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Lost in Translation | Review

Passage to Tokyo

When your local Cineplex offers a menu where everything looks the same, this film sticks out from the rest.

What happens when you get lost and can’t find your way home? You ask a stranger for directions. What happens when you have a menu in hand with abstract words and pictures? You say. “I’ll have what he is having”. What happens when you have that gut-wrenching feeling that your pursuit of happiness and everything thing else in life serves no purpose? You look to the person standing next to you in an elevator and breakout a smile. After her edgy auteur debut with The Virgin Suicides, comes a film littered with a collection of postcard moments and picture-frame memories from Sofia Coppola’s own life experiences.

Lost in Translation is a sincere look into the personal journeys of two people stuck in the middle of a hard-to-understand culture filled with neon-lit and heavy pedestrian used streets setting of glorious Tokyo. Bill Murray (Rushmore) illustrates yet again why he is perhaps the most-underrated American actor with a low-key, not too funny, not too serious number which allows for his offbeat improv comedic skills at key moments along with a dramatic performance that shows what a mid-life crisis looks like in the land of karaoke pop-stars. Murray plays Bob Harris, an actor who takes up the not-so-strange product endorsement job of selling whiskey to a breed of people that speak a whole other language. His new acquaintance is a fellow prisoner of the hotel a younger American newlywed named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson Ghost World) who wishes she was somewhere else. Together, they strike up a connection that comforts one another and qualifies as a “hard to describe” type of relationship, where a slim flirtation and companionship are interjected between the two. What is so pleasant about this dynamic is the authenticity which is found in their characters, as the framing captures the stronger sentiments between the characters, Coppola’s brilliant dialogue humanely describes the compelling or completely banal moments which they are subject to.

One of the most funniest moments in film this year is from the sequence from where the film got its title from when Murray’s character is filming a commercial with a Japanese film crew, not only do we have fun in watching the interaction between the characters, but we also get a dose of how it feels to be in Murray’s shoes by having a complete film exclusion of any subtitles, – for someone like me who has no idea about the culture or the language it works wonders in explaining the confusion of the setting. This is a film full of ‘moments’, being stuck in an arcade or at a party with strangers are matched with side-trips to ancient Japan and hotel room views of the city and watching Italian films with Japanese subtitles. Out of these series of moments Coppola’s narrative explores that sentiment of being isolated and lost all in the same moment while adding to the mix that feeling of being jet-lagged which seems to re-incarnate itself in that point in your life where a person feels disconnected from his/her surroundings. Coppola’s script asks for many bizarre anecdotes which only deepen the meaning of alienation, culture shock and of friendship found in loneliness. I like the subtle film idea touches that reveal so much about the protagonist’s frame of mind and impression of self- such as when Bob orders from a menu where the choices look all the same, or when a received package of carpet samples millions of miles away from home.

Thankfully such smallish indie films are still opting for film instead of digital video; here it serves the picture well, Coppola mentions that she wanted to capture this film as a “romantic memory” which qualifies for some especially nice urban color by night and day shots. This is a smart film, packed with authentic emotions and personalized by a film auteur’s voice who understands the set of choices in human emotions, unlike the country which still seems to bare the same un-understanding as reflected in the film’s characters. In the end, this has the type of resonate ending that reminded me of the two people in a foreign place embrace as in Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Lost in Translation is a skillfully weaved film, where the subject matter, the evocative deeper meanings and a couple of honest portraits resonate making this one an absolute splendor.

Rating 4 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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