Asian Languages Onscreen.

Brandon Yu’s NY Times piece “Found in Translation: Asian Languages[/亞洲語言/아시아의 언어/Mga Wikang Asyano/Ngôn ngữ Á châu] Onscreen” (, Wayback Machine) is a heartening look at how things have changed when it comes to subtitles:

American audiences used to balk at subtitles. But recent hits like “Shogun” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” show how much that has changed. In Hollywood today, not only are Asian and Asian American narratives more prominent than ever, but they are also being told in increasingly dynamic ways through the artful use of Asian languages. […]

Just a few years ago, when his Korean dark comedy “Parasite” won the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the writer and director Bong Joon Ho ribbed Americans for their aversion to “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” But in 2024, “The Sympathizer” is among a growing number of American works — including the recent prestige films “Minari” (2020), “Past Lives” (2023) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022); the television epics “Pachinko” (2022) and “Shogun” (2024); and the family-friendly series “Ms. Marvel” (2022) and “American Born Chinese” (2023) — that use Asian languages to bring additional depth and nuance to their stories.

“I don’t think it is just a temporary blip,” said Minjeong Kim, the director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at San Diego State University. “The trend has shifted.”

It’s a startling evolution from how Asian languages have typically appeared on American screens. Don McKellar, the co-creator of “The Sympathizer,” said that after the show’s multilingual writing staff watched the 1978 Vietnam War film “The Deer Hunter,” there was confusion about what language that film’s Vietnamese characters were even speaking. “No one could understand them,” he said. “They were either Thai speakers who had been given a word or two of Vietnamese or they were just speaking Thai with a ‘Vietnamese’ accent.” […]

Nowadays, some 50 percent of Americans would prefer to watch videos with subtitles regardless of the language they’re hearing. Videos on social media are increasingly closed-captioned and, as sound mixing becomes more complicated across devices, the near universal accessibility of subtitles — a rarity before the rise of streaming — has made them more of a boon than a barrier.

The internet’s broad entertainment ecosystem has also diversified the American media palate. “YouTube, social media, TikTok, those things that are really open — people can actually access and be exposed to content in different languages,” Kim said. That means “they might be less reluctant to watch movies or TV shows that have different languages.” […]

Across many films and series about Asians and Asian Americans, language is increasingly used as a world-building tool. On “The Sympathizer,” McKellar said, there was a committee of people across all levels of production that was meticulously tweaking the Vietnamese dialogue. “The Northern accent and then the Southern accent, they’re vastly, vastly different,” said the show’s star, Hoa Xuande, who plays a spy for the North who is planted in the South. Then, he added, there were prewar and postwar accents that had to be accounted for.

These finer details of language are, in other words, positive markers of stories told with “authenticity,” that vaguely praiseworthy term that nevertheless is viscerally felt when, for instance, you hear the “Chinglish” patter, a mélange of Mandarin and English, between Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in an early scene in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Their back-and-forth, dancing seamlessly in and out of English midsentence, is a mode familiar to most Asian Americans — 66 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home. […]

One of the most affecting uses of foreign language can be found in the 2023 film “Past Lives,” an Oscar nominee that its star Greta Lee, who plays Nora, said was a story about how to “capture identity through language.” Nora’s Korean slowly shifts and loosens from the start of the film to the end, Lee said, as she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. On their first call, “she’s been living in New York for X amount of years, she doesn’t really speak Korean anymore,” Lee explained. But as their connection rekindles and her Korean becomes more fluent, it’s as if Nora is slowly unearthing her past self.

Lee worked with Sharon Choi, who gained recognition as Bong Joon Ho’s interpreter during the international press run for “Parasite.” Rather than being a traditional dialect coach, Choi explored speech patterns with Lee that were crucial to communicating her character’s journey. “My priority wasn’t getting a particular accent,” Choi said. Instead of focusing on technical proficiency, “I was approaching this language from a storytelling perspective.”

Unfortunately, one of the best things about the piece is the clips from movies and TV shows, accompanied by analysis of the use of subtitles, and I’m afraid you can’t access them on the archived versions I’ve linked to. If you can get to the original Times link, though, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them!


  1. Many, if not most of these points can be applied to entertainment coming from Latin America, and I’m sure they have been, in this blog, some years ago! Unfortunately Google isn’t cooperating today.

    “some 50 percent of Americans would prefer to watch videos with subtitles”.
    I think this is more of a technical issue, with a trend in soundtrack mixing that de-emphasizes dialogue. I even noticed this on the equalization presets for cinema on my sound card.

  2. This is funny because, my hate for the book The Sympathiser aside, I’ve heard lots of complaints from Vietnamese people – not Vietnamese Americans – about the costumes, accent, and language in the TV series. One of my friends even says that some of the dialogue sounds like literal translation from English – nobody talks like that in Vietnamese.

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