Courtesy of Netflix

February 25, 2020

YANG | Subtle Asian Streaming

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I’m a little ashamed to admit that I don’t typically watch Asian movies or television. For the last few years, my knowledge of them has remained on the periphery — I vaguely know what everyone is watching and loving, but rarely do I venture to try them myself.  While I do not have any real aversion to Asian entertainment, I grew up watching mostly Hollywood films, so I never developed a great interest in it. More importantly, since high school, American streaming services and Youtube have pretty much fully comprised my options, and it’s often difficult to get a hold of Asian films and TV due to copyright restrictions. Disinterest became something akin to aversion over time, and unless my friends talked my ears off about a Korean drama or Chinese variety show, I rarely took the initiative to seek them out.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that things have started to change. Back in January, I was surprised to find a spin-off of a hugely popular Chinese period drama on Netflix, and out of curiosity, I watched a few episodes. The spin-off had the exact same style as the original, and if I had seen it on some other platform I wouldn’t have believed that Netflix had a hand in it at all. Unlike The Crown or You, nothing about it was typical of the streaming giant. It appears that Netflix simply bought out the show’s overseas distribution rights and labeled it an original series, but exerted no significant influence over the actual production process.

On Valentine’s Day, I finally succumbed to the overwhelming amount of press coverage of the To All the Boys sequel and watched it over dinner one day. I ended up not having much patience for the movie and exiting out of it halfway through, but the next recommendation drew my attention — A Netflix Original Korean drama. I didn’t know what was more bizarre: me getting recommended Korean television by the algorithm, or American streaming services distributing K-dramas. The show was Crash Landing on You, and the premise sounded too intriguing to pass up. So, instead of finishing To All the Boys, I clicked on the series. Along with breaking my streak of not having seen any K-drama since Freshman year, I also proceeded to become the friend that talks nonstop to everyone else about it.

As soon as I watched Crash Landing, the algorithm began aggressively recommending me other Korean shows, and I discovered belatedly just how many Asian films and TV series are on the platform. Just two years ago, my friends and I were watching Goblin on some sketchy, nondescript website with tons of ads. We knew where to look, but even then it took forever to find a reliable way to stream the latest episodes. Similarly, on Youtube, almost all of the Chinese variety show videos used to only have Chinese titles, and even if you knew exactly what you were looking for, they were still difficult to find. Therefore, I’d imagine it’s nearly impossible for any non-Asian Americans to come across Asian television by accident.

Once I started to pay attention, it became clear how much Netflix has changed, and how it has diversified itself culturally and across genres. I wonder how exactly the company got the memo that bringing Asian television to the American market would be a hugely profitable decision. While some of the credit must be attributed to the recent explosion in popularity of K-pop groups in western countries, part of it may also be due to the sharp rise in competition in the streaming industry. Judging by the continuous increase in the number of Asian films and TV shows that are becoming available on the platform, it’s clear that this is an investment that Netflix wants to continue making.

The implication of this paradigm shift is significant. With the growing success of Amazon and Disney Plus, Netflix’s strategy signals that diversity in streaming is the key to remaining competitive and irreplaceable, which could in turn prompt other platforms to act accordingly. Consequently, this would mean that foreign film and television could finally become more accessible and mainstream in western countries, especially to those outside of the original target audience, who formerly could’ve been interested but would not or did not know how to seek them out.

I was a little dumbfounded when I saw the sheer number of oblivious comments on Amazon Prime complaining about Parasite not being a movie in English after its monumental sweep at the Oscars. Bong Joon Ho was right in his Golden Globes speech when he said “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” But the reason why it might be hard to overcome in the first place is a lack of exposure following decades of Hollywood’s cultural monopoly.

We live in an age where recommendation systems dictate our choices. We helped make it that way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean no good can ever come from it.  Ultimately, it’s what we choose that changes the system. And for that, the diversification of choices on streaming platforms is pivotal and worth celebrating. I hope to see a day when subtitles are no longer the barrier but the bridge, and no one bats an eyelash when another non-English film wins Best Picture.


Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.