A Belgian interpreter undergoes the humiliation of being the only Westerner in a huge Japanese firm in "Fear and Trembling." Cross-cultural adventure is Alain Corneau's most entertaining film since "Tous les matins du monde." Pic opened strong and should be marketable wherever there are offices and office politics.

A Belgian interpreter undergoes the escalating humiliation of being the only Westerner in the import-export division of a huge Japanese firm in “Fear and Trembling.” Classy, funny cross-cultural adventure is Alain Corneau’s most accomplished and entertaining film since 1991’s “Tous les matins du monde” (All the Mornings of the World). Offbeat but completely accessible pic opened strong — the book’s author is a household name in French-speaking Europe — and should be marketable wherever there are offices and office politics.

Strange, meticulously structured tale spanning a year at a Tokyo company in which hierarchy reigns supreme, respects both Asian and European mindsets while extracting considerable humor from all the impasses at which their twains shall never meet.

Amelie (Sylvie Testud, who mastered reams of Japanese dialogue phonetically) was born in Japan and lived there until age five, when her family returned to Europe. Advanced degrees in hand, she’s back to perform an unspecified job on the 44th floor of the headquarters of Yumimoto, “one of the largest companies in the universe,” where rituals of respect for the hierarchical chain of command are as much a given as the earth orbiting the sun. Amelie answers to attractive and unusually tall Miss Mori (Kaori Tsuji) who is unwed at age 29, having clawed her way to her current position in lieu of pursuing a spouse. Mori answers to older, balding Mr. Saito (Taro Suwa) who answers to the blustering and obese vice-president Mr. Omochi (Bison Katayama).

Although Amelie speaks her employers’ language and couldn’t be more admiring or eager to please, she is, quite simply, doomed to move down the ladder. Because of the fashion in which the game Amelie responds to each dose of what Westerners would label hazing or harassment, narrative is jaunty and amusing rather than a source of viewer outrage. As journeys of initiation fraught with challenges and danger go, this is the office worker’s equivalent “The Lord of the Rings”–if Frodo didn’t have a single ally for companionship or support.

Amelie arrives in Tokyo the first week in January 1990. She has no clear cut duties and commits the cardinal sin of showing initiative. Assigned to prepare tea and coffee, Amelie’s real troubles begin when she serves hot beverages to a roomful of male clients, placing each cup with a seemingly harmless “Pardon me” or “Here’s your coffee.” Omochi explodes and berates Saito, who berates Amelie. Her crime? “How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understands their language?” Saito orders Amelie to “Forget Japanese.” Burdened with her Western tendency to summon logic instead of blind obedience, Amelie protests such an order is ridiculous. Matters go downhill from there in nicely plotted increments.

Mousy yet steely Testud is terrific. Her perf makes Amelie’s determination to endure her contractual year seem noble and chess-like rather than needlessly masochistic. Statuesque Tsuji, a fashion model in her first film role, is aces as the deadly immediate supervisor Amelie mistakes for a friend.

Lensing and editing seamlessly make an ordinary modern office appear as harrowing as a mined battlefield. Sountrack’s use of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on harpsichord to mirror the intricacy of the proceedings is an effective ploy that indirectly seems to lighten Amelie’s humiliation.

Preserving in French voiceover much of the sharp observation and self-deprecating text of Amelie Nothomb’s bestselling autobiographical novel, pic is otherwise entirely in Japanese.

Fear and Trembling

France

Production

A Bac Distribution release of a les Films Alain Sarde, Divali Films, France 3 Cinema production with participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Alain Sarde. Executive producer, Christine Gozlan. Directed, written by Alain Corneau, based on the novel by Amelie Northomb.

Crew

Camera (color), Yves Angelo; editor, Thierry Derocles; music, J.S. Bach; production designers, Philippe Taillefer, Valerie Leblanc; sound (Dolby), Pierre Gamet, Gerard Lamps; assistant director, Vincent Trintignant. Reviewed at UGC Les Halles, Paris, March 12, 2003. Running time: 107 MIN. (Japanese and French dialogue)

With

Amelie - Sylvie Testud Fubuki Mori - Kaori Tsuji Mr. Saito - Taro Suwa Mr. Omochi - Bison Katayama Mr. Tenshi - Yasunari Kondo Mr. Haneda - Sokyu Fujita Mr. Unaji - Gen Shimaoka

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