66 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs/A24

Still, authenticity can be an abstract badge of honor. Multiplicity of language is most interesting when it’s used to progress these stories — to ratchet up tension, to encase or reveal secrets, to create emotional resonance, to reflect or deflect identity.

One of the most affecting uses of foreign language can be found in the 2023 film “Past Lives,” an Oscar nominee that its star Greta Lee, who plays Nora, said was a story about how to “capture identity through language.”

Nora’s Korean slowly shifts and loosens from the start of the film to the end, Lee said, as she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. On their first call, “she’s been living in New York for X amount of years, she doesn’t really speak Korean anymore,” Lee explained. But as their connection rekindles and her Korean becomes more fluent, it’s as if Nora is slowly unearthing her past self.

Lee worked with Sharon Choi, who gained recognition as Bong Joon Ho’s interpreter during the international press run for “Parasite.” Rather than being a traditional dialect coach, Choi explored speech patterns with Lee that were crucial to communicating her character’s journey.

“My priority wasn’t getting a particular accent,” Choi said. Instead of focusing on technical proficiency, “I was approaching this language from a storytelling perspective.”

The evolution of Nora’s Korean helps define a progression of playfulness, curiosity and eventually heartbreak as she revisits an old language, an old friend and an old life. These layers of storytelling do not register with English-speaking audiences, but for those who do speak Korean, they add depth to the film.

“You dream in a language I don’t understand,” Arthur, Nora’s American husband, wistfully tells her at one point about her sleep talking. “It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.”

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