The Rise of Foreign Language TV
Monday, 21 November 2022
The last few years have seen several standout films and TV shows that just so happen to not be in English. Money Heist, Squid Games and more - but why now and how come? Holly shares her thoughts on what has changed and why we only noticed just how good these films are.
There’s been a longstanding belief in film and television that foreign language films were a bit niche – something for us language students and maybe the odd hipster. That was before Money Heist and Squid Games bust onto the scene and proved them all wrong. Since then, there’ve been others in different genres: Lupin, showing up for French crime dramas, the first French series to break the top ten of US Netflix; the rise of K Dramas mirroring that of K-pop; Young Royals, a Swedish teen drama that put Netflix Nordic on the map and, of course, Parasite brought film up to par as well.
This media is not only more popular than ever, but some are also smashing records full stop. The final season of Money Heist was not only Netflix’s most viewed international series that wasn’t streamed in solely in English, but in the week the final episodes dropped it became the show with the highest total viewing hours on the platform, with almost four times that of the nearest (English-speaking) competitor. That’s 47 million hours against 190 million. Insane!
But why now? Is it just that people realised that subtitles really aren’t as bad as they thought? I know a lot of people, including me, have left them on for English shows because they make life so much easier. One article states that over 80% of Netflix users now use subtitles at least once a month, and the streaming giant, which may be losing popularity but still dominates its field, now streams in more than 60 languages. This is possible of course, but we’ve not moved to a world of universal consumption – my Netflix feed is still 75% English even as I try to watch as much French media as I can for my degree. It’s one or two productions at a time that make it big out of nowhere, and from a variety of places, genres and budgets.
Potentially, it’s the sheer choice. The rise of streaming has allowed not only a wider appreciation of subtitles but wider access to films – a Netflix or Hulu subscription is often cheaper than a cinema ticket and you have access to a massive amount of content at any time you want. Similarly, TV is no longer a matter of what happens to be on when you’re free, it’s there on demand. With wider access comes a wider range of choices and that means that things that would otherwise be overlooked or excluded, now have a chance, if not a big one, of being noticed. Then we have algorithms, if enough of us scream about Squid Games, then all of us will scream about Squid Games. It pleases the digital overlords.
From there we find one of the complaints you hear about TV and film nowadays: that there’s so much choice and it’s all in different places (often behind paywalls on different streaming sites). With that much content available, things can start to feel a little bit stale. Even without intention, you start to spot patterns in media and the search for something new is easier when you stumble upon a highly acclaimed foreign film in the recommended section.
Here is something that maybe is a little bit different! Whilst cinematographers and film critics like to claim film is a universal language; Korean, French, Spanish, or Swedish filmmakers may be working from a different set of references and cultural expectations and as such that stale taste dissipates. We speak the same language; we get the stories, and the emotions and we connect to the art, but we speak a different dialect and that makes these films refreshing. Not to say that any of my examples are only good because they’re foreign – they’re all stunning works and push forward the standards of the industry. However, it is notable that none of these examples of massively popular films were necessarily created with an English-speaking audience in mind.
This is not Disney minimising LGBTQ+ representation so they can easily push sales through Russian and Chinese censorship. This is not a collection of calculated decisions from executives looking for the next big thing. They seem to be organically popular shows. Just good entertainment that happened to spark something amongst audiences across cultures, without a set intention to make it big – even as both film and TV are, in the end, both markets as well as art.
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Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?
Such an interesting article!