Harry Potter!
Cinema Signal:

No and Bunraku
Traditional Japanese theatre

. "Fear and Trembling" (aka, "Stupeur et Tremblements")

This would appear to be a study in the absurd as it applies to Japanese business culture. Mostly, it's a sophomoric film effort drawn from a novel by Belgium's latest literary toast, Amelie Nothomb, and tells the story of a thirty-something woman returning to the country of her birth, Japan, and fitting into a job with one of Tokyo's major corporations.

Author Amelie Nothomb names her poor, unfortunate lead Amelie, leaving little doubt of the autobiographical nature of her work. Thinking that because her Japanese is as good as her French, Amelie (Sylvie Testud - "The Chateau") she is beginning her one-year contract with the firm as a translator. Nothing is further from the truth.

She is immediately treated with disrespect and ordered to perform menial jobs around the office, or no job at all. It would seem that her Japanese bosses and co-workers are uncomfortable with her, feel smugly superior to her or just can't handle a foreigner in their midst.

Bosses yell and show no patience, even while creating confusion with their lack of purpose. They seem to have no interest at all in plumbing what abilities or expertise Sylvie might have to offer. She's ordered to make and serve coffee during a high level meeting with a large corporate client. She does so, saying something welcoming as she sets each coffee cup down. The effort alarms everyone. She's ordered never to do it again on the basis that her Japanese is too good.

As though that isn't enough of a punishment, she's then tasked to photocopy a thick business portfolio. Each time she does it her temporary boss (who is only one of the petty tyrants) declares it misaligned and orders her to start again. While performing this drudge work, she's discovered by the only decent chap around, Mr. Tenshi (Yasunari Kondo) who gives her an assignment to work for him on an important report calling for research. Working on her own time through the night, she delivers a laudable paper. But, again, it gets her nowhere.

Instead, she's assigned to work under the immediate supervision of Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), a tall, elegantly beautiful ice queen of a woman steeped in the ways of her culture, shamed by the fact she's nearing thirty and not married, and convinced of her country's superiority over all others. Her treatment of Sylvie, putting her to work in increasingly demanding or demeaning jobs, seems a ploy to prove Sylvie's, and by extension her country's, mental deficiencies.

The degradation of poor Sylvie is so unrelieved by the merest sign of positive change and so brutal in the totality of its condescension, it becomes annoying. Which robs director Alain Corneau's film of its entertainment potentials, despite Ms. Testud's charm battle to make her Amelie more than the script's one-note caricature. The director should have known better and can't be excused for such a hopeless piece of work, no matter what the success of the novel might have been.

It seems that, as Amelie is performing one of her many to-the-camera monologues about her miseries and reactions to them, the words are pulled from a passage in the book which may have read well but simply doesn't produce the effect on screen that the filmmaker assumes it does. The satiric attempt to condemn the prevailing racism and sadism in the Japanese business culture is not served as well as it might have been because it's so drained of humor. Her bosses' (Saito, Omochi, Unaji) foolish character exaggerations do little to compensate.

The best thing that can be said of the film is that it provides a rare opportunity for Ms. Testud's unique dual languages. We'd love to see her do it again to greater effect.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Sylvie Testud as Amelie
Facing her boss in a nowhere job

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