In the Mood for Translation:
A Look at
Wong Kar-wai's
In the Mood for Love
& Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation

By Jen Johans
*Note: contains plot spoilers*      

When Sofia Coppola accepted her Oscar for Best Screenplay, she thanked a few directors
whose films had influenced
Lost in Translation and because art inspires art, it was a
fascinating and gracious acknowledgement.  One of the directors she named was China’s
Wong Kar-wai who in 2000, with the release of his film
In the Mood for Love produced a
work so gorgeous and passionate that
New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell said it “may
be one of the swooniest movies ever made about love.” Like
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,
Wong Kar-wai’s film is one of the most unabashedly romantic and beautiful movies ever
made about love and while Coppola’s contemporary Tokyo story,
Lost in Translation is
very different from
In the Mood for Love, there are enough similarities in theme, mood,
setting and character that make it interesting to analyze the two works side by side.
Although both films are very different, upon closer inspection the two have much in
common and since both take place in Asian countries (China and Japan respectively),
the culture from the Kar-wai’s first film translated well into the second.

Wong Kar-wai’s film, set in 1960’s China, tells the story of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, two
neighbors living in a crowded apartment building who discover that their spouses are
having affairs with each other.  The two seemed to have a slight connection from the start
of the film but because they are married, just acted neighborly and friendly towards one
another.  However, things change after the infidelity is discovered and they find
themselves obsessing about the affair.  The two begin role-playing as each other’s
spouses, curious to learn how the romance began and realize that they are becoming
increasingly attracted to one another but like Bob and Charlotte-- the characters in
in Translation
-- the two never take the time to fully examine their budding relationship
on their foreign Tokyo soil.  Chow and Chan’s role-playing scenes reminded me of the
karaoke scene in
Lost in Translation wherein the unhappily married characters have the
freedom of playing pretend (one of the tunes is even by the group The Pretenders) and it’s
a liberating disguise that in the beginning lets them flirt with the idea of taking their
relationships farther without actually confronting one another directly.  The songs that
Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sing to each other are carefully selected and the
performances are perfection-- there’s a certain role-playing going on in that scene that
Coppola may have appreciated and found influential in the foreign film.

In both films, music plays a large role and serves as a voice for the internal workings of
the characters’ hearts.  Coppola and Kar-wai’s films are slowly paced, visually
intoxicating to look at, character-driven and thematically similar.  There’s a certain
voyeuristic quality about the works and although both take place in overly populated
Asian cities and specifically crowded locations like
Mood’s Chinese apartment building
Translation’s Tokyo hotel, there is a sense of claustrophobic loneliness that
pervades.  Often the main characters appear alone in shots and if not, the only time the
viewer feels that their loneliness is lessened is when they are in each other’s company.  
The two female characters in the films seem to try and fight the loneliness with
distraction-- Charlotte with her sudden hobbies of smoking or knitting and Mrs. Chow by
going out for movies and noodles and always keeping up the front of the perfect wife
adorned in stunningly beautiful dresses.  The more they try to hide their loneliness, the
more we sense their longing and it’s definitely lifted when they’re around their male
counterparts.  In addition, because it’s inferred that part of the spark of the relationships
came from proximity, scenes often take place in small rooms, taxicabs and outside street
shots when they are together unified in the frame thereby making most of the sexual
tension by also filming them without much light and therefore heightening the intimacy.

