Sunday, September 18, 2011

Subtitle shenanigans

We had decided to watch a Korean horror/thriller last night, and our choice (available on streaming) was going to be Arang. I didn't know anything about Arang except that it was in our queue, which means either my wife or I must have thought it had potential. (Her, I think.)

We bailed after one minute.

No, Arang was not the worst movie you've ever seen, a movie that would turn you against it in only 60 seconds.

But its subtitles were fucked up, which is a deal-breaker.

Okay, "fucked up" goes too far. They were just too close to the bottom of the screen. You could read the words, but about the bottom third of the bottom row was below the bottom edge of the screen, so you had to read twice to make sure you got the words right. And the natural pace of dialogue just doesn't allow that kind of luxury.

Deal-breaker, right?

It got me thinking about how easy it should be to get subtitles right. There are plenty of available strategies for ensuring that the viewer can actually read the subtitles. Yet these strategies are not always satisfactorily employed.

One of the biggest bummers I have about subtitles is something you usually can't figure out from the beginning of the film. All too often, films won't do enough to distinguish the subtitles from backgrounds of the same color. Ever been watching a movie with white subtitles, and suddenly you're missing half the dialogue during a shot of bright daylight? Or sometimes you miss only a little bit, because part of the text bleeds into the background but part of it doesn't?

This should be pretty easy to fix. Two immediate solutions come to mind: 1) Surround white letters with a thin black border. A bordered letter will stand out against anything. 2) Surround the entire line of text with a banner. Nothing obtrusive.

I should be careful, though, making suggestions that would be obtrusive -- you see, lots of people reading this are in a position to put my suggestions into practice -- because the movie we watched instead of Arang committed the sin of obtrusion.

We shifted one title over in our streaming queue and watched The Red Shoes, also from Korea -- and absolutely brilliant, as it turned out. But some of the compositional beauty of the film was tainted during the opening credits.

See, the modest Korean characters, which blended so seamlessly into the mis en scene, were translated into ugly yellow lettering in English. Large ugly yellow writing. And because they couldn't cover up the Korean letters (a decision I agree with), the subtitles had to jump to the top of the screen, where they are directly impacting the composition of the shot.

My suggestion to fix this one is a suggestion the filmmakers' would be a lot less likely to go for: Just don't translate the credits. Sure, there are some things you have to translate -- say, the title -- but is it essential that we get the Roman alphabet translation of the boom operator's name? (I know, I know, you'll never get the boom operator's name in the opening credits of a film, unless it's Gaspar Noe's Into the Void, all of whose credits appear right up front. I was just making a joke. Jeez.)

Then again, I don't want to align myself with the people who leave the theater as soon as the credits roll -- credits are important.

As important as seeing the shot as it was originally intended, though? Nah.


Mike Lippert said...

I don't remember the last time I saw a movie with yellow subtitles. On a totally different note, I remember hearing all this buzz about how Hollywood was ruining Japanese horror movies so I tracked down the original Grudge (the 3rd Ju-on movie if a remember correctly?) and hated it even more than the American remake. So there ya go. Glad you liked the one you saw.

Vancetastic said...

I haven't dug extensively into Asian horror, but I've definitely seen at least one that I thought was ridiculous: The original version of Pulse, which I only saw because I thought the American remake (which I haven't seen) looked interesting.

If you want a really good Japanese horror, do yourself a favor and see Takashi Miike's Audition.