Starring: Sylvie Testud Kaori Tsuji Taro Suwa Bison Katayama Yasunari Kondo Running time: 107 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
There seems to be a whole sub genre of films out there that could be described as “gaijin in Japan”. From the slick Ridley Scott yakuza flick “Black Rain” to the Doris Dorrie look at Zen Buddhism “Enlightenment Guaranteed” and on to the wildly popular “Lost in Translation” we’ve seen many stumbling foreigners making their way through various Japanese cities over the years. It’s a genre that tends to divide audiences; some find the stranger in a strange land scenarios enlightening and entertaining, others see the one sided view point of another culture troubling and rascist. Whichever side of this argument you may fall on French director Alain Corneau’s (“Tous les matins du monde”) 2003 film takes Belgian/ French literary phenomena Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical novel “Fear and Trembling” as the starting point for probably one of the best in this genre; one woman’s journey through culture shock and corporate absurdity. (The title refering not to Søren Kierkegaard, but that a commoner was to approach the Japanese emperor with “fear and trembling”.)
Amélie (Sylvie Testud), a young Belgian woman is thrilled to be returning to Japan. Having been born in Kobe to Belgian diplomats and raised for the first five years of her life in Japan she jumps at the opportunity to take a year long contract with the huge Yumimoto Corporation. This will be her final attempt to become, as she describes it “a real Japanese”, but little does she know that this will be much more difficult than she’d expected. Even though Amélie is fluent in Japanese and extremely keen to please she’s unfamiliar with the office hierarchy and almost immediately rubs her superiors the wrong way. From simple Person Friday duties she is demoted to serving coffee and then demoted again and again as she unwittingly breaks workplace and social etiquette.
Nothomb is a bit of an eccentric, claiming that she writes three novels a year (although she only publishes one per year) and has the habit of drinking vinegar (???), so how “autobiographical” her novel was remains subjective, but Corneau manages to create a film that is both funny and strangely touching, and that never fails to engage even though the majority of the action takes place in the confines of the Yumimoto offices.
The real heart of the film though is the perfomance of Sylvie Testud. No, she doesn’t speak Japanese! She had to learn all of her dialogue phonetically and ended up winning the 2003 Cesar Award for best actress for this performance. Her Amélie is alternately brave and plucky while at the same time masochistic as she is repeatedly subjected to humiliation by her bosses, especially her immediate superior, the beautiful but glacial Fubuki-san (Kaori Tsuji). The underlying sexual tension between the two actresses is an interesting angle and is echoed by the inclusion of a clip from Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
For fans of this genre I would highly recommend “Fear and Trembling”, but for those who, say, had problems with the representation of the Japanese in “Lost in Translation” it might be best to avoid this one.