Two people with time to kill in a Tokyo hotel. Two people - a middle aged second-rate actor and a pretty but "mean" Ivy League graduate - who are bored of themselves and have too little to think about and feel a bit lost in a city of extraordinary busy-ness. They get talking, have a few drinks in the hotel bar, share some sushi and, later, strike up an intense but unconsummated romantic friendship. It is soppy - a Brief Encounter for the 21st century - but, as all the reviews have said, a really well observed and thoughtful movie.
For me, however, what was very striking and unusual about this film was the American film-maker's perception of a foreign land. Modern Hollywood films rarely get out of America just to get out of America. There are Boy's Own adventures set in foreign lands, or the cameras travel down to South America to have a look at the drug-dealing neighbours. And Americans are often in combat zones (Cambodia, Vietnam, Second World War). But Americans in a foreign country just being travellers and appreciating what they see? That is quite rare. (That said, this month there is a Bernardo Bertolucci film out about a young American studying in Paris in 1968...)
Of course the story in this film turns on the alienation of its characters, and Tokyo is a perfect backdrop. Nowhere are the neon lights of capitalist consumption brighter. What visitor wouldn't feel overwhelmed, duller or at a loss?
Apparently the Americans have a particular fascination with Japanese culture, and nothing wrong with that.
Except if it leads to the ridiculous, such as the film The Last Samurai. Isn't the idea of a short, po-faced white man - played by Tom Cruise, moreover - turned samurai, saving poor Japanese villagers, one of the more risible and offensive casting and movie premisses of the last few years? Maybe the fascination with Japan is based on the erroneous perception (shared by many, not just Americans) that Buddhism brings peace, understanding and deeper meaning to the world.
The director of this film, Sofia Coppola, doesn't deal in Hollywood perceptions of Japan or dwell on the mystical rubbish. The metropolitan Japan she depicts is a fascinating east-west fusion: a riot of colour, a mix of old-style courtesy and aggression, of intense reserve and outrageous weirdness, and a place of tiny old people and stylish youths. This must be a more realistic and genuinely affectionate look at Japan.
Reviewer: Cathy Nugent