When East Met West: Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love as an Influence on Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

The quietly devastating works of Wong Kar-wai, the auteur from the east, have influenced the filmography of contemporary American directors, including Sofia Coppola. In the Mood for Love, in particular, is a reigning force of this influence. The resonance of Kar-wai’s tiring fixation on the worn and ordinary, and his dependence on a limited, but warm color palate to create both a tranquilizing calmness and urgency in fashioning the worlds in his films, creates an aesthetic that carries a depth without ever appearing contrived, and holds an indelible presence in the visual style and camerawork of Coppola’s Lost in Translation. As a viewer, being able to discriminate and identify this influence is a testament to the nature of cinema as an organic collective of works that are not limited by or characteristic of the lands or culture (for example, East versus West) in which they are produced; they’re alive and ever-changing.

Even though both films maintain a character driven narrative and isolate their two lead protagonists into warm frames of open composition that oversee moments of personal discussion between them, in atmospheres reiterating a gloomy warmth and comfort that allows them to grow closer despite the troubles that quell them, the narratives of the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar; the former follows Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen, two neighbors who have to come to terms with the knowledge that their spouses are having an affair with each other, a process that eventually fosters a romance between the two that they wearily brush aside, afraid of being no different or better than their partners. Lost in Translation, on the other hand, is a story of a week-long friendship that blossoms between Bob, an aging actor who has outgrown the hassles of his famed lifestyle, and Charlotte, a young woman who doubts her marriage and is search of a purpose, after they find each other on the foreign soils of a Tokyo Hotel and regularly begin to meet downstairs for a drink or two.

The characters of Coppla and Kar Wai’s abovementioned works reside in two of some of the most densely populated cities in the world, an attribute of the films settings that is constantly reiterated through establishing shots that find their respective characters wandering amidst hordes of crowds, starkly juxtaposing the sense of loneliness that prevails their narratives. However, interior shots filmed within the confines of domestic locales, such as the tight, narrow apartment building that serves as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s apartment building, or the hotel bar where Bob and Charlotte meet by chance for a drink, are approached with very similar compositions in regards to the way the characters are staged and shot on set in respect to the individuals they speak to; when Mr. Chow knocks on the Chen’s apartment door to have a word with his neighbor, we are denied a complete inspection of Mrs. Chen’s husband, and instead presented with a long, tight, close-up on Mr. Chow as he chats away in the narrow hallway of the building. In this scene, a disregard to the visual inclusion of the man his wife is sleeping with serves to reinforce his depiction as a someone, who is, in all totality, alone and by himself, a feeling perpetuated by the rejection that must swell within any man in his place.

Coppola’s approach is somewhat more inclusive of the other characters that Bob, one of the two lead protagonists, speaks to; in the opening act, Bob is at the bar with a cigar in his hand a drink by his side, lost in his own thoughts, and content with the escape this setting provides from the agents and fans that tail his every step, however, gradually, the voice of two men in front of him grow audible and declare that they recognize him as ‘The Bob Harris’, the big Hollywood star everybody knows and recognizes. Coppola doesn’t break the frame by incorporating the sources of these voices. She is patient, and allows Bob’s disconcerted reception of this recognition to germinate. Bob initially feigns an indifference to these voices, before eventually giving in and responding with a forced halfhearted, but polite reply, which is also when Coppola pans across to the men to allow us to register their faces. There is a reason why Coppola afforded this leniency in the presentation of these men, one that escaped Kar-wai; in simple words, these men were just fans, and didn’t sleep with Bob’s wife. Their visual exclusion would have treated them with a greater relevance and weight than they demand. The man who is having an affair with Mr. Chow’s wife, however, understandably occupies a deeper role in Chow’s narrative, and warrants a treatment that demonstrates a greater role in illustrating Chow’s sense of loneliness. Notwithstanding the nature of the narrative or characters presented in Todd Hayne’s Carol, the same visual cues, composition, and organic, grainy texture have been employed in the presentation of the protagonists in their interaction with other characters. Consider the following scene, where Carol occupies the center of the frame in a long take, as the more alluring of the two women, confidentially navigating their talks while her counterpart is reduced to a silhouette before her.This overt display of prioritizing focus on one lead at a time may be difficult to establish as an influence of the aforementioned films, but an understanding of how they interplay in Lost in Translation and In the Mood for Love gives greater weight to their employment in works such as Carol, especially when the filmmakers involved in Carol too haven’t swayed away from discussing the role of Kaw-wai in shaping their works.

A viewing of In the Mood for Love, Lost in Translation and Carol is perhaps a class in itself for one who feels the need to understand the influence that films borne out of different cultures and filmmakers have on something made worlds away. It is challenging to summarize the extent of such influences through a dependence on a comparison of few scenes alone, and the importance of being able to see them in totality, if not to simply experience them for the art they are, cannot be stressed enough.