It's tempting to read this film - co-written and directed by a Frenchman and starring a French actress - as a direct response to all those time-honored cliches about French arrogance, focusing as it does on Japanese arrogance. A further temptation is to read the Japanese multi-National, with its rigid pecking order writ in stone as a microcosm. For the Western viewer the early scenes especially are an amalgamation of every image we have - courtesy almost exclusively of the silver screen - of the Japanese psyche as one half passive courtesy and one half manic ranting. In this outfit a vice prexy doesn't murmur discreetly into middle management's ear 'have you got a minute, Mel'? That would be too civilised. Instead he rants and raves as if he'd just caught the guy disembowelling his first-born child, the blood-flecked sword still smoking in his hand. And that's how they behave with EACH OTHER, so if you're Belgian this must be Purgatory. Take our protaganist, Amelie-san, born in Japan to Belgian parents, returned to Belgium aged five, already fluent in Japanese and now come back to make a life in a country she loves. Employed as a translator on an initial one-year contract in a large corporation which could be an Eastern counterpart of the Insurance outfit in Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment' she learns within minutes that this is a whole new ball game. Her immediate supervisor, Fubuki (Kaori Suwa) is away at a meeting so FABUKI's supervisor, Mr Saito (Taro Suwa) asks Amelie to write a letter in English accepting an invitation that has been extended to Saito to play a round of golf. Deigning to ask for the scantest knowledge about the recipient she is answered with a ferocious stare reeking of intolerance so she composes a letter. I mean, how difficult can it be to write Dear, so-and-so, Mr Saito is pleased to accept your invitation. Right, duck soup. But that's in the real world. In the world of Japanese Corporate Business that's not good enough. Nor are the subsequent sixteen attempts and here's the kicker, she is never told exactly WHAT is wrong, WHERE she has failed, instead Saito merely barks like a dog and tears up her work in front of her, and it gets better, in the end he isn't even PRETENDING to read them, like Pavlov's dog he begins to bark as she begins to walk toward his desk. When Fubuki does appear she turns out to be a 29 year old beauty whom Amelie warms to on sight. It turns out that they were born in the same province which creates a bond of sorts. The biggest drawback for Amelie is that there is nothing for her to do so, having mastered the art of making tea/coffee and memorising each taste, she takes it upon herself to deliver the mail. Both these tasks make her popular with the workforce as does her updating of all the calendars but Saito is soon on her back once more. Seems she has created work for herself by using initiative, a definite no-no. Then she really blows it; serving tea/coffee in the Boardroom she DARES to speak in Japanese; true, she says little more than, 'your tea, sir' but that is three words too many and now Saito's supervisor, Mr. Omochi, bawls out Saito in public and now it's the old Army Game, the General yells at the Colonel, the Colonel ... well, you get the picture and who'd want to be a private. Certainly not Amelie who is totally bemused, she had, after all, been hired on the basis that she spoke Japanese. That's irrelevant. From now on she must FORGET that she speaks Japanese. What's that again. Yeah, you heard, forget that you speak/read/understand Japanese. But that's impossible, surely. NOT if you work for THIS outfit. And so it goes. When a middle management figure who is brokering a deal with a Belgian company asks for her help she is happy to provide it and writes a glowing report which Mr Tenschi acknowledges in private although both realize that she cannot be seen as the author. Nevertheless she is denounced, by none other than the one person Amelie thinks of as a friend, Fubuki. Seems that it has taken Fubuki several years to win a promotion and now Amelie looks like achieving the same thing in ten weeks. Forget it, kid. From then on things go from bad to worse til Amelie winds up cleaning the toilets and does so until her one year contract is up after which she returns to Belgium and writes a prize-winning semi-autobiographical novel which in turn provides the basis for the film. I was fortunate enough to see this film several months ago in a one-off showing in which the director, Alain Corneau, was present for a Q and A session following the screening. I didn't hold out much hope for a french film set in Japan in which the leading lady, Sylvie Testud, insisted on speaking Japanese throughout - as do the rest of the cast, so what we have is a French film shot entirely in Japanese with French subtitles for domestic screening and English subtitles in our case - but I did want to ask Corneau about the three films he made with Yves Montand so I was prepared to endure rather than enjoy the film. As it turned out I found the film charming and highly entertaining and I am delighted it has finally surfaced at a London art house where I enjoyed it as much as the first time. 9/10
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