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The International Writers Magazine
:Lost in Translation review

Review by James Skinner

Writer /Director: Sofia Coppola
Scarlett Johansson .... Charlotte
Bill Murray .... Bob Harris
Akiko Takeshita .... Ms. Kawasaki
Kazuyoshi Minamimagoe .... Press Agent
Winner Oscar for Best Script 2004

Once again the Oscar’s came and went, and once again the usual super-production, over publicised, over rated and over lambasted by the whole movie paparazzi wins all the prizes. ‘Lord of the Rings the Third’ may have been the delight of the darlings but personally, I had seen ‘the First’ and that was enough for me.

The trilogy put on the screen as some gigantic Game boy spoof is an insult to Tolkien’s epic classic. They should have presented the whole lot at a computer festival in Thailand or better still at some international medical conference dealing with mental pathology. I’m sure that at either they would have received top prizes or ovations. So you can see what I think about today’s umpteen number of film festivals that culminate in Hollywood’s glamour puss where all is exposed as the best in visual entertainment. Give me Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’ any day. And yet here I am presenting my review on one of the candidates, ‘Lost in Translation’ that, apart from obtaining the award for best script left the stage empty handed.

Having read some of the reviews in the Spanish press, several with mixed comments and being a born again translator, I thought I would venture to the local fleapit to see the film for myself.
To start with, I saw the whole thing in the ‘dubbed into’ Spanish version. This in itself deserves an Oscar, however I don’t intend to analyse the subtleties of Bill Murray speaking with a Madrid accent or Scarlett Johansson sulking away in toneless Spanish. The gist of the story is still there to be appreciated.
Bill Murray is a ‘has been’ actor who is in Tokyo to sponsor a Japanese whiskey in a television advert whilst Scarlett is accompanying her photographer husband on some insignificant assignment in the land of the ‘Rising Sun’.

Both characters are staying at the same luxurious hotel and both are there for business reasons. They are also bored. Take Bill’s leisure time, and Scarlett’s loneliness whilst hubbie is off on his jaunt and the obvious happens. They meet. The build up to their first encounter is a series of flashes of incoherent Japanese babble fired at Bill by the director during his television rehearsals whilst Scarlett just flaunts around the hotel with an occasional visit to a Buddhist monastery not knowing quite what to do. Intermingled are the walks and taxi ride scenes of both characters through Tokyo’s billboard city with flashing Oriental hieroglyphics that remind us of the reason for the film in the first place. They are both ‘Lost in translation’.

Or are they?

The essence of the plot, brilliantly put together by Sophia, offspring of the Coppola family is a situation tragic-comedy of two characters in a foreign land. Yes, I know this is obvious, but they are not there for pleasure, nor are they there as rucksack tourists. They really shouldn’t be there in the first place. But money is money. Bob Harris, Bill’s character is making a million bucks out of the Japanese and Charlotte’s hubby is about to make the scoop of his life as a photographer. So why are they so unhappy? I’ll tell you why. In real life, the VP of a large corporation, or the marketing executive of some fancy chain of supermarkets from New Jersey or London will spend a few days or a week of negotiations in Prague, Madrid, Lima or Riyadh. They meet with their counterparts and, presto either strike a deal or leave empty handed. But what do they do in their leisure time? Bugger all! They don’t know anybody, can’t speak the language and yet possess a company Platinum Amex card. In other words, time to spare and a limitless expense account but ‘Lost in translation’. This is the beauty of the film and how it has been put together. It portrays the effect on millions of the upper echelons of business travellers who venture around the world and who fall into the same trap.

Bob Harris’ zapping away at incomprehensive television programs in his room and then going down to the hotel bar only to play around with a shot of scotch whilst listening to a ‘chuck out’ Anglo-Saxon singer perform for the drinkers, is classical. Charlotte’s endless walks around her own room in her underwear until finally venturing down to the same watering hole shows that she is immersed in the same feeling of boredom. The thoughts going through their minds are identical. ‘Shall I go out on the town? Shall I find a lay? Or shall I just get drunk?’ When they finally join forces as two humdrum misfits the chemistry comes alive and the film really takes off.

Coppola’s portrayal of Tokyo and its pleasures are exaggerated. But this is the magnificence of the script. One example is when the couple venture out together, they move from a daft Karaoke session in English with some of Charlotte’s unknown friends to a stroll through a games arcade where a young boy is bashing at a machine with a baseball bat. As they walk or taxi through the streets they are constantly harassed by Bob’s portrait appearing on billboards everywhere smiling and sipping away at his advertised Japanese brew. When Bob is invited to be the host of a chat show he is confronted with a hideous presenter dressed up as Coco the Clown who spends several minutes just spluttering incomprehensible lines at a stupefied Yank, who is, once again ‘Lost in translation’.

Is it an insult to the Japanese? This depends on the interpretation or should I say ‘translation’. Charlotte for example spent most of her life in New York. She should therefore identify the glamour of the city lights of Tokyo with her hometown. No way! Her mind doesn’t see it that way. Sure everything looks the same, but she’s just not with it. Bob views everything shown or said to him in Japanese as a continuous monologue of crap! Hence his mind is constantly registering it as the same message being said over and over again. Do you get it? He’s in a trance and completely ‘Lost in translation’. So what about the development of their relationship as they wander through this melee of incomprehension?

Again, it’s a Coppola stroke of brilliance. Both characters by now are cocooned within their own woven hostility towards the environment surrounding them. They’re emitting the same message as they wander about in a stupefied daze in and out of the safe haven of their hotel. Once their body language unites them, its like two opposite poles of a magnet. They come together to share they’re brief solitude. This is where Sophia, once again shows superior excellence in film writing. No, they don’t exchange the usual ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’, or ‘you look so young’ and then run off and make love. Sure, there is a bit of sex as Bob wakes up one morning and finds he’s got ‘chuck out’ Barbra Streisand in his bedroom. Charlotte naturally catches him out. The movie wouldn’t sell otherwise. But no, the real clinch is the mutual understanding and realisation that it is not their spouses’ fault that they are caught up together feeling the way they do in this foreign land. Their message is ‘if you’re going to travel away from home, do it because you want to, not because you have to. Otherwise, like them you’ll be ‘Lost in translation’.
© James Skinner. March 2004

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