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From ‘The Sympathizer’ to ‘Past Lives,’ American Audiences Warm to Subtitles

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From ‘The Sympathizer’ to ‘Past Lives,’ American Audiences Warm to Subtitles

The sequence is emblematic of a significant shift in how Asian languages are featured in American film and TV.

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.”

Bong Joon Ho and his interpreter, Sharon Choi, at the Golden Globe Awards in 2020.

Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal Media, via Getty Images

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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.”

McKellar has seen a shift, though. When he wrote the 1998 film “The Red Violin,” which has dialogue in several languages including German, French and Mandarin, he had to tally up the percentage of English dialogue to reassure studio executives who were nervous about a Western audience’s tolerance for subtitles.

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“It was one of those understood things,” he recalled. But with “The Sympathizer,” which has long stretches in Vietnamese, “I never had to count.”

“The Sympathizer”

Hopper Stone/HBO

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.

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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.”

Many experts point to Netflix’s 2021 hit series “Squid Game,” a Korean import, as an early catalyst. The monumental success of the dystopian thriller, which is the platform’s most-watched show, took even the streamer by surprise. “You have a non-English show, a Korean show, that ends up being the biggest show in the world ever,” said Bela Bajaria, the chief content officer for Netflix, whose overall subscriber base is largely outside of the U.S. “We did not see that coming.”

“Squid Game” topped a growing wave of non-English worldwide hits, such as the Spanish “Money Heist” and the French “Lupin.” The success of these projects helped shift the industrywide perception of non-English dialogue: Where it was once seen as a liability, it became an asset — a change that coincided with a rising number of Asian and Asian American filmmakers helming major Hollywood projects.

“Amazon is all over the world and they are trying to tap into international audiences,” said the filmmaker Lulu Wang, whose recent Prime series, “Expats,” takes place in Hong Kong and has portions in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Punjabi and English. “So the word they kept using was: ‘We see this as a global show for us.’”

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The making of “Expats” was a stark contrast to Wang’s experience pitching her acclaimed 2018 film “The Farewell,” she said. Back then, skeptical executives asked her to relocate the story, which is set primarily in China, to New York and translate a majority of the dialogue from Mandarin into English. Wang refused.

“There was just this constant awareness that we were doing something that was on the periphery and that was in the margins,” she said. “And in order to make it successful, we had to find a way to take it out of the shadows and bring it into the light.”

The market, it seems, has changed. This year’s FX/Hulu adaptation of the James Clavell novel “Shogun,” a heavily subtitled series that includes Japanese and English dialogue, notched one of Disney’s most watched debuts. While much of the show’s political and emotional intrigue is managed through the act of translation between characters, its predecessor, a 1980 series adaptation, was mostly in English and didn’t even bother subtitling its sparse Japanese lines.

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.

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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.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs/A24

Still, authenticity can be an abstract badge of honor. Multiplicity of language is most interesting when it’s used to progress these stories — to ratchet up tension, to encase or reveal secrets, to create emotional resonance, to reflect or deflect identity.

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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.”

The evolution of Nora’s Korean helps define a progression of playfulness, curiosity and eventually heartbreak as she revisits an old language, an old friend and an old life. These layers of storytelling do not register with English-speaking audiences, but for those who do speak Korean, they add depth to the film.

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“You dream in a language I don’t understand,” Arthur, Nora’s American husband, wistfully tells her at one point about her sleep talking. “It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.”

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Swanky airport lounges are arriving at LAX, like this Chase one. But who can get in?

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Swanky airport lounges are arriving at LAX, like this Chase one. But who can get in?

While a swanky airport lounge can’t alleviate Los Angeles International Airport’s infamous curbside gridlock, it can make it become a more distant memory.

The latest predeparture sanctuary that will land at LAX? It’s from a company best known for its bank branches. Chase announced on Thursday it will open a 9,234-square-foot Sapphire Lounge at Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), near Gate 148. An opening date was not shared.

Dana Pouwels, head of airport lounge benefits and strategic partnerships for Chase, said the company is investing in meeting its customers where they are.

“Los Angeles is home to many cardmembers and a popular destination among Chase travelers,” Pouwels said. “And as a native Angeleno who frequently travels through LAX to visit home, I’m excited to bring a Chase Sapphire Lounge to my home city.”

