[MOVIE REVIEW]Lonely strangers in a strange landFor the local release of “Lost in Translation,” the Japanese dialogue is subtitled in Korean, which might just about spoil the experience.
Set in the midst of Tokyo’s discombobulating swirl, “Lost in Translation” essentially has two characters, a middle-aged actor (Bill Murray) and a woman just out of college (Scarlett Johansson). Both are Americans, both seem to be, in the great American tradition, monolingual, and they spend a lot of their time in Tokyo (Murray especially) being told things, in earnest, that they haven’t got the first hope of understanding.
In the U.S. release, the Japanese dialogue isn’t subtitled (apparently, there isn’t even a subtitles option on the DVD), so the audience is as adrift as the characters. It could be that the dialogue is even funnier than the effect of not understanding the dialogue is, and that it’s English speakers who are missing half the fun.
But that seems unlikely. There’s high comedy, for instance, in Murray’s jet-lagged reaction to being hectored at length by the director of the whiskey commercial he’s being paid $2 million to appear in, only to have the on-set translator sum up the instructions as, “He says you should be intense.” “Are you sure that’s all he said?” Murray asks haplessly. “It seems like he said a lot more than that.” (In one of the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ rare moments of clarity, Murray has been nominated for the best actor Oscar for this performance. He’s the sort of understated comic who, in a scene where he’s watching Japanese schoolgirls dance on his hotel TV, can get laughs by turning his head about three degrees.)
Leaving not just the dialogue untranslated, but the eccentricities of Tokyo unexplained ― they’re just there, for us to understand or not understand ― gives the audience some of the same sense of being overwhelmed, and some of the sadness and isolation, that the main characters are feeling.
Both are married, to people who are absent. Johansson’s husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer, is mostly off on assignment, and Johansson, who has no affinity for the high life, is afraid she’s gotten in over her head. Murray’s wife, a voice on the phone, mostly wants to talk about getting Murray’s study remodeled. The two are staying in the same hotel, meet in a bar where an awful jazz singer is butchering songs that weren’t much good to begin with, and gravitate to each other because, without it ever being said, they’re equally bereft. And neither one of them can sleep.
This sweet, exhilarating movie is only the second feature film from 32-year-old writer and director Sofia Coppola (the first was an adaptation of the novel “The Virgin Suicides”), but it’s apparent where her strength lies. She has a talent for filmmaking that’s practically preverbal. What you remember from “The Virgin Suicides,” which was a mixed success, isn’t the dialogue ― despite the fact that it came from a well-regarded piece of fiction ― but a mood, a sort of deadly nostalgia that Coppola evoked mostly with light and music.
“Lost in Translation” has relatively little dialogue (especially when you factor out the Japanese), but you don’t notice that while you’re watching it, because the emotion of the story ― giddiness, loneliness, affection, total confusion, the regret that comes on the heels of a bad goodbye ― is indelible, even when not much is being said.
Lost in Translation
Comedy / English, Japanese
by David Moll