Lost in Translation

We fade into a woman lying alone in a hotel room wearing a gray t-shirt and sheer pink underwear. Her back is facing us. There is something incredibly lonely and innocent about this image.  Lost in Translation (2003), a film written and directed by Sofia Coppola is about two lost souls who meet in Tokyo and develop a close friendship. Although they are several years apart, both feel the same emptiness inside. They struggle to translate their lives. Aware that their time in Tokyo is limited, they spend all the time they can with one another while allowing their vulnerabilities to hang loose.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a young woman in her early 20s whose celebrity photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is in Tokyo for work. He’s too occupied with his success and leaves Charlotte alone in their hotel room. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a burnt out movie star who is shooting a Suntory whiskey commercial in Japan. He receives faxes and phone calls from his wife who consistently inquires about the color preferences for his carpet. Their marriage is thinning and his children are getting accustomed to their father not being around. Charlotte and Bob make eye contact at the hotel bar. This leads to several encounters and eventually, many simple, yet blissful adventures in the city.

Coppola is very careful in constructing and mapping out emotions throughout her story. Although it takes place in a bustling city, it meshes well with the sensitive and subtle characters. Where they go and the people that they’re with doesn’t matter. What matters is the comfort that they find in one another–everything else is secondary.
I particularly loved how Coppola set Japan as the backdrop of her story. There is a dichotomy that emerges: being lost in translation with the Japanese language and culture and being lost in translation with their loved ones and more importantly, themselves. In technical terms, we can call it an exterior and interior. The exterior moments might be when Bob is frustratingly trying to fulfill his director’s demands through an unhelpful translator or trying to understand the poor English of his photographer. These are comical moments that portray Bob’s sardonic humor. And at the same time, they imply internally that Bob is a lost individual whose life is blanketed around ambiguous holes. Murray flows with this concept very well. He uses satire and sentiment at a good pace. That makes a perfect combo of humor and emotion that earned his nomination for Best Actor at the 2004 Academy Awards.
Charlotte comes into Bob’s life and fills the holes but not all of it. Coppola doesn’t let it off that easily. In the last scene, as Bob and Charlotte are saying goodbye, Bob whispers something in her ear. We are not allowed to hear. Coppola gives her characters privacy and it is perhaps the most moving scene in the film. Coppola has an uncanny yet astute ability to understand and illustrate the human condition. She invokes sensitivity in this film that makes it natural and raw. The generational gap that Bob and Charlotte represent convey that life doesn’t get easier. Murray and Johansson bring natural and powerful performances. Their alluring chemistry makes them likeable and interesting to observe.
This film earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. Coppola deservingly walked away with Best Original Screenplay. She was the third woman to be nominated for Best Director. Her first three films were Lick the Star (1998), The Virgin Suicides (1999), and Lost in Translation. She then made a Marie Antoinette biopic and then Somewhere (2010). Her next film, which began shooting in Spring 2012, will be about the Bling Ring, starring Emma Watson.
Lost in Translation reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Both films touch upon a generational gap and more importantly, acknowledge the existence of inevitability. By this I mean they portray the significance of facing and accepting the painful realities that life has. Both films are not about overcoming conflict but facing and accepting it. Accepting things as they are and finding contentment through it is perhaps, I feel, the greatest struggle and triumph in life.


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