Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling is a weird little movie from French director Alain Corneau (The Prince of the Pacific, Le Cousin) based on the award-winning novel by Amelie Nothomb. The main character happens to be named Amelie, and like Nothomb, was born in Japan before moving back to Belgium. Autobiographical? Perhaps. Either way, Fear and Trembling is best enjoyed by those familiar with the Japanese culture, anybody who has ever worked for an idiot boss, or even better, both. Amelie (Sylvia Tetsud, Anna M., The Chateau) is overjoyed when she gets a one-year contract as a translator working for Yamamoto, a large company. She missed Japan ever since she moved to Belgium. She feels like her heart belongs there. Boy is she wrong.

Although Amelie adores Japan, she seems to have little knowledge about the cultural mores of the country, especially as related to the workplace. Saving face is extremely important. Obedience is essential. Western habits of speaking one's opinion are frowned upon. Amelie quickly clashes with Monsieur Saito (Taro Suwa, Perfect Blue, Ju-On 2), who finds her incompetent. The tasks he gives her are menial, moronic, and test her patience. She is much happier with her manager, Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji, Pokemon 4Ever , The Key), primarily for her flawless Asian features. It's a shame that Fubuki soon believes that she is mentally retarded.

Amelie wants to do a good job, but also enjoys staring out the window and pretending to fly. One assumes that Amelie is a bit quirky and headstrong, but nothing else. Still, everything she does seems the exact opposite of what she should do, and makes her look stupid in the eyes of her peers. She quickly, and unintentionally makes enemies all over the company. When she volunteers for a project, she thinks it will make her look industrious. Instead, she is taking responsibility away from others, and making them lose face. She is punished with mind-numbingly dull work, partially out of revenge. In her own little game, she decides to do the best at her new jobs, as mindless as they are. Thus, she becomes great at making copies, adjusting calendars, and cleaning bathrooms. She never does any translating at all, and at one point is ordered to forget Japanese.

Tetsud's reactions and voiceovers are priceless. She is literally stuck in some weird universe where nothing makes sense. Any sane person would quit. She continues, even throwing all her effort into the work, because that is what a Japanese person would do. Corneau does go a little over the top with some of her managers, but this is primarily for comedic effect. Saito judges her work as worthless without looking at it. Omochi (the appropriately named Bison Katayama) screams at every possible opportunity. Fubuki smiles but schemes her way around Amelie. And while Fear and Trembling may inspire laughter, Corneau also wants people to look a bit deeper and think. It is utterly degrading what Amelie's managers make her do, and there is an undercurrent of sadness throughout the film. Amelie, and to a lesser degree Fubuki, are doing what is expected of them. They realize that this may not be the best thing to do, but feel powerless. It's this juxtaposition between surreal comedy and more serious emotions that make Fear and Trembling fun, if not a bit frightening to watch.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 47 minutes, French and Japanese with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains language and minor nudity, an R.

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