October 2, 2003    ArtsReview

Film Review: “Lost in Translation” Is Lost With or Without Translation

Sofia Coppola’s latest film “Lost in Translation” seems to be a national hit. The vast majority of critics are giving thumbs up, but there are a few critics voicing interesting opinions to the contrary. For National Post (Canadian), Robert Fulford writes a compelling criticism called “The joke’s on them - Why can’t the protagonists of Lost in Translation see what’s around them?”.

I liked the movie very much, but I find Fulford’s arguments to be intriguing. He sees the two lead characters of the movie to epitomize the “ugly Americans” abroad with a sense of superiority and shameless ignorance. He builds convincing arguments, and I must agree with him on all. Many of the jokes rely heavily on the stereotypes of Japanese, and seem to parade modern Japanese culture as something ridiculous. Fulford goes as far as to imply that the movie is racist in some ways.

Many scenes in the film do support this argument. For instance, Bob and Charlotte make fun of the inability of the Japanese people to distinguish R’s and L’s. If you consider the situation in reverse, you could perhaps see how offensive this might be to some. Imagine a situation where you as an American meet some Japanese people here in the US. Say, you know a little bit of Japanese language. In order to convey your respect to them, you take the risk of appearing ridiculous by speaking to them in Japanese. Imagine how you would feel if the Japanese people made fun of your poor pronunciation.

Another scene at a Japanese restaurant, Bob takes advantage of the fact that the Japanese chef cannot understand English. He not only tells Charlotte to take one of her shoes off, but also yells condescendingly at the chef, something to the effect of, “What’s with that serious face?” Imagine at 21 Club, or at any formal restaurants here in the US, a Japanese couple is talking loudly and obnoxiously in Japanese. She takes one of her shoes off in front of a waiter. The Japanese man starts yelling at the waiter in Japanese. You could see how offensive this might be to many people. The ironic thing here is that in both scenarios, Americans would see nothing wrong with themselves. In the latter case, they would simply see Japanese people to be rude and crass. They would not see the act to be ridiculing the Americans.

Americans are often criticized for blaming everyone but themselves. These scenes are vivid examples of this. It does not occur to Bob and Charlotte to learn a word or two of Japanese, but they have the audacity to make fun of the Japanese for their inability to distinguish R’s and L’s. When an American trips on a sidewalk, the first thing he/she does is to blame the sidewalk and sue the city. Most Japanese people would question themselves first, and they would never even entertain the idea of suing the city, because suing the city means to sue their fellow citizens.

This is true with most Eastern countries. The East is more self-critical and introspective than the West in most situations. Most easterners are aware when they are made fun of, looked down on, pushed around, and criticized, but they have the wisdom not to retaliate because they understand that not all problems in life can be solved by attacking or fighting back. They know not to fight ridicule with ridicule. They know that complaining about it would not lead anywhere. They know that it is wiser to put the same energy in something more positive. The Western admirers of the East understand this well, and this is a big part of why they are drawn to Eastern cultures. The fact that people like Bob, Charlotte, and Sofia Coppola do not understand this, is no one’s loss but their own. As soon as we ask her to understand the beauty of Eastern culture, we are giving her more credit than she deserves.

You would not be disappointed if a junkie on the street didn’t understand something about you, but you would be disappointed if someone more powerful than you are didn’t. By asking that person to understand you, you are acknowledging and reinforcing that person’s power. By the same token, the Japanese people do not need Sofia Coppola to understand their culture. Criticizing her and asking her to understand them, would only empower her further. She does not have to understand something she is not interested in. Just as I know virtually nothing about sailing, farming, Latin language, or engineering, it is not her responsibility to know anything about Japanese culture. Why should she? She might be racist to a degree, but everyone is. I do not think that I am in a position to claim that she is more so than I am.

From this perspective, I watched the movie. I was perfectly aware of her exploitations of Japanese stereotypes, but I didn’t care about it so much because the movie really had nothing to do with Japan or Japanese culture. It is merely incidental that it took place in Japan; it could have been anywhere exotic: Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Kazakhstan, or even Russia. This movie is neither about a specific culture nor about cultural differences. It is about feelings of alienation, loss, loneliness, isolation, and passion. It is about lost souls rediscovering what it is like to feel something for real. While all the criticisms of cultural exploitation are valid, to see the movie only from that angle is skewed and narrow-minded. The film is not worthless. It has value elsewhere in a different dimension. It could have taken place in France or Brazil, but it would not have been as effective. If you were to create the greatest contrast possible, Japan is certainly one of the best places to pick.