There is a major difference between the two works however in the filmed portrayals of the
characters.  In
Love, the two leads are often seen in shadows, framed in front of or behind
bars, positioned close to each other yet with something in the way, missing each other by
walking in opposite directions-- they lack the easy unity of Bob and Charlotte-- and this
probably is indicative of the time and culture.  In 1960’s China, privacy was of utmost
importance, emotions were less visible and worries about other people’s opinions rule
their lives while the two modern-day Americans in Tokyo are photographed fearlessly
together-- much freer and liberated in every aspect.  This photography is ironic because
the two characters that actually end up sleeping together aren’t the free Americans you’d
expect but Chow and Chan.  However, in my view this made perfect sense since the sexual
tension in Kar-wai’s film seemed destined to cause an affair because the more they
denied their feelings, the harder it was to contain them-- although, in keeping with the
film’s subtle nature, the sexual coupling of the pair occurs off-screen and the
implications of it are blink-and-you-miss-it quick. In
Lost in Translation, Coppola was
smart enough as a writer to realize the complexity of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship
and not let them impulsively and therefore falsely fall into bed together.  To me, because
the connection of those characters is so strong-- casual physical intimacy, at least in the
context of the film, may have actually weakened their bond or turned the film into a
Ralph Fiennes styled
English Patient infidelity drama.      

Another intriguing difference between the two is that although both are love stories, one
film is created by a man and the other by a woman and I found it refreshing that the man
was the one to make the dreamy and dizzying ode to love whereas Coppola’s film is
romantic up until a point and even includes one scene that can only be described as anti-
romantic, although very realistic given Murray’s characterization.  Instead of pining for
Charlotte the way that one would expect the male character to do in archetypal love
stories, Coppola won’t let us forget that Bob Harris is only human and going through a
mid-life crisis.  Near the end of the film, he has a foolish one-night stand with a lounge
singer and Charlotte stumbles in on him the morning after.  The two proceed to have
what they later refer to as “the worst lunch” wherein they lash out against each other out
of hurt, frustration and-- like we’ve all done with friends or lovers-- said the one thing
that we know we shouldn’t when we’re upset.  We know they regret it-- like many of us in
arguments-- they’re skirting around the main issue with insults.  For Charlotte and Bob,
the scene is really about them trying to put off their inevitable parting.  There’s a scene
similarly filled with subtext in
Love wherein Chow and Chan decide to role-play her
confrontation of her cheating husband and in the process of pretending, she slaps Chow
and cries.  On the surface, they’re talking about the affair but as Elvis Mitchell cleverly
pointed out in his review for
The New York Times, it goes much deeper and alludes to
their eventual parting for when Chow says she doesn’t know how to react, she’s really
saying she doesn’t know how to react when the time will come for them to say goodbye.  
And indeed, they say goodbye twice, just like Charlotte and Bob-- the first goodbye being
emotionally unsatisfactory so in both films, the male comes back to do it again.

Much has been written about the last scene of
Lost in Translation in which Murray
embraces Johansson and whispers something into her ear that we do not hear.  As often
the case, American audiences accustomed to having everything spelled out for them and
some of the viewers were bothered by the vagueness of this.  However, I found an
explanation through a particular scene from
In the Mood for Love wherein a character
discusses telling a secret to a tree.  When Kar-wai’s film is viewed prior to Coppola’s, the
decision of Coppola not to let the audience in on the dialogue seems much more natural.  
As I see it, we don’t need to know what happens at the end because it’s not for us to know.  
What we saw is what we need to know-- they met, they connected, they were affected by
the connection and then life moved on.  I have my own ideas of what he probably said to
her and they’re along the lines of a Tokyo version of Bogie’s “We’ll always have Paris”
Casablanca but to use the explanation from Kar-wai, it’s admirable and enough
that he finally had the courage to walk up to the girl and tell her the secret and like the
tree alluded to in
Love, what is said in Asia will stay there.   In the end, the sophisticated
screenplays and cinematic executions of both directors respect the audience’s
intelligence enough to allow us the courtesy to meet the characters and events in the way
they’re presented as if we were with both, behind the scenes and voyeurs to their
flirtations in isolation.  While Kar-Wai’s haunting film is visual poetry in motion,
Coppola’s makes a wonderful counterpart and intriguing double feature to study in
comparison and contrast of one veteran master filmmaker inspiring a newcomer.
(c) Jen Johans.
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