It's probably inevitable that every movie about the clash of Western and Japanese cultures that gets made in the next few years will find itself compared to Lost in Translation. If you want a more accurate characterization of the wry pleasures awaiting you in the cinematic interoffice memo Fear and Trembling, try to imagine a dramatized version of one of those extended anecdotes the sorely missed Spalding Gray used to specialize in … or a less absurd Haiku Tunnel set in the true home of the haiku.
The voice of star Sylvie Testud keeps us tethered throughout this seriocomic portrayal of one year in the life of the impish Amélie, a Belgian woman trying her best to fit into Japan's corporate culture and failing spectacularly at every turn. Born in Japan but a stranger to its shores since childhood, 20-something Amélie thinks that her enduring facility with the language will stand her in good stead as she fulfills a 12-month contract with one of the country's biggest firms. That delusion is quickly knocked out of her when she dares to speak Japanese while serving coffee in a board meeting. The tongue-lashing that follows inaugurates a precipitous tumble down the corporate ladder, from interpreter to accountant to restroom custodian. Is there any lower Amélie can go, she wonders? And if there is, how much can she rely on her porcelain geisha doll of a superior (Kaori Tsuji) to slow her descent?
Amélie's voice-over recap of these irksome events which director Alain Corneau has adapted from Amélie Nothomb's autobiographical novel is the perfect window into a tale told by folks who understand we're all the foreigner at one time or another. That's why, though Amélie's instincts and sense of humor can occasionally be as inscrutable as her hosts' social mores, we remain squarely on her side all the while her workplace experiences are degenerating from the farcical to the genuinely appalling. The business hierarchy above her is stocked with fearsome figures, and none is quite as repellent as one grotesquely corpulent middle manager (the all-too-appropriately named Bison Katayama), whose treatment of his female underlings is sadistic even by the standards of the culture that gave us multiple Urotsukidoji films. Being a true outsider means sympathizing with all outsiders, and the more Amélie tries and fails to act like a native, the more she realizes that forces like sexism keep even some native Japanese behind the eight ball.
From its snarky water-cooler comedy to its satisfying dabblings in feminism, the movie has a championship heart in Testud, an electric screen presence any audience will follow as willingly as the camera tracks her marvelously expressive features. Testud's multifaceted Amélie is simultaneously foolish and wise; elegant and gawky; irresponsible and fiercely committed. Those virtues sustain us through the movie's pokier patches, which arrive at about the one-hour mark: Corneau fails to find a way to convey the stultifying boredom of his heroine's working routine without making the movie itself feel tedious. But the pace picks up again in time for the story's fascinating climax, which treats Amélie's fate at the company as a matter not of resigned acceptance, but hard-earned understanding that's almost Zen-like in its perfection. Turning Japanese? I really think so.