Why are people so frigid when it comes to foreign films? When Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, upon receiving a Golden Globe for his 2019 drama Parasite, spoke wryly about overcoming “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”, his words were tinged with a long-held truth. For many people, foreign cinema has always been a daunting proposition, a confection to be enjoyed by snobs and dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles. “Foreign film” is, of course, an umbrella term too wide to be useful: works of accessible pop entertainment like Seven Samurai or Playtime are lumped in with challenging arthouse fare like Jeanne Dielman. But it’s a term that persists in the minds of the public. With a few very occasional exceptions – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life is Beautiful – foreign-language films have always struggled to find a wide audience in the West. And yet, look at the UK’s current Netflix film rankings, and you will see a foreign-language feature sitting atop the chart. Sacré bleu.
The film, Troll, is a Norwegian monster movie, in which humankind is pitted against a folkloric creature that has awakened deep in the mountains of Dovre. There’s plenty of fraught family melodrama before the big finish – an improbable CGI goliath running amok in urban Norway – but Ibsen this obviously is not. Troll is a strange film, a clunky, eccentric B-movie that lurches between tones and rote genre tropes. Despite warm reviews from the handful of English-language outlets that covered it, audiences haven’t exactly been loving it (if a resolutely ambivalent 50 per cent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is any indicator). But the fact that a film as weird and schlocky as Troll is able to find an audience on Netflix speaks to one of the streaming platform’s greatest virtues.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Netflix has revolutionised the way that films and TV shows are distributed internationally. Because the streamer operates as a single global entity, it has invested in all manner of original content from a multitude of different countries. There are the big hitters – breakout foreign-language shows such as Squid Game, Money Heist, Dark and Call My Agent! – but also a vast, diverse catalogue of original films and series from all over the world. The quality is, admittedly, patchy, but in terms of sheer quantity, Netflix has provided Western subscribers with an unprecedented wealth of options.
For decades, the foreign films that are distributed most widely in the UK have tended to fall into the realm of highbrow or “prestige” releases. You know the sort. Critically acclaimed, often with an animal-shaped trophy in tow from some far-flung film festival. Netflix has a spattering of these in its back pocket, of course – films such as Roma or Atlantics – but the majority of these artsier releases are hoovered up by specialist subscription services (Mubi or BFI Player in the UK). Rather, the bulk of Netflix’s international content follows the same ethos as its English-language content, which is to say, anything and everything. Much of it is dreck. But even dreck deserves the chance to be seen.
The thing is, we British have a tendency to pigeonhole things. For a while in the late 2000s/early 2010s, inspired by the success of The Killing, the UK’s national broadcasters indulged a hot fascination with Scandinavian crime dramas. Dour Scandi imports were served up with the dogged consistency of McDonald’s burgers. But our country’s appetite didn’t really grow beyond that tight geographical and tonal remit (if it had, the caustic Norwegian sitcom Dag would have rightly been celebrated as a modern classic). Netflix, on the other hand, is unbeholden to these kind of fads. Spanish melodramas? Korean reality series? Brazilian sci-fi? Like the world’s most extravagant arbitrage gambler, Netflix has got it all covered.
For all the problems with Netflix’s relentless production model, there’s no understating the value of its international content stockpile. Foreign films shouldn’t have to be masterpieces to have a shot at an audience. God knows there’s enough homegrown grot that we all lap up. For a film like Troll to be, however briefly, the most-watched film on the site is a galvanising suggestion that there is a market for different kinds of foreign movies. Maybe Hollywood’s stranglehold on popular entertainment may be loosening. Who knows what could happen with a little room to breathe?