Fear And Trembling

on November 19, 2004 by Tim Cogshell
"Fear and Trembling" is the title of author Amelie Nothomb's autobiographical novel. The name of the lead character is Amelie, which speaks to just how personal an account of a young, romantic Belgian woman's experience working in large Japanese corporation the film actually is. But this painfully delightful movie is hardly a biography, or even a travelogue; in fact, this quirky, surreal little film verges on magical realism, partly for its representation of the disparities between Eastern and Western cultures, and partly for its flights of fancy. Then there is the lead, Belgian actress Sylvie Testud, an open-faced wonder in the mold of Renee Zellweger.

The Amelie of the film was born in Japan and lived there until moving back to Belgium at the age of five. Yet Amelie always considered herself somehow connected to the land of her birth; she learns to speak fluent Japanese and arrives in Tokyo to work at the vast Yumimoto Corporation, where she is the only Westerner -- and a woman at that. Her boss is the beautiful (though very tall and thus unmarried) Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), with whom she at first identifies. After a series of mistakes born of Amelie's Western thinking, she and Fubuki soon become embroiled in a battle of wills. It seems that neither birthright nor linguistic fluency can assure one of becoming a "real Japanese."

Amelie faces a series of humiliations to which she is required to submit or risk being humiliated even further. This is a notion her Western mind cannot fathom, yet the very Western trait of never surrendering won't allow her to quit, much to the chagrin of Fubuki. It's a sort of Dante's Inferno tale wherein Amelie ultimately finds her freedom through a kind of external acquiescence, when in fact it is Fubuki who is trapped in a culture that is without reason or empathy (which may be politically incorrect, but is not altogether untrue).

As for the title, it refers to the repose with which one was expected to greet the Emperor (a living god), a notion as yet not completely dislodged from Japanese culture. Starring Sylvie Testud, Kaori Tsuji, Taro Suwa, Bison Katayama and Yasunari Kondo. Directed and written by Alain Corneau. Produced by Alain Sarde. A Cinema Guild release. Drama. Japanese- and French-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 102 min

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