Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Sideways" gets lost in translation

Rarely will you read a movie critique by somebody who was rooting for the film more than I was for the Japanese version of "Sideways."

I have a financial interest: my wife and I have a Japanese-language guide to California wine and wine country out right now. If the Japanese "Sideways," to be released at the end of October, is a hit, we'll probably sell a lot more books.

So I hope that Japanese movie fans don't see a translated version of this post (Don't look at me, I'm not gonna translate it).

The movie is not very good. The script has been dumbed down, one of the lead actors is awful, and the cinematographers somehow couldn't find beauty in Napa Valley (or, for that matter, in actress Rinko Kikuchi, who is far prettier in person.)

Moreover, wine has been de-emphasized and remystified. Almost anybody seeing the original "Sideways" would feel the urge to have a glass of wine. After seeing the Japanese version, one would be more likely to be too intimidated by wine to order it.

The focus of the film has changed, according to director Cellin Gluck, to a "fish out of water story." It's no longer about two very different but equally immature buddies who need a little of each other's qualities. Instead, it's about four Japanese people trying and mostly failing to fit into American culture. That's not a bad concept, but the producers would have been better off starting from scratch rather than adapting a movie which wasn't about that at all.

Acting quality is a big issue. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church were brilliant as Miles and Jack in the original. Church's charm was particularly important because we need to like Jack while he's behaving as badly as a man about to be married can.

The Jack role (now named Daisuke) is played by bug-eyed comedian Katsuhisa Namase, who has no charm at all, and no chemistry with either Fumiyo Kohinata as Michio (i.e. Miles) or Rinko Kikuchi as Mina Parker (i.e. Stephanie). The script beats us over the head repeatedly with the fact that Daisuke and Michio were friends during a one-year homestay many years before, and it has to, because unlike with Jack and Miles, they don't seem to have any real affection for each other.

This is not the only instance where screenwriter Takayuki Uesugi tells rather than shows, and thus fails to convince. The film opens with such a long voice-over by Michio, telling us who he is, how he feels, who his friend is, why he's here, how he feels about that, where they're going, how his career is going, etc., that I wished for a Star Wars-like opening crawl to save time: "Michio teaches screenwriting in Tokyo and is trying to sell a TV drama screenplay. He used to teach English but even though he once spent a year in the US on a homestay he's unable to speak it. His girlfriend left him. Now he's attending the wedding of his onetime friend in an LA suburb, and they're going to go to Napa Valley together under an excuse that makes no sense."

One of the strengths of the original "Sideways" is that director Alexander Payne doesn't judge either Miles or Jack; they're both flawed, but he sympathizes with both, and Jack often gives Miles better advice than vice versa. That's not the case here. Maybe it's Namase's lack of charm as Daisuke (Jack), but we're clearly meant to side with Michio.

But Michio is a cipher; he doesn't have the amusing quirks of Miles. He's not as tightly wound either, so when he eventually drinks from a spit bucket, it comes off as unbelievable, a holdover scene from a movie about wine.

It's obvious that the people making this film were not wine lovers. Wine names are relatively interchangeable. We don't get Miles' instructional course on how to taste wine -- which was actually accurate and useful. Instead, we get Michio telling Daisuke he's doing it the wrong way, though Michio doesn't seem to have any appreciation for wine either; he's all about the form.

Just exactly what fledgling wine fans don't need: all worries and rules, no joy. In the original, Miles rants about the production method of some wine, and self-confident Jack says, "Tastes pretty good to me." There's nothing like that here.

What is here? Here's a blow-by-blow. Warning: I'm going to give lots of spoilers, including the ending, because I assume most Americans will never see the film, but may be curious about it.

* Daisuke, who tells Americans "call me Danny," is set to marry Laura, a real-estate heiress whose father also owns the French-Japanese restaurant he manages. In fact he hates her and bitches about her as soon as he and Michio leave her home together.

* Like Jack, Daisuke was formerly a TV actor. Random people recognize him as "Captain Ninja."

* First things first, Daisuke and Michio drive to Grauman's Chinese Theater and park right in front, where of course Daisuke is recognized. You know, whenever I'm in LA, that's where I like to park.

* Daisuke wants to go to Las Vegas for his bachelor party -- which makes sense. Michio wants to go to Napa because he has a guidebook (and sadly, it's not mine).

