Pop Culture

Streaming services offer easy access to international content

With streaming services such as Netflix, local viewers are spoilt for choice when it comes to foreign-language films and shows

Some of my favourite shows on Netflix right now are Japanese television series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (2016) and Samurai Gourmet (2017).

For someone who has never jumped on the J-drama bandwagon, this sudden interest in Japanese content is completely new.

But thanks to the streaming service's recommendations algorithm, which suggests programmes that it thinks subscribers might enjoy based on what they have already watched, I have been discovering all sorts of quality content I would never have found on my own.

It just so happens that these shows - probably recommended to me due to my obsession with American food-porn programmes such as Chef's Table (2015-present) - are in Japanese.

Before you know it, I am bingeing on Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan (2014), a Hindi- language documentary series about the food prepared in Indian royal kitchens - which subsequently opened the doors to a whole host of acclaimed Hindi feature films such as Talvar (2015) and Pink (2016).

Were it not for Netflix and other streaming sites like it, it is unlikely I would ever watch or even hear of any of these foreign-language shows.

Not that I have ever had anything against them. I have no issues with reading subtitles and some of my favourite films are not in English (I love Thai romantic comedies). It is just that accessing quality international content - legally - has never been easier.

The only concern here is whether these international originals still feel authentically local, given Netflix's big push in branding itself as a 'global TV network'. Nothing would be worse than such programmes losing their local flavour in attempts for them to be supposedly more marketable to a wider audience.

Before streaming sites came along, film buffs here could catch international movies at film festivals - the popular Japanese Film Festival and the German Film Festival consistently sell out their offerings.

However, such events are limited by both the number of cinema screens as well as time - these film festivals tend to run for a maximum of two weeks, due to factors such as venue rental costs.

Streaming sites, however, have the advantage of playing these films for a very long time, as long as they have purchased the rights for them.

On home-grown streaming site Viddsee, viewers can catch all sorts of international short films on their various Web channels, such as the Guam International Film Festival and the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival channels, for a potentially infinite amount of time.

Meanwhile, international content on the goggle box via traditional cable television or free-to-air outlets is also limited as these avenues are heavily curated.

After all, foreign-language programmes appeal only to niche audiences, so it does not make business sense for TV networks to fill their entire line-up with them.

Instead, these channels must play content that they believe will draw in the most number of people. This is why American sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory (2007-present) and Modern Family (2009-present) often dominate the TV schedule.

But something like Netflix has the ability to offer an endless number of programmes, as long as the site's bandwidth supports it. That means I can choose to watch Samurai Gourmet, while my friend is hooked on Netflix's Spanish TV drama Cable Girls (2017).

Netflix certainly understands the importance of offering more international content.

While the American company has long focused on the domestic market - one whose audience has long been stereotyped to reject subtitled content - Netflix has to look at the wider picture, now that it has launched its service in more than 190 countries.

This is also why besides acquiring content, Netflix has actively commissioned many international originals as well.

Besides the Japanese, Spanish and Mexican originals already produced, the company has also just announced that it will soon venture into producing its first original Turkish show.

The only concern here is whether these shows still feel authentically local, given Netflix's big push in branding itself as a "global TV network".

Nothing would be worse than such programmes losing their local flavour in attempts for them to be supposedly more marketable to a wider audience.

But going by what the company has offered so far - Samurai Gourmet and Netflix's original anime film Blame! (2017), for example, use all-Japanese production crews and feel authentically Japanese - it looks like it is on the right path.

I wonder what a Netflix Singapore original would look like?

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Streaming Japanese dramas and Hindi food documentaries '. Print Edition | Subscribe