Leah Hart discusses international film and TV and how viewing visual media through the lens of globalisation can lead to unexpected revelations.
Our modern media climate is one that assaults the senses with music, ads, iconography, and endless streaming giant boogie-men waiting around every corner. Though books survive, our lives nonetheless revolve around unlocking our screens and escaping into new lives and realities, read aloud and performed for us in such a seemingly effortless way. New movies and shows are ready exactly when you need them, be it The Summer I Turned Pretty as the first binge of the summer, or Cabinet of Curiosities to fulfil an ache for the uncanny that just wasn’t satisfied by carving a Halloween pumpkin. Streaming services know what we want from our media, which apparently is globalisation. But is it really so strange and unpredictable that our entertainment follows the pattern of world culture?
In recent years, the institution of Netflix Originals – as well as lacklustre Hollywood productions – has seen a rising number of hit TV shows from non-English speaking countries. Arguably the most famous of them all, Squid Game, is only one piece of the ‘foreign’ TV puzzle, with Germany’s Dark and Spain’s Elite being some of the first to make waves back in 2017 and 2018. But did this trend really only start five years ago? Who knows, maybe it all started with Violetta’s love triangle on Disney Channel?
While South Korea is a force to be reckoned with in the canon of international TV, the popularity of K-dramas can be traced all the way back to the 2009 (ancient, I know) drama Boys Over Flowers – a show filled with ugly noughties hair and misogyny. And wouldn’t you know it, the hair is also attached to a love triangle. Today, one of the more prominent viewership trends for women is k-dramas, likely due to romance being at its forefront. The k-drama brand of romance has more in common with western period dramas than modern TV and film, featuring a type of intimacy that aligns more with the female gaze by focusing on emotional intimacy and slow-burn.
Despite South Korea’s success in attracting international audiences, as well as the popularity of Japanese animations and Alice in Borderland, non-western countries can hardly be considered to represent the globalisation of TV. Even when you look at critically acclaimed movies such as Another Round, Parasite and The Intouchables – movies that were already tied to well-known faces like Mads Mikkelsen – the cinema scope catters overwhelmingly toward the west, with only a couple international films receiving the awards and recognition they deserve. While it is comforting to see more examples of non-English cinema being celebrated, and k-dramas finally being validated by the nay-sayers, is it enough to just give a couple nods while English continues to dominate the market?
International TV sounds like something multifaceted that is worth pursuing. However, the problem with the ‘international TV’ phenomenon is that most viewers are, in fact, international, and come from the very countries labelled as such by Netflix and Co. If international TV is anything outside of the Anglosphere, then what exactly is domestic entertainment, if not Anglo-centric, even to those who are not native anglophones? Instead of celebrating entertainment from different cultures and countries, non-English media becomes subordinate through the label of foreign, almost like a side character who is just there to be quirky. One universal genre that escapes this fate is LGBTQ+ cinema, as the experience of being queer transcends language and nationality. Tragic as it is, the scarcity in representation unites viewers through a spectrum of cultures, decentering Anglo-centric portrayals.
With increasing viewership of non-English programs, debates have naturally arisen on the subject of subtitling versus dubbing. Although many people opt for a dubbed experience, it is more a matter of preference than discrimination: kind of like using audiobooks instead of physical books. Some people simply cannot read and focus on the plot at the same time, just ask twitter. For now, the easy access to quality television from around the world is admirable and addictive. It exposes many people to new languages and cultures, and it makes one hopeful for what the future has in store for our screens.