3 · Lost in Translation

Even revealing the title of my third-favourite film of the year has probably pissed off some readers (or at least random visitors arriving via Google), because along with the widespread adulation and almost-as-widespread expressions of indifference (okay, so it’s slow-paced; this ain’t Grand Theft Auto) were a few expressions of indignation. Lost in Translation was nothing more than an extended slur on the Japanese, some said—like that scene where Bill Murray didn’t realise that he was being told to “rip” a woman’s stocking, which was obviously mocking how the Japanese use the same sound for r and l. Outrageous.

Or... not. There’s no denying that some Japanese have problems distinguishing r and l in English words—just as some native English speakers have trouble with certain European vowel sounds, or the way that b and v sound the same in Spanish. What one makes of it is what matters. That particular scene, where Murray was wondering whether he was supposed to “lip” (kiss?) or “rip”, showed, like the rest of the film, how lost we can feel in superficially familiar but deeply foreign places. We think we’re hearing one thing, but we’re actually being told another. We think we know what we’re seeing, but we couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s a familiar feeling for any tourist (certainly the Western tourist in Japan), and Lost in Translation portrays it beautifully. This isn’t a film about the Japanese, and doesn’t try to be: there are Japanese people in it, of course: good, bad, indifferent, in the background, strangers—like the people of any country one visits as a tourist. But the focus is clearly elsewhere.

It wouldn’t work if the main storyline didn’t, but that, too, is a (middle-aged) boy meets (really rather young) girl story of considerable grace and charm. It never stretches the limits of credulity, and ends perfectly. This is no Breakfast at Tiffany’s with cringe-making caricatures of the Japanese (see that if you enjoy feeling outraged); it’s a new Roman Holiday. (It inspired me to catch a matinee of Sofia Coppola’s first movie, The Virgin Suicides, too, which provided further evidence that 1999 was an outstanding year for movies.)

Lost in Translation wasn’t the only good West-meets-East movie to hit UK screens this year, either. The Australian-made Japanese Story also showed surprising depth and deftness, with excellent performances by its two leads and an intelligent script. The level of ignorance displayed by Toni Collette’s character about all things Japanese wasn’t very credible, given that she was supposedly a trained geologist working with mining firms in the Kimberley, but that quibble was dwarfed by the landscape of Australia’s northwest. Japanese Story isn’t just a big-screen nature documentary, though, and it’s no straightforward romance, either. Every time it seems to be heading down a comfortable path, the movie veers off in a more interesting direction. Which made sense when I learned that the writer and director were the ones who made Road to Nhill, one of my favourite Australian films of the ’90s.

Of course, not every romantic movie has to be deep and meaningful. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason did exactly what it says on the tin: provided a few decent laughs with its big goofy plot. Much like the first one, then. The movies lack some of the subtleties of the books, leaving out the telling details that show us that Bridget isn’t as hopeless as all that, but perhaps subtlety is too much to ask of a 100-minute rom-com. Instead, we got comedy skiing, chocolate-box portrayals of England, and an entertaining punch-up between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. As for the movie’s depiction of Thai culture, I’ll leave someone else to argue about that.

Here’s what people said about this entry.

rory, me and dr g are always talking about your reviews and both think they're genius, you always hit so many nails on the head. you should be on that newsnight review show or whateverit's called.

i think you're spot on with Lost in Translation. Especially compared to bloody Mr Yunioshi in B@T's, CRINGE! right on with the bridget stuff too.

Added by shauny on a Thursday in December.

Very kind, Shauna (and Dr G). I'll use you as a reference when I apply for a job on Front Row!

Added by Rory on a Thursday in December.

good comments on lost in translation, it inspired me in part to go see the place. I didn't actually like Tokyo much, but then it's a BIG city, which is probably the main reason I didn't like it.

Added by Matt on a Monday in December.