Lost in Translation: Thoughts
24 Feb 2004
I recently saw the movie Lost in Translation. My major in college was Japanese, I have lived in Kyoto for a year, and I still have friends there (both Japanese and foreign). So I had been looking forward to this movie for some time.
I liked the way the movie used language to alienate the characters, particularly in Bill Murray’s scenes — the Suntory photo shoot, the hospital visit, and the ridiculous talk show. There are no subtitles. The effect was a little spoiled for me because in each case I actually understood what the Japanese people were saying, but this really only added to the comic effect. (Here’s a translation of the first Suntory photo shoot to give you an idea.) I imagine a lot of the “acting” was really just improv between two people who really couldn’t communicate in real life.
(Of course, when I was laughing during these scenes and my girlfriend was only smiling, she wanted to know what was so funny, and then I needed to translate from Japanese to Chinese for her, which is a hard switch for me to make if my attention is partially diverted — which it was — so sometimes my “Japanese to Chinese translations” would come out as Japanese paraphrased in more Japanese. Oops. That really confused her.)
One of the reviewers on IMDb felt that the movie was overrated, and that Coppola largely ripped off Wong Kar-Wai. Interesting claim. I don’t know how much the movie was hyped overseas; I missed all that. I do know that I enjoyed the movie, but perhaps largely due to my familiarity with Japan on a personal level. I don’t usually enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s movies.
One thing I hate about the American media is its neverending charade of “look how wacky those Japanese are!” The American media loves to find the most bizarre aspects of Japanese society and then exploit them. Yes, cultural differences are interesting, but the overall message that the media seems to be trying to convey is they’re not like us, and that can be dangerous. Lost in Translation presents cultural differences (and, indeed, even wackiness) in a way that seems very human. It didn’t annoy me; it made me smile. (Meanwhile my girlfriend, who has been to Japan but doesn’t speak much Japanese, was saying, “Haha, the Japanese really are like that!”)
I’d like to see Hollywood come out with more movies of this “being a foreigner in a distant land” variety. It seems like other countries do it a lot more. (I guess it’s because the terrorists, aliens, and natural disasters all converge on the USA every time, so naturally, that’s where we make the movies.) No, Midnight Express and Spy Game don’t count; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Hollywood movies that address the reality of expat life. I’m sure you could get something equally entertaining set in Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, or even (gasp!) Mainland China.[NOTE: I don’t pretend to be a movie expert, but that’s my take. I’d love to hear about other movies like this, or links to stories about Lost in Translation.]