Lost in translation

I saw Lost in Translation yesterday via Netflix. This movie was really a surprise, I think I was just expecting a light comedic drama without any real heft to it. The premise of the movie seems like a setup for comedy: an old actor and a young newlywed both arrive in Tokyo, stay at the same hotel, and experience culture shock together. But there’s so much more to this movie, especially as a commentary on marriage and relationships, that it transcends the level of ordinary pseudo-romantic comedy and enters into Artistic territory.

I haven’t seen Rushmore so this was my first exposure to Bill Murray playing a complex lead, and his performance was just .. well, there was no Bill Murray, there was only Bob Harris. You get inside his head and really, really understand him and who he is, even though 90% of his lines are wisecracks, and the lines themselves are only 50% of his acting. His expression, as he sees the elevator doors close on Charlotte at the end… I don’t think there are many actors who can communicate that kind of emotion with just a look, but you read it on his face like it was printed there.

The other half of this film is Scarlett Johansson, and she probably ranks as my favorite actress right now on the strength of her performance in this movie alone. Not just because she spends a few scenes sitting around in her underwear, though this helps. She has that kind of vulnerable courage in this film that I used to associate with Sandra Bullock. Again, with her performance, you simply understand her as Charlotte, like an open book – one which none of the other characters except Bob even bother to read, least of all her husband John (played with remarkable restraint[1] by Giovanni Ribsi).

Tokyo itself, and the hotel in particular, are vibrant and fleshed out and almost characters in their own right. The movie does a masterful job of exposing the characters to all the wierd and wonderful, but unlike some critics I did not find it disrespectful. In fact there was an odd beauty to it, like the teenager simultaneously dancing while playing a video game, or the crazy talk show host, or even the hysterical scene in Bob’s hotel room with the call girl[2].

I think I’ll take another run through this movie and grab some screenshots later. It was really one of the best movies I have ever seen. This film isn’t one that is content to play by the rules of romantic comedy. The two characters don’t do what you would expect them to do, which actually is how it would be in reality. And the two characters don’t keep up the facade about themselves that you expect them to, and which you yourself might maintain as well. And that too is more real, particularly in the context of the isolation that they both share, one exacerbated by being in a place so foreign, but still primarily deriving from their spouses’ neglect. I won’t spoil the ending but then again, the ending is almost impossible to spoil.

[1] Dude, you’re married to Scarlett Johansson sitting there in her underwear and all you can look at is your camera?? ahem.
[2] “lip my stocking!” omfg rofl. I laughed so hard I choked.

7 thoughts on “Lost in translation”

  1. I liked that movie too. I couldn’t really describe why though. But you summed it up pretty well here. They captured the isolation of gaijin in Japan pretty well too.

    Have you seen Life Aquatic? It’s sort of in the same vein and I thought it was pretty good (but the marine biology may have biased me).

  2. too be honest, I tried Life Aquatic but couldnt stick with it. Part of it was that Luke? Owen? Wilson’s character was just the most annoying I’d seen in some time. The other was because the movie was taking itself not seriously enough, it felt like it was being played for farce. It got boring. This movie had me totally captivated (though the opening, ahem, shot certainly helped).

  3. I think it was supposed to be half farce sort of like Lost in Translation was half comedy (although maybe it’d be more like 2/3, 1/3). I guess that’s why I classify them together. Well that and Bill Murray. Anyway, like with Lost in Translation I can understand why people don’t like it but for some reason it sort of caught me. Just out of curiosity, did you watch any Jacques Cousteau when you were a kid?

  4. i did a bit, and i got the allusion to it, but I dunno. It really boils down to the characters on their own merits.

    I do want to see Rushmore now, though, as I have heard Bill Murray is really good in that too. Plus I need to see anything with Scarlett πŸ™‚

  5. I found the movie falling flat in many areas on 2nd pass, oddly enough. For example the Charlotte’s phone call to her mother lost all impact and looked like something found in a high school play. Terrible, really.

    I received a major ego boost by listening to the Japanese dialog though the second time around. Was the movie that old? I did not get a word when I saw it for the first time.

  6. It came out in 2003. I havent yet made a 2nd pass but I think that the mom’s voice was as flat and detached as it was because they were trying to analogize to the phone calls between Bob and Lydia. Every single relationship in the film, even between Bob and his kids, is flat and detached and emotionless, except for Bob and Charlotte’s. I seriously think this movie is up there in Sleepless in Seattle and Princess Bride territory; I’m willing to forgive any minor blemishes (though like you I wont notice any until 2nd pass, which is when i am paying less attention to plot an dmore to detail).

    I loved the director scenes, but I dodnt fully appreciate the magnitude of the language gap until I saw the translation on IMDB. They deliberately didnt put the subtitles on to help keep you forced in Bob’s perspective. The result was that the Director came off as a bit of a fool. But the actual dialog from the Director was really quite professional:

    Director: [in Japanese] Mr. Bob-san, you are relaxing in your study. On the table is a bottle of Suntory whiskey. Got it? Look slowly, with feeling, at the camera, and say it gently – say it as if you were speaking to an old friend. Just like Bogie in Casablanca, “Here’s looking at you, kid” – Suntory time.
    Translator: Umm. He want you to turn, looking at camera. OK?
    Bob: That’s all he said?
    Translator: Yes. Turn to camera.
    Bob: All right. Does he want me to turn from the right, or turn from the left?
    Translator: [to director, in Japanese] Uh, umm. He’s ready now. He just wants to know if he’s supposed to turn from the left or turn from the right when the camera rolls. What should I tell him?
    Director: [in Japanese] What difference does it make! Makes no difference! Don’t have time for that! Got it, Bob-san? Just psych yourself up, and quick! Look straight at the camera. At the camera. And slowly. With passion. Straight at the camera. And in your eyes there’s… passion. Got it?
    Translator: [to Bob] Right side. And with intensity. OK?
    Bob: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.
    Director: [to Bob, in Japanese] Listen, listen. This isn’t just about whiskey. Understand? Imagine you’re talking to an old friend. Gently. The emotions bubble up from the bottom of your heart. And don’t forget, psych yourself up!
    Translator: Like an old friend. And, into the camera.
    Bob: OK.
    Director: [in Japanese] Got it? You *love* whiskey. It’s *Suntory* time. OK?
    Bob: OK.
    Director: OK?
    Bob: [nods]
    Director: [to crew] OK!

    Its probably good they didnt subtitle his words because Bob’s perspective is the one you need to share in that scene. But the above exchange is much more brilliant now that I know the meaning. I am envious of how it is for you though being able to understand the dialog in situ!

    (hey I just noticed J has his own lost in translation post up πŸ™‚

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