Why Netflix is the unsung hero of foreign language TV

When he collected his award for Best Foreign Language Film at The Golden Globes, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho famously described subtitles as a one-inch-tall barrier to amazing films. But just who’s responsible for the barrier?

Back when digital TV was dawning, and Sky Movies evolved from a single channel into a family, I asked one of the executives responsible if it would expand its offering to better reflect world cinema, given that it had more bandwidth to play with, and a multiplex of movie channels at its disposal.

The executive thought about my question, before suggesting, yes it would. But the satcaster never did.

Even today, with an infinite delivery pipe and the option of endless pop-up channels, its movie focus (with the occasional exception) remains mainstream English language. The nearest it tends to get to a specialist offering is wall-to-wall Bond or Christmas movies.

Thankfully while premium pay TV services have been playing a no-risk content game, SVOD operators – and not just specialist services like MUBI or Crunchyroll – haven't been so parochial.

Even better, we don’t just get foreign language movies, but TV shows as well, and the choice is revelatory. This cultural tsunami is a key reason why I can’t ever imagine dropping my subs, and the biggest differentiator between streaming and physical media. Global telly barely appears on disc, and even if it did, I wouldn’t know what to look for.

It’s the sheer scale of these streaming services that has made such a seismic shift possible. With 200million global subscribers, Netflix simply can't afford to wear Hollywood blinkers.

Sure, BBC Four and Channel Four’s Walter Presents strand do a great job expanding viewing horizons, but only Netflix has the platform to make non-English language shows like Spanish thriller Money Heist and German mind-mangler Dark huge hits, or have the German historical romp Barbarians smash into the streamer’s Top Ten upon launch.

And unlike US Netflix shows, these foreign hits seem far less prone to cancellation.

Binge on the these...
Of course, you might just be seeing the tip of a cultural telly iceberg. Netflix's algorithm only pushes what it thinks you like to watch. But the more you consume, a greater variety of content is revealed. So, here’s some top world telly that definitely warrants your time...

A manga mash-up of Battle Royale, Hunger Games and Saw, Japanese SF thriller Alice in Borderland (pictured, Netflix) transports a feckless trio into an alternate empty Tokyo where they have to compete in deadly escape games to survive.

French comedy drama Call My Agent (Netflix) throws a spotlight on the movie business in Paris. Peppered with celebrity cameos (including Juliette Binoche, Jean Reno and Sigourney Weaver), this perky celebration of Parisian media culture is now up to its fourth season.

South Korean apocalyptic horror Sweet Home (Netflix) offers a feast of outrageous creature designs for genre lovers. When a high school student moves to a new apartment, he finds his neighbours really are monsters (and if you like this, don’t miss out on Korean zombie actioner Kingdom).

Or if fast-moving action appeals, binge India's Sacred Games (Netflix), in which a lone cop has 25 days to prevent a terrorist attack on Mumbai.

Seems that vaulting that one-inch barrier isn’t so difficult after all.