Monday, April 30, 2007

it happened again

"Have I seen you on TV?"

The question-- one I've heard quite a few times during my nearly seven years in Korea, came again today as I was paying a phone bill. The guy behind the desk was eyeing me curiously.

Not long after, I went back to my Smoo office, sat down at my computer, and watched "Lost in Translation," which has been pronounced a chick flick by those near and dear to me. I'd have to agree with that sad diagnosis (and I endured the concomitant ball shrinkage while watching the film), but it was fun to see Bill Murray in the role of a celebrity unused to the tempo of modern Japanese existence. It didn't hurt matters that his co-star, Scarlett Johansson, is such a cutie. May she never undergo breast enhancement surgery. Some breastuses are meant to be left alone.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a washed-up action star who is in a troubled marriage (we hear his wife and kids on the phone; we never see them). He is in Japan for a high-paying gig shooting banner ads and commercials. Mildly freaked out by his surroundings, Bob quickly makes a beeline to the hotel bar. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte (what's with keeping the character names similar to the actors' names? Scarlett/Charlotte? Bill Murray/Bob Harris?), a woman now two years into her marriage to a professional photog who seems barely to pay attention to her. Charlotte sees a post-shoot Bob looking forlorn at the bar; she buys him a drink, and the rest is history.

Only it isn't. As reviewers noted in 2003, the film stays pretty much on the platonic side (with two moments being key exceptions, both somewhat crucial to the plot); Bob and Charlotte spend most of their time talking, looking into each other's eyes, and lying side by side in a bed, barely touching-- two lonely people in an alien world making a brief connection. "Lost in Translation" isn't some cheap fling; it's not about hopping in the sack.

The film was written, directed, and co-produced by Sofia Coppola, who did a fantastic job of capturing the little human moments that many directors miss. While some of the film's humor relies on Murray's typical shtick (e.g., a close encounter with a Nordic Trak and a karaoke scene that will evoke memories of Murray's Not Ready for Prime Time days-- not to mention the masterfully subtle mugging which is Murray's stock in trade), other moments simply arise naturally, a function of the interaction of Coppola's characters.

But as someone living in Korea, I found myself conscious of the fact that Japan was, in this movie, merely a background for a story about two Americans who could have met anywhere. Japan lends the movie its atmosphere, but despite its omnipresence, it never feels fully integral to the plot. I think a Korean audience would see the story much the same way: this was a movie about Americans, by Americans, for Americans. To that extent, the movie's title is somewhat misleading: you think you're going to be in for two hours of cultural malentendus, but what you get is two Yanks staring forlornly at each other over whisky and vodka. Not that this is a bad thing: the story is well-written, deep, and thoughtfully realized. But it's not a movie about culture or translation in any literal sense.

"Translation," here, might make more sense when thought of magically-- as when a character in a fantasy novel is translated from one plane of existence to another. Bob and Charlotte are both experiencing crises, each perhaps about to step through some invisible membrane into another phase of their lives. We don't get to see what that next phase might be, but the journey up to that membrane, the story of two basically decent, well-intended people, is memorable.

Bob Harris, washed-up action star: that's a guy who'd understand my "Have I seen you on TV?" moment.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Suckin' on mah titties, like you should be calling me all the time...

Compelling lyrics to the song in the background in the titty bar scene...

PS: The husband sang it this a.m., as he was coming out of the shower...