In this sense, the film actually had a profound effect on me. It reminded me of how I felt when I first came to New York, not knowing a single soul in this big city. For a long time, I was unable to make any friends or even converse with anyone. That feeling of total isolation, in retrospect, appears so beautiful that part of me wants to feel it again. When you are in your own city, the strangers around you are not as strange as you might think. You can still guess what their lives are like, whom they might look up to, what kind of music they might listen to, what kind of job they might have, how much money they might be making, etc.. You unconsciously compare yourself to them. That is, they are not total strangers; you know them to a degree. In many ways, they are playing the same game you are playing. When you go to an utterly foreign country, people around you are truly strange. You have no connection whatsoever with them. You feel completely alone in the world. In this type of context, you can relate to someone whom you might think is a total stranger at home.

You can go to a foreign country for a variety of reasons. It does not always have to be about learning a different culture. You could use the context to learn something about yourself. To Bob and Charlotte, Japan was merely a different background that allowed them to see themselves for what they were, albeit unintentionally. Different situations bring out different aspects of yourself. Traveling to a different country is an effective way to achieve this. The problem with Bob and Charlotte was that they did this disrespectfully. There is no need to be disrespectful of other cultures in order to find something about yourself, but this is consistent with the characters in the film. If they were actually self-critical, they would not be feeling so alienated. The cause of alienation, above all, is lack of knowledge about yourself. The more critical of yourself you are, the less alienated you become. Both Bob and Charlotte lived their lives by blaming everyone but themselves, and that is why they are feeling so lost.

I am quite certain that both Fulford and I are reading into the film more than what Sofia Coppola intended. Often the value of art is to provoke discussion, but in this case, she cannot take credit for provoking Fulford’s criticism, because it is quite clear that Sofia Coppola knows nothing of Japanese culture, nor does she intend to know anything about it (her indifference is clearly conveyed in the movie). This is what “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” truly means. A painting of an ocean might remind me of a beautiful moment I had in my life, in which case, the beauty is in me, projected onto the painting, independent of the intention of the artist. “Lost in Translation” is an impressionistic film that allows for this type of projection. Though she may not have the insight to see the beauty that I am seeing in the film, it is still beautiful to me.

Addendum (12/3/03):

Below is a further attempt to dispel the confusion.

Let’s separate “story” from “plot”. Let’s define “story” to be the artistic substance, and “plot” to be the logical structure that gives the substance a form. You could have a film with nothing but plot, where all sorts of twists and turns happen, but tells nothing emotionally compelling. A common experience one would have with a plot without a story is that the second time you see it, you are bored out of your mind, because you already know the plot, and because it has nothing else to offer. You can read a good story many times over without getting bored, even though you know the plot by heart.

The confusion with “Lost in Translation” is that these two different aspects of the film are getting mixed up in various criticisms. As I said in my essay, I liked the movie very much. By that, I mean I liked the “story”. The fact that it took place in Japan is part of the “plot”, and it was not absolutely necessary, and it was rather irrelevant to the “story.”

I appreciated the “story” of the film, but not the “plot”. In the end, “story” is more important than “plot”, but the plot of the movie reflects Sofia Coppola’s naive understanding of Japan. She is equivalent to a science fiction writer who knows nothing about science. Some people can pull it off authentically, but most people cannot. Sofia Coppola certainly did not. Her knowledge of Japan consists of nothing but stereotypes. Even the scenes where Charlotte is presumably paying respect to Japanese culture (flower arrangement and witnessing of Japanese wedding), what Coppla depicted was stereotypical fetishism of Eastern mysticism. If you know Japanese culture well, those scenes would make you cringe with embarrassment for Coppola.

In order to construct a plot that matches the depth of the “story”, she should have picked a culture she knew better. If you can ignore these cringy moments, the actual “story” of the movie is quite good. In and of itself, I do not have any issues with the characters being disrespectful Americans. As I said above, it is perfectly consistent as far as the “story” is concerned.

I have no issues with characters of a movie being a racist, a sexist, homo-phobic, or anything else politically incorrect, but there is a difference between when a racist director creates a movie with a racist protagonist, and when an anti-racist director makes such a movie.

I would not call Sofia Coppla a racist, but she certainly does not have much understanding of Japanese culture. Again, there is a difference between a director with an in-depth understanding of Japanese culture making a film that makes fun of Japan, and a director with no substantial knowledge of Japanese culture making such a film. The latter can be quite annoying, and itself disrespectful.

Imagine a French director who knows nothing about American culture making a film that depicts all Americans to be arrogant and stupid. I could appreciate it if the director has a deep understanding of American culture, and still decided to depict Americans that way. But if he knows nothing about American culture, it is disrespectful to be making fun of something that he knows nothing about. By the same token, I do not feel that Sofia Coppla knows enough about Japanese culture to be making fun of it.