* Daisuke tells Laura's family that Michio is a famous screenwriter and "his next movie will be directed by Kurosawa," because nobody in the LA area would possibly know that Kurosawa is dead; it's not like anybody there works in the movie industry. Unless he meant Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

* The boys visit Michio's former homestay, and kindly old Mrs. Russell gives them -- "just take it" -- a bright red vintage Mustang convertible, which was buried under boxes in the garage but is miraculously shiny and clean. Americans do this all the time; I have so many BMWs now because my neighbors are generous that I don't know where to park them all. Maybe I should just leave one outside Grauman's Chinese Theater.

* Mrs. Russell has an address for Mayuko, who Michio tutored in English 20 years ago. It's in Calistoga, so Michio wins the anti-Las Vegas argument.

* Mayuko now works at Frog's Leap, where owner/winemaker John Williams has inexplicably turned French. Director Cellin Gluck explained that the real Williams was out of town and Gluck had a French friend who would be good in the role. I guess it's fair play, as a Korean-American guy just played Sulu in Star Trek. I've drunk with John Williams, though, and he does speak pretty fluent English in real life until the last glass or two.

* The French John Williams wants Mayuko to move to Tokyo to open Frog's Leap's new branch office there. Go Frog's Leap! But she wants to make it here.

* Meanwhile, the boys go wine tasting, learn nothing and don't enjoy it. In fact, Daisuke's driving so Michio won't let him taste, only smell. How much fun Napa Valley is!

* Mayuko is dining with her good friend Mina (Kikuchi) at Bistro Don Giovanni when the boys discover them. Mina's supposed to be a half-Japanese American, and maybe her Japanese can maintain the illusion, but her English sure can't. Michio has a bottle of Beringer red (can't see which) after their visit to the Beringer tasting room. Product placement!

* Michio isn't initially attracted to Mayuko because she's not 18 anymore.

* Mina works at Cafe Sarafornia in Calistoga. Daisuke goes there for breakfast. She arranges tickets for the boys to a mud bath at Golden Haven Hot Springs. Mud baths are funny-looking, but that's the only joke the unimaginative screenwriter can get out of it.

* Mayuko gets a letter from her ex-husband Ichiro saying she can pick up their anniversary wine at Newton. She doesn't want to go alone, so she brings Michio. Meanwhile, Daisuke heads to Darioush to pick up a case of wine for his wedding.

* Mayuko and Michio talk about their relationships. Mayuko had a quickly failed marriage to a department store heir. Michio's girlfriend took all their cookware when she left, leaving him only a Le Creuset pot with curry in it. Michio and Mayuko begin to have a little chemistry. Michio says of the Newton wine -- an entire case, of what variety we don't know -- "The wine hasn't done anything wrong. Let's drink it." All of it. In one night. With other wine.

* The plot begins to turn around Michio trying to convince Mayuko to move back to Japan. Why? Because it's Japan. That probably will make sense to many Japanese viewers.

* Michio does a short, weak version of Miles' Pinot Noir soliloquy at a party, but doesn't bother telling us what Pinot Noir he's drinking, or what it tastes like. It's Pinot Noir. That's enough. (Central Valley Pinot Noir farmers rejoice.)

* Mayuko likes Cabernet. So she's in Napa Valley. Just as in the American version, she's the sensible one. And amazingly, on her tasting-room salary, she's able to buy or rent a huge house.

* Oops, forgot her part-time job; maybe that's how she bought the house. Mayuko also works at a wine shop and has a wine emergency -- she needs to get a truckload of specific older vintages of wine for a wedding that very night. Because, you know, Americans never plan ahead for weddings. Michio has that "Do-your-best" spirit and says, "We'll just go to the wineries themselves!" So they do. We never learn which specific wines they have to have, but we know nothing else will do. Talk about terrorizing novice wine drinkers -- you can't even get married unless you can find entire cases of wines that are no longer in stores!

* Michio steals Daisuke's wedding case of Darioush, which is on the list. Little by little they fill the truck with wine for this wedding we never see, driving all over the most nondescript parts of Napa Valley. "Bottle Shock" wasn't a great movie, but at least it had pretty vineyard scenes. This doesn't.

* Meanwhile, off camera, Daisuke has apparently made it with Mina, even though they showed no affection for each other (that's not a cultural difference -- if you want to see couples attempting to break the law of physics about two bodies not being able to occupy the same space, head to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo on a weekend).

