Ever been alone in a foreign hotel, city or entire country? There’s a mournful feeling of simultaneously being saturated in another culture and also being terminally disconnected from your surroundings, it’s a curious sensation. In Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Lost In Translation the two main characters find themselves awash in nocturnal Tokyo and marooned in a sea of aching unfamiliarity. Add to that the fact that both of them are at a place where they feel sort of stalled on the freeway of their lives and you have a sadly hued romantic drama that feels like no other.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a washed up movie star who’s in town to endorse a Japanese whiskey label, constantly harried by superfluous phone calls from his wife (Nancy Steiner) who he’s clearly growing apart from. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a newly married girl whose husband (Giovanni Ribisi) neglects and almost seems to resent her, tied up in his own work while she wanders aimlessly from her hotel room to the bar and back each night. It’s there that these two find each other, find companionship, conversation and yes, romantic chemistry but that is something that Coppola handles in an infinitely more realistic and mature fashion that one usually gets with Hollywood scripts.
Last night was my first ever viewing of this film so I’m a bit late to the party and still basking in the warm glow of the initial first impression but I can already tell I’m in love with and will revisit many more times. Translation is definitely the key word here; Bob and Charlotte speak very little Japanese and as such must find other ways to converse with those around them, be it body language, a laugh or other. But they also kind of need to get used to their own personal vernacular and how it relates to the other. There’s a fairly sizeable age gap between them and they come from different backgrounds so they must adapt to each other, and watching these two actors do so is a joy. Murray is quiet, soft spoken and his comedic edge is almost reined in of his own volition, like he wants to be funny but he’s just too sad to pull it off other than the occasional ironic flourish. Johansson is quiet, contemplative but blessed with a keen intellect and intuition, it’s the perfect role for the actress who, lets face it, sometimes gets cast on her looks and we forget what beautiful charisma she has as well. Coppola lets the friendship between them happen as it probably would in real life: awkwardly at first until they’re comfortable with each other, then with easy and enthusiastic abandon. My favourite scene of the film is where they attend a karaoke party and we get to see them at their happiest and lowest of inhibitions. They sing their hearts out, laugh, steal glances at each other and live in the moment. It’s the most romantic scene of the film and they don’t even touch each other, but the energy is there, carefully guided by their performances and Coppola’s direction. Few mainstream films get the complexities and ethereal realism of this type of situation right, but this one nails it for a dreamy, hypnotic, bittersweet story that you don’t want to end, until it does on a questioning note that we as the audience were never meant to know the answer to. Amazing film.
Alan Parker’s Come See The Paradise tackles a little spoken of, tragic period of American history: the internment of thousands of Japanese families in prison camps following the attack on Pearl Harbour, which sparked World War II. After the incident, a wave of frenzy and paranoia roiled across the states, and many of these people were separated from their loved ones for years, an event that altered thousands of lives, but not one you hear too much about in film. Parker is a born storyteller, whether it’s historical lore or gothic genre brilliance (insert obligatory Angel Heart reference), and here he approaches the subject matter with little to nothing in the way of melodrama, classic orchestral swells or tissue box bait, letting the story happen naturally and neutrally, the drama organically rising scene to scene as they happen. Dennis Quaid plays an Irish American man who falls in love with a Japanese girl (Tamlyn Tomita), and over a few years begins a life with her. He is a fiercely independent union man, passionately fighting for the working class, while she comes from a very tight knit family who rely on each other to make ends meet. Somehow the two of them make it work amidst the early stages of the American working machine, the love they have for each other keeping them afloat. Then the attacks occur. Quaid is separated from her and their daughter for over a decade, and the film’s pacing makes you feel every lost, broken moment of it. When their reunion does happen, it’s nothing like the romantic, tear jerking catharsis you’d expect, but a testament to Parker’s commitment to realism. The sadness comes from the hollow, unceremonious way in which these people are affected by such things, and how they simply go on, adapt and adjust, the pain an intrinsic part of everyday life. The movies show a different picture of that usually, an idealistic bubble where things always somehow end up alright, and every last thread is tied off somehow. Not with this one, which is why it may have been forgotten. In any case, it’s a beautifully tragic, eye opening piece that stays true to its narrative and follows it’s characters throughout bittersweet, minimalistic and believable arcs.
Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza, released in America in 1975 after a Japanese premiere a year earlier, is a unique neo-noir gangster hybrid boasting an excellent script written by Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Robert Towne. Despite not being a box office hit at the time, the film has certainly gained a cult following over the years, and it was a movie that had always escaped my grasp. I’m so glad I finally caught up with this exceedingly entertaining drama, one that’s spiked with some truly great action scenes and a narrative that’s engaging on a story and emotional level. Featuring a solid-as-oak Robert Mitchum as an ex-private investigator who returns to Japan in an effort to rescue the kidnapped daughter of his friend, there’s a distinctive quality to this movie that’s hard to describe. There’s a great mix of hard-core shoot-outs and bloody sword play, Dave Grusin’s music supplied tension and grandiosity in equal measure, and the thoughtful and at times ruminative screenplay stressed character and motivation and thematic context rather than being an empty display of action. Ken Takakura provided more than just a steely gaze, injecting the film with a sense of lethality and wisdom, while supporting cast members Brian Keith, Richard Jordan and Herb Edelman made the most out of their distinctive roles. Especially Jordan, whose unique face was able to convey just as much information than the script ever could. But it’s Mitchum who totally owned the picture, bringing his customary gruff line delivery and masculine sense of purpose to this exotic and violent story that traded off of noir tropes and the demands of the action picture in equal measure, with Pollack’s sure and steady directorial hand bringing it all together in a very elegant, crisp fashion. The rich screenplay investigated themes of moral and social expectations on the part of the Japanese culture, and how familial loyalty and personal friendship can be tested through the differing viewpoints of Eastern and Western school of thought. Ridley Scott and his creative team would heavily borrow from this film for the 80’s classic Black Rain, and clearly, this must be a favorite for Quentin Tarantino.