A fish-out-of-the-water story that juxtaposes realism with surreal touches, “Silent City” recounts the experiences of a young Dutchwoman who travels to Tokyo to master the art of filleting fish. Even before she’s gutted her first anchovy in the restaurant kitchen of her strict and oft-silent Nipponese master, the protag’s pretty much lost in translation, though sophomore scribe-helmer Threes Anna knows how to render emotions nonverbally, as telling visuals and sound. This San Sebastian world preem is first-rate fest material and could appeal to adventurous boutique distribs. Pic was released locally Oct. 4.
Open-faced Rosa (Flemish newcomer Laurence Roothooft, terrifically expressive) arrives in Tokyo at the restaurant where she’ll be taught how to harmonize fish and knife. Though the endless days of practicing ahead of her will make her a better filleter in the long run, the girl finds it hard to strike a balance between work and play in her almost alien surroundings.
None of her fellow students, all Japanese, or the restaurant staff speak much or any English, and the famous chef, Master Kon (Makoto Makita), basically seems to use his apprentices as unpaid laborers, tucked away in a separate, neon-lit kitchen where fish is cleaned but not otherwise prepared. Not easily scared away, Rose perseveres, trying to befriend the girl she shares a dingy room with, Aki (Ayako Kobayashi) and eventually moving into a room of her own and a nighttime job at a hostess club.
Novelist, playwright and filmmaker Anna, whose debut, “The Bird Can’t Fly,” starred Barbara Hershey, here again adapts one of her own novels, transforming the book’s stream-of-consciousness format into tableaux that translate how Rosa feels, without relying on voiceover or a lot of dialogue. There’s a little bit of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” here, naturally suggested by the young Westerner-in-Tokyo setup, but since the film lacks a male co-star (there’s no Bill Murray character to share the loneliness with), Anna can dig deeper into the feelings of her protag.
There are literal moments of frustration, such as a scene at an enormously busy train station where Rosa shouts, in desperation: “Does anybody speak English?” But her dissatisfaction slowly takes on more surreal and visually explicit forms. She occasionally starts to voice her concerns in Dutch rather than English, certain that no one will understand. Some dreamlike images also start to slither into the narrative, such as the sight of Rosa with a live fish flapping in her mouth, offering visually potent psychological clues to what the character is feeling.
Absent a lot of meaningful dialogue, the use of sound takes on even greater prominence, masterfully designed by Paul Gies and Marc Lizier. Ace lenser David Williamson also focuses on the heightened senses of Rosa, especially in the many closeups that show the protag dealing with the fish directly, which stresses their almost otherworldly tactile qualities. From there, it’s not hard to draw a line to the otherworldly people that surround the apprenticeship that she’s also trying to get a handle on.
Visuals are beautifully composed, with lighting that’s a touch expressive in terms of color use, with a tinge of slightly sickly green that underlines the artificial qualities of the surroundings. Costume design also helps color-code the proceedings, with the young woman’s predilection for bright reds, a hue apparently unknown to her colleagues, the most obvious example, as it makes Rosa constantly stand out from the crowd. Production design artfully conceals that most of the film was actually shot in co-producing Luxembourg rather than Japan.