In one simple sentence, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho summed up perfectly why captioned films should be celebrated, not shunned.
“Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” said Parasite director Joon Ho as he picked up the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. For years, deaf cinemagoers like me have worked to dispel the myth of subtitles being an inconvenience, and with a degree of elegance expected from an award-winning cinematographer, Joon Ho well and truly proved that claim to be false.
With subtitled screenings already so few and far between in UK cinemas (everything from upsetting hearing customers to ‘economic viability’ are flung around as excuses as to why the situation in UK cinemas are so dire), it’s about time that subtitles are normalised in our arts and culture scene and used by all. The often ignored point about subtitles, which applies to all forms of support for disabled people, is that accessibility benefits everyone.
In his acceptance speech, Bong Joon Ho perfectly minimises the issue people take with captions. Far too many people see the captioning of content, or the viewing of subtitled media, as burdensome. There’s a sigh, a dropping of the shoulders and the rhetorical question, “do we have to have subtitles on” is a common response by deaf peers and family members when we apply subtitles to our favourite TV programmes. Joon Ho puts it plain and simple: the barrier to enjoying your favourite film is only an inch tall. When you think about it that way, any complaint is unnecessary and inappropriate.
Yet there’s also a hidden beauty in Joon Ho’s sentence. Hearing viewers in the UK would see no issue with open captions on Parasite to understand a Korean film, yet a fair amount of people take issue with captioned screenings or performances in UK arts venues. It may not have been the direct point at the heart of the quote, but there is a subtle question for audiences to answer: if you don’t take issue with subtitles on a foreign language film, then why take issue when they pop up on English media?
When I think about accessible solutions, I feel there needs to be an understanding by hearing audiences that they are used by deaf people, autistic people, foreign language speakers and those with auditory processing disorder, to name but a few. Not too long after launching my own captioning campaign did I see hearing people reveal their need and appreciation for subtitles, too. The benefits are endless, from greater inclusivity to improved literacy.
Now that Joon Ho has accepted his award, it’s time for our society to do some acceptance of its own, and realise the true beauty of captioned media.