Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

The long goodbye.

A second viewing.

Time and time again, it has been proven that a mark of a great film is the fact that no matter which place and what timeline you bring the core of the main story and its themes, the impact will always be the same. That claim is valid, of course, not strictly limited merely for films, but in every medium of artistic narratives as a whole, so to speak. Shakespeare's works, for example, right? Set "Hamlet" in Ancient Greece, "Macbeth" in Imperial China and "Romeo and Juliet" in Monarchical India, but the essence of their tales won't even be affected. 'Timeless', as they say.

But then there comes Sofia Coppola, armed with a little film called "Lost in Translation", a very picturesque 'Japan' to render fresh and some emotions to transcend. The aforementioned claim to greatness of films, as what was stated above, appeared to be not the case for "Lost in Translation" that made it rightfully so. Its theme of alienation and a subsequent connection in a haze of culture shock and language barrier (although were treated by Coppola's script with witty naivety that does not poke fun in the wrong places) was tackled perfectly by specifically setting the film in 'Japan'.

Putting it in China will get the same effect of misunderstanding and cultural difference, but the ideal Japanese bluish grayness wouldn't be there. Setting it somewhere in Europe may look too elegant, while locating the film somewhere exotic and infinitely tropical will be too adventurous and lively. The film needed stagnation, but at the same time, it asks for some unpredictable quirks and eccentricities. Japan is, after all, the definitive country there is. Tokyo's technologically advanced, contemporary metropolis, to be exact.

So, now that the alienating location was established, where would the film extract its romance? With the help of Scarlett Johansson's knowing yet discreet performance as newlywed twenty-something Charlotte and Bill Murray's naturally comic performance (that is one of the best performances of his career) as midlife crisis-inflicted actor Bob Harris, the film (along with its emotionally observant screenplay that won Sofia an Oscar) has further elevated the film from being a potentially lackluster travelogue-cum-romantic comedy film into a whole new height.

Granted, there were scenes that may look like cinematographic clich├ęs for films set in foreign countries (the much used editing where a character is looking out from a car or a train's window, while images of landmarks are juxtaposing along with their wondrous stares and awestruck faces), but it was part of their characters. Beyond their situations, one tagging along with her husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi) for a job (Charlotte), and the other in there to shoot a whiskey commercial (Bob), although debilitated by cultures and places immensely different from their own, they still strive to appreciate Japan as it is, and to understand.

In some scenes, it was quite obvious that Bill Murray were ad-libbing lines mostly for comic effect, but it makes his character's bond with Charlotte much more genuine with all its tender spontaneity. To be precise, it is in a scene where they are eating in a typical Japanese restaurant of some sorts. Scripted or not, Bill Murray delivered his lines so irrevocably funny in a certain conversationally mundane way that Scarlett Johansson's laughs looked more authentic and very 'by-the-moment'. These sequences have helped to uphold their already very involving chemistry, and through that, they have achieved to inhabit the sensibilities of real people that for once, although how admittedly beautiful Scarlett Johansson is, by way of her portrayal of Charlotte, I wouldn't even be surprised if I bump into her character in a crowd of tourists all dazed and confused. Yes, she was that convincing.

There were many unforgettable scenes in the film mostly enhanced by Bill Murray's everyman-type slapstick and Scarlett Johansson's combination of ennui and starry-eyed cultural wonder. But it has got to be the final, evocative scene that easily takes the cake as the film's defining moment that exposes the silent power of love.

We see them say goodbye in the hotel lobby, but we all know that it was merely for formality's sake. After the brief farewell, Bob rides a car. Then in a busy corner, Bob Harris asked for his driver to stop. She saw a blond-haired woman that seems like Charlotte. It was her indeed. He went into her and they embraced. He then whispered to her something inaudible to us, but what Bob has said were just meager in importance. We have followed their connection, their relationship and their love close enough for the film's entirety that in that final whisper, we accepted their privacy and we gave it to them.

And as Bob returns to the backseat of his car that will bring him into the airport and then back into America, he alternately looks out the window and around him. The buildings and the highway. The cars and the skyline. At first, when he arrived in Tokyo, he looked upon them with questions in his mind, but after he has professed his love to an acquaintance in a foreign land that has unconsciously taught him to understand, he looked upon the metropolis with cathartic eyes. This time, it's with clarity, and with a hint of a smile.


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