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The opening of Alain Corneau’s new film offers a vision of refinement and grace: Accompanied by delicate Bach variations on the harpsichord, the camera twists daintily around the painted face of a geisha, then shifts to a view of Ryoanji Temple, one of Kyoto’s top attractions and an icon of serenity. So why’s the movie called Fear and Trembling? Hang on.
An existential comedy about a young, reddish-blond woman who’s spiritually lost in Tokyo, Fear and Trembling has a superficial kinship with Lost in Translation, whose success may have encouraged an American company to distribute Corneau’s film. (He hadn’t had a U.S. commercial release since 1992’s Tous les Matins du Monde.) But whereas Sofia Coppola’s movie patronized the Japanese as wacky aliens in their own country, Corneau’s has a view that’s both harsher and more accurate.
Actually, the view belongs to Amélie Nothomb, a Belgian woman whose autobiographical novel is the film’s source. Corneau wrote the script, but he seems to have been faithful to Nothomb’s vision. Smart but somewhat flighty Amélie (Sylvie Testud) narrates the film and is essentially its only character. Having spent the first five years of her life in Japan, the wispy-haired, mildly disheveled Belgian naively believes herself an honorary member of the clan. Yet as a gaijin (“foreigner”), she can never be accepted by her Tokyo co-workers, even though she’s learned their language well.
That skill has won her a yearlong contract as a translator for Yumimoto, one of the all-encompassing Japanese conglomerates that global economic savants used to hail as the epitome of business efficiency. Those savants shut their mouths in 1990, the year Japanese corporate arrogance peaked and then crashed along with the country’s “bubble economy.” It’s also the year in which Fear and Trembling is set.
Corneau’s film is a rare cinematic example of the gaijin memoir, a booming subgenre in contemporary Western literature. Europeans and North Americans travel to Japan for a year or two, most often as students or teachers, and return home to write about the complexity—and perversity—of Japanese customs. It’s unusual for the authors of these books to have experience at a Japanese company, but not unprecedented; one example is Laura J. Kriska’s 1998 The Accidental Office Lady, an account of working for Honda. (Kriska doesn’t provide dates, but she must have been in Japan within a few years of Nothomb.)
Kriska faced considerable antipathy, but nothing compared to the trials Amélie experiences—or thinks she does. Set almost entirely on one floor of Yumimoto’s corporate headquarters, Fear and Trembling is culture-clash satire that evokes the suffocating isolation and intense abasement of a boot-camp flick. Amélie’s drill instructor is her immediate supervisor, Fubuki Mori (Kaori Tsuji), a woman with the face of an Edo-period geisha portrait. The Belgian foolishly supposes that she and her boss, virtually the only women on the floor, will be friends. Instead, Fubuki becomes Amélie’s tormentor.
After failing at such menial assignments as serving coffee and photocopying, Amélie is given increasingly degrading tasks, including a stint as bathroom attendant. She comes to see the Japanese corporation as a continuation of feudal obligation to the emperor—who was once to be approached with “fear and trembling.” In fantasies incited by Fubuki’s severe beauty, Amélie imagines herself as a World War II POW in a homoerotic cult film. White-collar oppression enters the realm of psychological sadomasochism, and a day at Yumimoto becomes a cross between The Story of O and Raise the Red Lantern, with filing cabinets and water coolers replacing chains and concubines.
This is surely kinkier than most Japanese office life warrants, and viewers who are squeamish about stereotypes may recoil from Fubuki and some of the other Yumimoto bosses, especially tubby tyrant Mr. Omochi (Bison Katayama). But the film is a first-person memoir, and its protagonist’s impressions, however subjective, must be honored. Amélie takes care to translate the names of certain co-workers, and these literal meanings offer clues to her perceptions: The icy Fubuki Mori is Snowstorm Forest, and Amélie’s only significant benefactor, Tenshi-san (Yasunari Kondo), is Mr. Angel.
Because Amélie is fundamentally alone, it’s fitting that the film turns on Testud’s performance. She’s dizzy, vibrant, and ironic—which is as perfect for her character as it is exactly wrong for a Japanese corporation, where competence, obedience, and earnestness are prized. Ultimately, her tale is both defined and limited by its literary origins: It feels a little small, turning on one idealist’s disillusionment, and Amélie’s wilder extrapolations seem coarser on the screen than they would in print. Yet any gaijin who’s explored Japan will appreciate that Fear and Trembling gets one thing right: the enigma beneath the country’s simulation of the industrialized West. In a corporate suite whose every physical detail could be found in Brussels or Dallas, Amélie comes to realize she’s in an alternate universe.
When making The Five Obstructions a few years ago, director Jørgen Leth was instructed by Lars von Trier to shoot in “the worst place on Earth.” Leth picked Bombay’s red-light district, a valid choice: Even before AIDS, India’s bordellos were teeming horrors. Yet Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born Into Brothels, which was filmed in the prostitution center of an even grungier Indian city, Calcutta, is not so depressing as its location might suggest. While the neighborhood’s adults are occasionally seen or heard—if the latter, they’re usually delivering paint-blistering profanities—this moving film focuses on a handful of kids and their untapped potential.
An American photojournalist, Briski went to Calcutta to document the lives of hookers, and she stayed to teach their children photography. She and co-director Ross Kaufman follow seven of the youngsters, interspersing footage of their lives with the kids’ own photographs, many of which are striking. (Indian slums have one advantage over American subdivisions: The narrow alleys and tight quarters allow for vivid compositions.) Briski is particularly concerned about the girls, who are just a few years away from being forced into their mothers’ profession, but her star pupil is a boy, Avijit, who lives in a tiny apartment that doubles as an unlicensed bar. An astute critic of his peers’ photos, Avijit is also objective about his father, a near-catatonic drug addict: “I try to love him a little,” the boy says.
Initially, the documentary is more impressionistic than sociological, but it shifts toward the latter when Briski hits on a plan to save her charges. She decides to send them to boarding schools, which would improve both the kids’ educations and their environments. While navigating the children through HIV tests, ration-card replacements, and school and passport applications, Briski learns (and illustrates) some lessons about India’s Dickensian bureaucracy. Eventually, she gets all seven children into various schools and Avijit to Amsterdam for a show that includes his work. A final note indicates that they didn’t all stay, but at least some of them have opportunities they wouldn’t have known otherwise. And that’s no small quota of hope in a neighborhood whose afflictions would overwhelm most visitors from the affluent world.CP