Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A Beginners Guide to the Wonderful World of Subtitled Film and Television

It may seem like a controversial statement, but in my ever so humble opinion the most interesting films released in the past decade have not been produced by the Hollywood big wigs or even the esteemed UK indie filmmakers, but further afield in Korea, Japan and continental Europe. And yet for so many, the world of subtitled entertainment remains closed off due primarily to sheer, old fashioned stubbornness. A common argument is that watching a subtitled film or show feels “A little like reading a book,” but this argument is completely void, as minutes into any good film, a strong reader will cease to notice that they're even watching the subtitles and will simply fall into the story and the characters. In fact, if you are still actively aware of the fact that you're reading the subtitles, then it's either a bad film or a bad translation.

Western audiences have not always been so hesitant to the idea of foreign cinema of course. In the 60's, cinema was still very much in its infancy and as such, there wasn't the sheer choice we have today. There was none of the reverse snobbery you might find today, so great cinematic masters like Fellini and Kurosawa ruled the screen and the Oscars were rife with films 'not in the English language'. It's only really in the last few decades that subtitled films have fallen out of favour with the masses and it's a real shame. What with the global box office success of the 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' films, however, that trend appears to be reversing. Below I'll take you through some of the films and shows that introduced me to subtitled entertainment; hopefully they can do the same for you.

Studio Ghibli

Whenever I'm planning on introducing anyone to foreign cinema, Studio Ghibli is always my first port of call. Hayao Miyazaki's animation studio have been operating for almost 30 years as the 'Japanese Disney' and thanks to hits like Spirited Away, they've acted as a gateway for many of us into everything the rest of the foreign cinematic world has to offer. When it comes to subtitles, Ghibli is the best company in the business, and although you may be tempted to opt for the (admittedly always stellar) dub track, which is often staffed by some of the best actors in Hollywood, you'll probably be left feeling like there's 'something' lost in translation.


Horror is a genre that almost appears to speak beyond the limitations of language, as it relies more on visual cues and sound effects than character development or plotting. Foreign horror is also generally far more visceral and shocking than Hollywood horror, which (let's be honest here) is now little more than a glossy remake factory. Hollywood has in fact become rather keen on remaking famous foreign horror films such as 'The Ring' and 'The Grudge', the remakes of which both failed to come even close to the refined panic and terror of their respective originals. European horror has also been on the rise recently, with intelligent thrillers such as the slaughterhouse horror of the French 'Martyrs' especially pushing the boundaries of just how far horror can go before it becomes pure exploitation. If a British or American director was to tackle similar material, it would no doubt devolve into little more than gore without substance.


European crime dramas have become quite fashionable in the UK over the past few years and there is a reason for that. There's an atmosphere to continental European crime dramas such as 'The Killing' and 'Wallander' that really accentuates the dark heart of murder and the scripts are often far more subtle and refined than their brash UK counterparts. The success of these shows is reflected in the slew of remakes. Swedish drama Wallander was remade in this country with Kenneth Branagh, and Americans have remade the Killing in their native tongue. The original series however remains in a league of its own and is highly recommended for crime drama fans of all denominations. More recently, there's the thrilling supernatural French drama 'The Returned' to discover; a creepy, character led mystery with more than a touch of Twin Peaks about it, the show is even soundtracked by renowned Scottish post-rockers Mogwai.

Film 4

In the UK, by far the best place for subtitled entertainment is Film 4, a channel set up by Channel 4 with the express intention of exposing the British public to foreign and independent films. The best thing about Film 4 of course, is that you don't even need a subscription to an expensive digital TV service like Virgin or Sky to watch it. All that is required is a decent digital signal (you can test yours by using a site such as Get Me Digital or by hiring a technician to test for you) and a Freeview receiver, however you may also need to repair or install a TV aerial at your property and you can easy get this resolved by going to a reputable technical company like

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