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The Train To Busan Remake Proves We Still Can’t “Overcome The One Inch Tall Barrier Of Subtitles”

Last week it was announced that 2016 South Korean zombie movie Train to Busan is getting a Warner Brothers-led American remake, and in the process Hollywood revealed that it still isn’t able to “overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles.” Parasite’s win for Best Picture could have been a turning point for the film industry’s attitudes to non-English language pictures, but if the Train To Busan news is anything to go by, it seems more like a blip as we continue straight ahead on our high speed rail.

This idea of a “one inch tall barrier” was raised by Parasite director Bong Joon Ho in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. With Parasite taking home trophy after trophy, he was well used to giving speeches by the time the Golden Globes rolled around, so perhaps it’s no surprise he was able to frame his thoughts so coherently. Except Bong Joon Ho didn’t actually say this. I don’t speak Korean, but as I understand it, the director’s words were slightly less poetic, and were turned into this scathing soundbite by his translator, Sharon Choi.

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The phrase not only points to how accessible foreign films are these days, its on-the-spot creation highlights the artistry behind subtitles themselves. Subtitling is not just running the script through Google Translate then throwing it up on the screen. It’s about translating the nuance of the actor’s dialogue, and understanding the intention of the words rather than the meaning. Watching a foreign film with subtitles is like watching a remake anyway, only one much more reverent and true to the original. I’m not getting into subs v dubs either, because it has nothing to do with the Train to Busan remake, and it’s a silly, Coke v Pepsi argument.

Regardless of whether you climb the barrier of subtitles or take the ladder over them through dubbing, foreign films open up a whole new world for you. It’s like the first time you saw a cowboy flick, or a gangster film, or your first horror movie, and suddenly had a whole genre to dive into. Foreign movies introduce you to new types of storytelling with much wider horizons than any given genre, because once you’re on board for foreign films, any genre you can think of becomes reinvented with a snap of the fingers. A Western remake of Train to Busan robs people of the chance to experience that, swapping those new horizons for ‘scary zombies on a train’.

This doesn’t even need to be a contrarian, “foreign films rule, Hollywood sucks!” take either. Most Hollywood films are okay. Some of them are great. But a lot of the time, especially at a popcorn-blockbuster level, they all feel quite similar. They use the same effects, the same quips, the same tropes, but more than that, they also use the same colour palette and the same pacing, not to mention the same sets and same casting. Gerard Butler has saved the earth from a high-octane disaster on no less than five occasions now. By exploring foreign movies, a new sense of variation is injected into everything. French cinema, Korean cinema, African cinema… these all have their own inspirations, their own circle of tropes and palettes and casts, their own way of storytelling.

This is a bigger issue than Train of Busan, so to focus on it specifically is to ignore the wider problems. That said, while I don’t think the adaptation will hit any huge roadblocks, I do wonder what the purpose of it is. It’s not really about whether they could adapt the film, it’s about whether they should. For example, I’ve seen a few people suggesting it won’t work because the US has no high speed rail, which is what the titular train to Busan is. While the US technically does have one – the Acela from Boston to DC – it is very different to the South Korean high speed rail system, but they’re just going to set in the New York subway system or something like that anyway. As for the South Korean cultural references and character development, these will just be whitewashed and tweaked to fit American characters. Train to Busan is a very simple movie to remake for Western audiences, but that’s exactly why they shouldn’t.

Even with missing some of the specifically Korean elements of the characterisation, Train to Busan’s characters are instantly relatable. They put their own spin on disaster movie archetypes, which makes it easy to root for them, and easy to understand their motivations. I don’t need them to be replaced by Chris Pratt, Emily Blunt, or Gerard Butler for me to become invested in their fate. So why does Hollywood think that would make a difference?

Even speaking purely financially, a remake of Train to Busan – of any foreign movie – seems like an unnecessary risk. Completely remaking a movie, especially one with such heavy action sequences and VFX, is a costly endeavor before you even get to the salaries of blockbuster stars, then promotion and all the rest. It’s much cheaper to simply buy the distribution rights and invest purely in promotion, either with a big streaming push or a post-pandemic release. Is it just that we still can’t scale that one inch tall barrier? Is it that Hollywood thinks we can’t relate to people who don’t look like us? Why, after the success of Parasite, are studios still spending millions remaking movies which are less than a decade old, with nothing to add to the mix besides ‘white people’?

Adaptations of foreign films can go either way. The Departed is a phenomenal movie, based on the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs, while the Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart led The Upside had none of the heart of the original French film Intouchables. It’s not really about whether Train to Busan’s remake will be any good, it’s that Hollywood is still willing to spend millions to whitewash existing movies rather than just point us towards cinema from around the world. The one inch tall barrier is getting smaller, but it seems like we still can’t quite scale it. Plus, the Hollywood remake of Oldboy is shit.

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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