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International films and shows in the mainstream – Squid Game

Written By Dani Alconaba.

In recent years, there has been a notable shift in the growing influence of international films on mainstream audiences. Foreign language films seem to now hold a more prominent stance in popular cinema.

Films such as Roma (2018) and Parasite (2019) have broken into the mainstream Western viewing sphere with both films receiving multiple award nominations. More obviously with Parasite winning the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards in 2020.

Netflix have also expanded their home page including a plethora of international shows with the likes of Elite (2018), Alice in Borderland (2020), and more importantly Squid Game (2021), which I will talk more about later. The shows mentioned scrape the surface of Netflix UK’s extensive international range. With the vast amounts of foreign language films and shows circulating in popular culture, it shows how there is a mainstream audience for these titles. Perhaps it could be rooted in a desire to see films that differ from the classic Hollywood blockbuster that we are so accustomed to seeing.

It is interesting to see these foreign titles enter the mainstream domain, as watching films with subtitles have commonly been disregarded. Some argue they require “too much effort” compared to the English dubbed counterpart. I witnessed this argument first-hand within my own house. In a student house of eight, a debate ruptured on whether to watch Squid Game with subtitles or with English dubbed. A quarter of the room vowed for the English dubbed whilst the other half (myself included) wanted to watch the show with subtitles. Amusingly, we settled on a compromise to watch one episode dubbed then the next with subtitles.

A case study in March of 2010 was done by OTX for the UK Film Council, it analysed whether audiences prefer subtitled or dubbed films. The results generalised that mainstream audiences prefer dubbed versions of films whereas audiences fond of art house films preferred the subtitled equivalent. There is legitimacy to this study however with it being produced over a decade ago, I think mainstream audiences have slightly changed.

With international cinema being more prevalent in popular culture than in recent years, I think audiences are more lenient with subtitles than we think. After watching one episode of Squid Game with subtitles and comparing that to the English dubbed version, the house agreed that the subtitled version was better in conveying authenticity to English speaking audiences. The push to subtitled foreign films might also be attributed to director Bong Joon-Ho in his Golden Globe acceptance speech where he said that “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to many more films“.

The weight of Bong Joon-Ho’s quote may have altered the way mainstream audiences view international titles. This changed attitude can be felt through the positive audience reception of Netflix’s new 2021 show Squid Game. Throughout October of this year, it felt like Squid Game was inescapable. The South Korean show about struggling debt owners competing in children’s games to win a hefty cash prize, seemed to be the topic of every Gen Z conversation.

The internet, especially TikTok, was bustling with Squid Game content ranging from character cosplays, theories about the show, people recreating the games in the show, character fan edits to annoyingly even spoilers. No wonder it is hailed as Netflix’s most-watched show, as it received 111 million viewers in its first month of being released.

Surprisingly, an article in The Wall Street Journal reveals that the concept of the show was created by Hwang Dong-Hyuk ten years ago but was rejected by film studios at the time. The reasoning behind this being that the show was apparently “too grotesque” for audiences. Nevertheless, it still got picked up by Netflix years later.

The current popularity of international films and South Korean popular culture in Western media set a landscape where Squid Game was able to reign as being Netflix’s most-watched show. A question I ponder is that if this show was released ten years ago, would it receive the same accolade in western popular culture as it does today? Probably not.

This is not to discredit the brilliancy of Squid Game, but to highlight the change in audience viewership. Mainstream audiences ten years ago probably would not have the same leniency and appreciation to international shows as they do in this decade.

Of course, international films and shows are not widely popular yet, but their rise in popularity makes me excited about the prospect of cinema. The exhibition of international pictures still has a long way to go but foreign films being respected in the mainstream and popular culture is a step in the right direction. I, for one, cannot wait for more international films to be shown in mainstream multiplex cinemas.

Tags: Bong Joon-Ho, international cinema, korean cinema, mainstream media, squid game

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