Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I saw Lost in Translation over the weekend. It's a really nice show, set in Tokyo of all places, although it's rather slow. Sophia Coppola does a good job in directing as well as writing the screenplay, and Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson put in solid performances as Bob Harris, the washed-up movie star, and Charlotte, the Philosophy graduate from Yale who finds has it tough, being in a country where she doesn't understand the language, accompanying a husband who has already begun to ignore her.

Essentially, the movie revolves around Bob and Charlotte. Two lost souls in a strange city somehow manage to find a kindred spirit in each other, brought together by their visits to the hotel bar during their frequent bouts of insomnia. Bob, shunned by his wife because of his frequent absences from home, and Charlotte, deprived of her husband's presence by his work, find in each other someone who miraculously seems to understand the other, who somehow manages to fill the void in the other's meaningless existence. Together, they explore the - incredibly strange - Tokyo nightlife, going to restaurants, nightclubs and karaoke clubs, where their shared experiences draw them closer.

While the stage seems set for some sort of romantic interlude that in modern-day movies invariably seems to include sexual trysts, Lost in Translation detracts from that cliched path by having the two have their most intimate moments when they are alone, speaking honestly from the heart. For instance, one of the most effective scenes in the film is when the two are lying apart in bed, talking to each other about marriage. "Does it ever get any easier?" Charlotte wonders. "No," Bob says, before remembering who he's talking to, and changes his answer to "Yes." In this scene, Bob also muses about children - the wonder of children and how beautiful they are simply because they're children. From this scene, we can see that Bob genuinely cares about his family, and that he loves his kids immensely, but all the years of miscommunication and absences from home have caused his wife to think otherwise, thereby causing a rift between the two that cannot be so easily bridged after 25 years of marriage.

There are many delightfully original moments in the show, such as when Bob chances upon a giant billboard showing himself endorsing a Japanese whiskey. Also, when the unordered prostitute shows up in Bob's room, demanding that he "lips her stocking." The funniest scenes have got to be when Bob is filming for the whiskey commercial. In one scene, the director rattles off a long string of instructions entirely in Japanese only for the translator to tell Bob, "he wants you to look in camera." "Are you sure that's all he's saying?" demands Bob. There's another scene in which the Japanese photographer is giving instructions to Bob, telling him that he "need[s] mysterious face" and in other scene, to "look into camera like a friend."

Coppola also plays up the foreignness of the city very well. When Bob first arrives in the city, the camera pans across the glaring neon signs that decorate all the buildings - all entirely in Japanese. Charlotte is bewildered by a room of women all arranging flowers, even as she participates in the same ritual. The two have their own adventures of incomprehension in a hospital: Charlotte, when the doctor is explaining something to her regarding her damaged toe, and Bob, when he's waiting for Charlotte engages in conversation - of sorts - with an old lady, much to the amusement of two Japanese women sitting behind them.

Upon reflection, it may seem as though there isn't very much to the script. There certainly isn't that much said in the movie. However, there doesn't need to be. Bill Murray does a terrific job, with the hang-dog look seemingly etched onto his face, and his incredibly expressive ears speaking more than words ever could, such as when he's in the elevator, towering above all the other Japanese. His eyes dart around furtively, giving away his discomfort at being in such a strange city. Even in the scene when he struggles to bend low enough so that he can be under the showerhead doesn't seem at all slapstick when he does it. Scarlett Johansson is great as well, somehow managing to convey volumes with just a look and a tilt of her head. There is great chemistry between the two leads, and the silences between them say more than conversations between people do. There is so much that they do not say, so much that they do not need to say, in fact. The night before Bob is set to leave Tokyo, Charlotte tells him, "I'll miss you." Bob just nods, and yet, in that nod, we see that clearly, he'll miss her too and that he has come to care for her quite a bit.

I found the ending to be one of the sweetest, most tender moments I've seen in a movie lately. Bob chases after Charlotte, and embraces her tenderly, whispering into her ear words that the audience cannot hear. It's all very chaste but so very full of affection that I couldn't help but smile while watching them. It's also a very effective device in that Coppola leaves what Bob tells Charlotte up to the imagination of the audience. It's highly likely that had we been able to hear what he said, it'd have been a letdown, and in this way, it allows us to idealise the perfect ending to the show.

Lost in Translation is an incredibly subtle show, and a refreshing change from the usual romantic films that've been coming out. I'd watch it again if not for the rather slow build-up.

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