BREAKING THE LANGUAGE BARRIER: A discussion of foreign language films

breaking the language barrier

Artwork by Chloe Leeson

It’s a very sad reality that so many people are reluctant to try out foreign language films because of the language barrier. Some people find unknown languages irritating, others find they can’t read subtitles fast enough or that it distracts from the image on screen. With such brilliant directors as Guillermo Del Toro, Park Chan-Wook, Lukas Moodysson and boy-wonder Xavier Dolan on the scene, these big names are getting harder and harder to ignore as US cinema becomes a cesspit of sequels and remakes. Here at Screenqueens, we love world cinema and wanted so show our appreciation so here is a discussion on Korean cinema, French and Hispanic directors and the New French Extremity movement.

TYLER DZIUBINSKI on the realism of Korean cinema


I had just started high school when I saw a Korean film for the first time. It was a horror movie called The Host and it opened up a rabbit hole of Korean cinema which I threw myself into enthusiastically. It began with horror films, but soon my fascination began to include comedies, dramas, thrillers, everything (Sidenote: I actually live in South Korea now too).

Now, I don’t claim to be a Korean film expert who has seen everything, but what I have seen always tends to have a similar ending; that is, a practical and realistic ending. Whether it’s happy or tragic, the ending is always on the side of realism. Compared to American films which tend to have a wrapped-up, happy ending: the ultimate fantasy.

For example, with The Host, the main character spends the entirety of the movie searching for his daughter who was kidnapped by a monster. He finally confronts the monster, only to find his daughter in its mouth, dead and clutching another kidnapped victim, still alive. The man adopts the survivor as is own, and continues his life, never forgetting his daughter. If this film was American, we can expect the movie would have happened exactly the same… except his daughter would have survived.

In I Saw the Devil, a man seeks revenge against the psychopath who murdered his pregnant fiancé. The entire film involves the hero playing a twisted, torturous game of cat and mouse with the psychopath, until the psychopath gains the upper hand and turns his attention toward our hero’s would be father and sister-in-law. Long story short, the hero’s greedy revenge prevents him from saving their lives. And although the villain is killed in the end, the hero ends up losing even more than he initially had.

Even romantic comedies don’t escape the reality of Korean films. 200lbs Beauty is about an overweight singer who undergoes extreme plastic surgery to make a man love her. After assuming a new identity, tricking everyone she knows, and denying her own father, she comes to realize this love isn’t worth it. The film ends with her continuing her singing career, but wanting nothing to do with the man romantically anymore. The man, of course, finally realizes he loves her. I can’t help but feel an American film would have ended with them together, happily ever after.

In every Korean film I’ve seen, this always happens. The film wraps up, but in a realistic way. Sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s good, but I’ve never seen it “perfect”. But that’s okay, I think. Because life isn’t perfect.  And I enjoy the dash of reality that Korean’s give my film fantasies.

CRISTINA VAZQUEZ DE MERCADO on French and Hispanic directors 


The interesting thing about living in the States is that a lot of its pop culture heavily influences other countries. However, I feel like most of my favorite films come from directors of different cultures. The fact that most directors from different countries focus less on censorship allows them to tell fruitful stories, because they are not limited. Which then goes into my theory that foreign films tend to fit aesthetics that I’m fond of, because they aren’t afraid to get freaky and creepy.

A line that I will never forget from one of Christopher Moore’s books, A Dirty Job, is “French better expresses the profound noirness of my existence.” Ever since I took a French New Wave class, I have been intrigued by the idea that French directors are not afraid to show the tragedies of life, and that sometimes–most of the time, there are no happy endings. My professor for the course started the class with Elevator to the Gallows, so even the name itself already kind of proves my point. SInce I’m really interested in horror, I decided to check out Eyes Without A Face, which ended up being one of my favorite horror films of all time. I love how that film is able to show how terrifying the situation is, while still providing empathy towards the protagonist. Terrifying situations are also tragedies, but I feel like most American horror films only try to milk the fear aspect.

Hispanic filmmakers are also masters of “the freaky and creepy.” Take Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth) and J.A. Bayona (director of The Orphanage) for example. In both films, we enter the fantastical and paranormal lives of female characters. We sense their fear and wonder, but their sadness as well. The premises themselves are so incredibly dark, but poetically portrayed that you end up feeling conflicting emotions, which I’m a big fan of. I don’t actually experience a language barrier when I watch Hispanic films since I speak Spanish, but I appreciate that they are translated. This allows me to watch them with friends who do not speak Spanish, and consequently show them that there is a world of films beyond the ones they know due to speaking English. It makes me so sad when people say things along the lines of, “I’m not watching that movie because I’m too lazy to read the subtitles.” If you don’t speak the specific language of the film, those subtitles are your friend! Your key to great storytelling!

CHLOE LEESON on horror/thrillers and the New French Extremity movement


My first experience of a foreign language film was Pan’s Labyrinth, which I accidentally ended up watching on TV one night. It’s now one of my absolute favourites and opened me up to a strange dark fantasy that I’d never seen in English speaking film at the time. It seems that the rest of the world know how to make ‘adult’ movies, something that’s been lost in a sea of Minions, animation and 15 ratings in the US and UK. Now, as a government-recognised ‘adult’, I want to see this content, I mean, I wanted to see this content when I was 15 but now I’m legally allowed. I don’t enjoy things being watered down. I love the looser guidelines foreign language films have. Now, I’m not talking about a secret passion for porno, I’m talking horror and thrillers.

Making my top lists have been films like Battle Royale, Oldboy, The Skin I Live In, The Raid and Funny Games. Iconic scenes such as Oldboy’s Octopus eating scene didn’t even make it to the US remake, seriously whittling down its street cred. But my real passion for foreign horror lies with the New French Extremity movement. The movement combines, psychosis, shocking body horror and sexual deviancy which result in some of the most extreme and brilliant horrors a gore-hound like me has ever seen. Films such as Martyrs, Haute Tension and Inside are my favourites. They are not for the faint hearted, Martyrs is a god-like mind-fuck experience dealing with extreme personal pain and Inside depicts shocking violence against a pregnant woman from an outside intruder, but for those people tired of watching Insidious, these are where to head.

People often seem reluctant to delve into foreign film because of translating issues but there’s lots of options out there to overcome this solution, DVD’s feature subtitles, Netflix provides subtitles and translation software companies like Smartling translate items through human and machine, meaning nothing gets lost in translation as it often does in the case of DVD subtitling. Dubbing is also an option for some movies, which I’ve only mainly noticed in the case of Studio Ghibli films. But personally, I love to hear the film in the native tongue, with subtitles on screen to help me concentrate. Some of the best and most original films I’ve seen are not of the English language and it’s a shame people are so close-minded they won’t open themselves up to new experiences.

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