In the original, Jack makes a great passionate speech about Stephanie. Forgive me if I make mistakes, this is from memory: "She smells different, she tastes different, hell, she even fucks different. She fucks like an animal!" Daisuke says about Mina, "We talk to each other in Japanese. You can't beat that." Wow, limited worldview.

* Mayuko and Michio cook dinner together and have a pathetic little peck of a kiss: barely any lip, much less tongue. Then Michio wonders why isn't she coming back to Japan, because if not, what did that kiss mean? Wow, limited worldview.

* Daisuke decides he's going to move to Japan with Mina and open a Japanese restaurant. We never hear him say anything nice about Laura, though she seemed nice enough, unlike Jack's lovey-dovey phone calls (cynical? or polyamorous?) in the original.

* The four of them have a picnic. Considering it's Napa Valley, it's surprisingly unbeautiful. This is where Miles inadvertently tells Maya about Jack's engagement in the original. No such realistic subtlety here.

* Mayuko finds out about Daisuke's engagement from a note in the purloined box of Darioush. She confronts Michio about it.

* Meanwhile, Daisuke's out of condoms, so he runs to a drugstore where everyone recognizes him as Captain Ninja. While he's gone, Michio calls Mina and tells her directly that Daisuke is engaged. What kind of friend does that? How can you have a buddy film without buddies?

* Daisuke and Mina argue about his engagement and he's yelling at her when she whacks him with a frying pan. Much, much weaker than the shockingly sudden attack by Stephanie in the original. I suspect the screenwriter thought that just knowing the guy who was fucking her was secretly engaged wasn't motivation enough for Mina to hit him. Cad. And I don't mean Daisuke.

* Driving back to the hotel, with his face bruised, Daisuke is pulled over by a motorcycle cop for an expired tag. Turns out she's a hot blonde who knows Captain Ninja, and happens to be a dominatrix. The next thing we see is Daisuke showing up at the hotel room in bondage gear. It's funny, and is what happens in almost 10% of all traffic stops in California, I believe.

* The boys go back to the CHP dominatrix's house to retrieve Daisuke's wallet and wedding rings, while she audibly (but not visibly) punishes her boyfriend or husband. It's not unfunny, but it's not as subtle as the humiliation fetishist from the original version.

* The boys are at a winery when Michio's ex-girlfriend calls and announces she's married and wants the Le Creuset back. Then a producer calls and says his drama screenplay has sold, has been rewritten by one of his students, and his credit has been downgraded to "story by," though his writing fee is unchanged. He screams and that leads to the spit bucket-drinking scene. Much, much weaker than the original, in which Miles' novel was rejected. And since the boys haven't been tasting and spitting, I'm not sure all audiences will even know what's in the bucket.

* The boys go to a fountain (at Darioush, I think) where the still overwrought Michio takes a swim in his clothes. Whiner. Michio throws away the screenplay he has been working on but Daisuke retrieves it.

* Daisuke decides that Laura is "the sum of my possibilities" and he's going to marry her after all. But he makes it sound and feel like the end of his life, not something to look forward to -- another big contrast to the first movie, where Jack strayed but ultimately decided he loved his fiancee.

* Daisuke runs the gift Mustang into a tree outside Oakville Grocery. Easy come, easy go.

* Daisuke leaves Michio's script for Mayuko. She reads it and likes it. Michio calls her from LA and leaves her a long love message, saying he'll drive back up to her house and, "If you feel the same way I do, leave the door unlocked."

* At last a subtle point: the door's locked, and Mayuko's gone.

* Cut to an airport (by the way, did you know LA is near enough to Calistoga to just pop on up?), where Mayuko is in ANA's business class lounge, waiting for a flight to Tokyo. We hear Mina's voice advising Michio, "Don't let her get away." We don't know if he does. The end.

That's it, that's the Japanese version of "Sideways." It's weaker than the original in almost every aspect of filmmaking: screenplay, acting, cinematography.

And yet, I'm in the position of rooting for it, of hoping that somehow this movie becomes a hit in Japan and gets thousands of Japanese interested in visiting Napa Valley so they'll buy this book.

Sigh. I need a drink. Maybe from a spit bucket.

1 comment:

goma@sf said...

100% agree with you.
I guess it is the way of Japanese seeing the world. Style is the most important thing for us, unfortunately.