Where Netflix Fails: Foreign Films

I’ll be the first to sing the praises of the Netflix streaming service, but you’ll only be able to watch foreign films on Instant Streaming if you’re lucky, or if you just don’t care about quality.

I was sick over the weekend. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. I can’t blame that one on Netflix. I can blame them for failing to aid my recovery, though.

When I’m sick, I go straight to the couch, I cover myself in a big blanket, and I watch movies. It’s a great time to get around to the movies on my pile of shame – those films that I’ve got on my queue but haven’t yet had a chance to watch.

I decided to polish off three of such films this weekend. The ‘Vengeance’ trilogy from Chan-wook Park (or Park Chan-wook, depending who you ask) has been high on my list for a long time. It’s hard to find time to sit down to those challenging movies, but I had all day.

I pulled up my Netflix queue, hit play on the first film, ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance‘, and waited for my mind to be blown. My mind was blown, but for a completely different reason. The Korean film ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ didn’t have subtitles.

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that the movie was dubbed over instead of subtitled. It’s presented with the original Korean dialog and no subtitles. The only way I could properly watch this movie is to learn Korean.

A friend of mine told me that while the movies are a trilogy, they can each be watched individually. I decided to heed his advice and move on to ‘Old Boy‘, the most famous of the three. I fast forwarded to the four minute mark so I could see what the deal was.

I quickly realized that the movie was dubbed over, which isn’t an immediate problem for me. The dubbed voices seemed a little silly, though. The man holding the phone sounded a lot like Fred Willard. This would be a plus in a comedy, but it just doesn’t seem like a good thing in a movie that’s dark and serious.

Lady Vengeance‘, the third film in the trilogy, was subtitled. I didn’t end up watching it, simply because I wanted to watch the films in order and was already resigned to getting the DVDs.

Of the three films in a popular foreign trilogy, one was subbed, one was dubbed and the other was simply Korean.

This kind of inconsistency makes it difficult to enjoy foreign films on Netflix, and it makes me instantly shy away from adding them to my queue. Moreover, the lack of thought that went into putting these movies up is inexcusable.

I’m almost certain that each of the DVDs features the option to watch the movie in the original Korean with English subtitles, even if they don’t all have dubs. It seems like common sense to put them all up in the same format.

This is a big problem for Netflix, and it goes farther than just foreign films. It’s the problem of quantity over quality. It’s an issue of trying to get more movies up without paying attention to how they’re going up.

The optimal solution, in my mind, is to put up full rips of the DVD which include alternate audio and subtitle tracks. That way we could easily select our preferred setup. I don’t know how feasible it is technically, but giving users the option would make me even more of a Netflix fan than I already am.


  1. and the people who supply the titles to netflix should be held accountable also. i started a foreign film the other day and i turned it off due to the subtitles being cut off at the bottom. not good.

  2. I think what is going on here is that Netflix is in the process of converting how it handles audio and subtitle tracks. I noticed that on many newly added titles, on both the PS3 and the Wii, I had Audio options and Subtitle options. It may be that movies have to be re-encoded to support these features.

    It seems to me that with the older stuff, its kind of hit and miss as to what language and subtitles you get. I think what ever was the default play option on the disc is what was encoded, which may be why you have some movies that are dubbed, others that are in the original language but subbed, and some that are just in the original language. I am sure as they get re-encoded, this issue will go away. Sadly, there are tens of thousands of movies that Netflix has encoded over the past 2+ years, and it will take them a while to redo them all.

    Unfortunately, it is VERY difficult to submit feedback for a streaming issue on Netflix. You got to go to their website, navigate through unfriendly menus, and then eventually you can leave feedback and issues with movies. I was able to report an old Doctor Who episode (The Three Doctors) that had major A/V sync issues. Took me about 5 minutes of navigating the website to do it. However, if more people would do this, for subtitles and whatknot, perhaps we can see these issues addressed more quickly.

  3. ilovenola2

    I will stick to seeing my Netflix-obtained foreign films (and others as well) on DVD or Blu Ray. I have yet to see the attraction in streaming content– but I admit I have a lo-tech budget AT&T broadband connection and stop-start just isn’t the way I want to see films– or any content.
    As for the wait for disc delivery…. well, I wait for the film to be released. A few days more doesn’t matter.

  4. David Smith

    Dick, I think that you made some very valid complaints about the inconsistencies of the netflix foreign film streaming. I think it’s been a pretty good system so far (I avoid dubbed films if I can too). However, I do appreciate the level of accessibility that netflix streaming offers. I doubt I would have gone out of my way to view “North Face” on DVD, but was very happy that netflix offered it streaming and subtitled.