Based on renderings, the premium Chase space will feature expansive tarmac views — a first for a lounge in TBIT’s main concourse — along with a dramatic waterfall-style chandelier above a granite and wood bar. While Chase was mum on proposed amenities, if it’s anything like the company’s other lounges now at five airports, expect it to skew higher-end.

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The first U.S. Sapphire Lounge for Chase debuted in Boston one year ago. Features include a gourmet buffet and à la carte dining (their Sapphire burger is a particular standout); dedicated wellness and shower rooms; and a residential-inspired design meant for both work and leisure. Meanwhile, the LaGuardia Airport location in New York that opened earlier this year even offers complimentary facials and ultra-high-end private suites (for a hefty additional fee).

Pouwels said the “space will pay homage to Los Angeles while embodying local modern elements that celebrate the culture of the city.”

To get unlimited access to Chase Sapphire Lounges in the U.S., travelers must be enrolled in the $550-per-year Chase Sapphire Reserve with Priority Pass membership. Those with a Priority Pass membership from another premium travel credit card (such as an Amex Platinum or Capital One Venture X) can enter a U.S. Sapphire Lounge once each calendar year at no cost.

Currently, there are no Priority Pass-accessible lounges at LAX, so Chase’s lounge will be a boon to a wide range of travelers once open.

The airport lounge wars continue

Lounge competition is fierce, especially among the major credit card companies. Access has widened dramatically in recent years as issuers push for premium card sign-ups and build out their own branded spaces. While that means more crowded lounges, it also means more options for travelers.

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in 2013, American Express entered the business of owning and operating airport lounges with the Centurion network. More recently, Chase’s Sapphire portfolio and Capital One’s lounges are the answer to the incumbent.

At LAX, Amex opened its Centurion Lounge in 2020, just a few steps away from Chase’s future site. The nearly 14,000-square-foot area features a variety of luxe amenities, including a bespoke food menu from executive chef Nancy Silverton, a spa area with chair massages and mini-manicures, and shower suites.

Dave Jones, deputy executive director of commercial development at Los Angeles World Airports, says that lounges improve the travel experience, especially as the airport redevelops. “LAX looks forward to providing our guests with more lounge options based on their consumer preferences, as well as accommodating the growing demand for lounge access,” he said.

Other LAX lounges in the pipeline

Chase isn’t the only player set to open a new lounge at the airport. Air France will unveil its first-ever LAX lounge at TBIT on June 21.

A carrier spokesperson said L.A. is one of the “most important markets for Air France” and is part of a wider global investment in lounges. When it opens, the LAX location will become the sixth Air France lounge in the U.S., joining Washington-Dulles, Houston Intercontinental, San Francisco, New York JFK and Boston.

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Meanwhile, over at Terminal 4, Delta Air Lines will open a high-end Delta One Lounge by the end of 2024. It will feature an outdoor terrace, over 10,000 square feet of space, and a seamless connection from an exclusive check-in area for Delta One passengers.

It’s part of the carrier’s strategy to offer a new “premium” tier of amenities for international business-class guests. “Premium lounge customers should feel welcomed and known when they walk in the door, just as they would at their favorite hotel or restaurant,” said Claude Roussel, vice president of Sky Club and lounge experience at Delta.

The first Delta One lounge will open in New York in late June.

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NPR’s Morning Edition invites your thoughts on marriage

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NPR’s Morning Edition invites your thoughts on marriage

For our upcoming summer series, NPR’s Morning Edition wants to hear your thoughts on marriage.

Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images


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Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

This summer, Morning Edition brings you a series on love and marriage!

Whether married or not, we want to hear from you! Fill out the form below and someone from our team may reach out to hear more. You can also upload your responses as a voice memo, while keeping each answer to less than a minute. Please submit responses by Sunday, June 16 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time.

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Your submission will be governed by our general Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. As the Privacy Policy says, we want you to be aware that there may be circumstances in which the exemptions provided under law for journalistic activities or freedom of expression may override privacy rights you might otherwise have.

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Female hitman used hijab disguise in attempt to wipe out Birmingham family

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Female hitman used hijab disguise in attempt to wipe out Birmingham family
A hired killer from the US disguised herself with a hijab before trying to shoot dead a man and his family in Birmingham, a court has heard. Aimee Betro, 44, a hitwoman from Chicago, was hired by Mohammed Nazir, 30, and his father Mohammed Aslam, 56, to carry out a revenge killing against the owner of a boutique clothing store and his family. But M…
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