    As far as your problems viewing the “Vengeance Trilogy,” don’t panic about trying to view it in order. They are only linked thematically, not narratively: Much like Terry Gilliam’s trilogy of ages (Time Banidts, Brazil, and Baron Munchausen) or John Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness.) Good luck!

  5. Wayne

    I was JUST noticing the same thing! I tried to watch Ip Man streaming. They have the dubbed version. However, when any of the Japanese characters speak, they speak in Japanese w/o subtitles. Oh, and any on screen text (in Chinese) went untranslated as well.

    I would LOVE more options. Fingers crossed!

    • JoeRo

      I was thinking I was the only person bumping into this problem. I also watched IP Man on netflix and was flabbergasted at the lack of subtitles during scenes with spoken Japanese.
      I was equally pissed with the Vengeance Trilogy. I absolutely hate dubs but will watch them if nothing else is readily available. If all three movies were dubbed it at least would’ve been possible to get into the mind-set necessary to endure all three films, but no chance. (As an aside the English dub for Renaissance is totally watchable, which makes sense given that films background)

      In the Mood for Love, Solaris, FAQ, As Tears Go By, and Lust, Caution all get it right. Each one of these films are presented in their native language and have English subtitles. I don’t really see what’s so difficult about this process. I don’t really buy the excuse that one movie was added at a later date so it has more options. The films named have been added to the stream at different times so … you just have to wonder what the logic behind all this is.

      Anyway, I’d like to know if anyone here has some favorite foreign language films available on netflix in their actual native language? I’d be super interested to know what else is out there and what’s worth watching.

      • In regard to Renaissance, it can be argued that English is that movie’s native language. Even though it’s a French production, the motion-capture actors were speaking English so that the animated mouth movements would sync with the English dub (which features completely different actors doing the voices).

        • JoeRo

          Yeah I was aware of that, but IMDB list’s the French language track as its “original version” so I’m calling the English track a dub. Renaissance is probably not the best example of a good dub, but in the strictest literal sense it is.

  6. Patrick A Crone

    I streamed Ip Man a few weeks back. Not only was it dubbed, but the Japanese dialogue remained with no subtitles.

  7. Wayne

    I was watching Ip Man streaming thru a PS3. A pal of mine watched it streaming thru his Xbox and said that it had subtitles. Could it be that the Ip Man audio is one of the few the PS3 gets in 5.1 and that happens to be the crappy dub track?

      • LazerTag

        I started Ip Man while sitting in my car waiting for my sons soccer practice to end. I was watching on my iPhone and it had no dubbed audio but everything had subtitles. When I arrived home, fairly late, my wife was sleeping already so instead of clicking on the TV I grabbed the iPad and continued watching with the same no dubbed audio and subtitles. I got pretty sleepy as well so I stopped with about 20 minutes remaining. I clicked on my LG TV to finish this morning while eating breakfast only to find everyone speaking English except the Japanese and no subtitles at all anymore. Moving back to iPad or iPhone made no difference. I may break out the PC or Mac and see what they do. Fairly disappointing to watch it like that and not hear all the final dialogue and see translations for the screen titles. Thanks go to Netflix for ruining the end of this movie for me.

  8. EM

    It isn’t just in foreign-language movies where a lack of subtitles can seriously underserve the customer: I’m sure a lot of hearing-impaired Americans would love to stream English-language films with English-language subtitles. Even non-hearing-impaired persons can benefit, e.g., when dialogue is unclear or contains unfamiliar words.

    I’m curious: have any of you run into problems with missing subtitles for non-English portions of predominantly English-language films (e.g., no English subtitles for any of Jabba’s Huttese dialogue in “Return of the Jedi”)?

  9. Tman

    I enjoy foreign films although I don’t watch them very often. One day I just really felt like watching one and added about 4 to my instant queue, all turned out to be dubbed (yes I’m one of those who can’t stand dubbed =) ) so I took them off and added about 4 or 5 more and out off all of those, only one was subbed… It’s very frustrating =(

  10. Christy

    Dear Fellow Netflix viewer,

    Funny you mention this, I specifically chose “Oldboy”, the beginning of the trilogy, so that my mother who speaks Korean could watch it. Now, she does speak English, but that’s not the point. I went out of my way for her to watch a Korean action/thriller so that it would be in KOREAN–not dubbed over in English. Unfortunately, we were not given any options to have it shown in its original language because of it it being an instant play. I love Netlfix, but this was a major Netflix FAIL.

    Hopefully, they get on this soon. Can be very disappointing.