Monday, April 25, 2005

Shall we Dansu

A film about two people that stare out the window when they should be working. One is a middle-aged accountant that has given his life to his firm in order to attain his dream of owning his own suburban home, but finds that the idea of spending the rest of his life in it with his homey wife hardly sets his soul on fire. The other is a serious, waiflike young girl that has been consigned to teaching ballroom dancing in her father's studio after splitting up with her partner as the result of an upset at the final of the world championships in Blackpool.

Both feel cooped up in their present existences and search for liberation in the open spaces beyond the window frame. He spots her at hers and, smitten by this vision, enrolls at the studio only for his infatuation to become more generalised to the world of the dance. She brushes off his awkward attempt at a pass, but ultimately finds that his growing enthusiasm for his new hobby provides the key to her own release.

This tale was of course recently re-told in the Hollywood vernacular, with Richard Gere and J-Lo in the lead roles. I enjoyed that remake. It was livelier, louder, sometimes funnier even, but the essence of its version of the story would be far less readily summarised in the way I just did above.

Not only is J-Lo hardly waiflike, but it's also difficult to imagine why someone like her would choose Blackpool as the end point of her imagination. The gentle mockery of the Japanese fascination with low-rent British sub-cultures is basically lost in the re-make.

Gere's character also gets the subway home, but is less obviously a drone-like sarariman entombed in routines and gender-role expectations. In fact, he really does seem to have it all. The submissive Japanese wife is swapped for the bolder, more independent Susan Sarandon, who is allowed her own share of the passion in the end. Perhaps US audiences would have baulked at the timidity of the Tokyo 'er indoors, but the end result is characters and situations that are less persuasive in their new context.

Overall Shall we Dansu (1996) is a less ambitious, but more subtle piece of film-making. The short prologue after the opening credits establishes our expectation for a well-observed comedy of manners - in fact a rather British a comedy of embarrassment. (Tellingly I met a Japanese guy at Surfer's party on Saturday night who declared that Shall we Dansu was his all-time favourite film, and that he'd seen both Bridget Jones movies three times!)

So while Peter Chelsom's version successfully transplanted the synopsis it left behind most of the pyschological substance of the original's theme. Yet his screenwriter Audrey Welles did manage to make more of Masayuki Suo's supporting characters and Shall we Dansu has nothing to quite match the Gere-Lopez late-night tango set to the GOTAN Project's Santa Maria. Yet the appeal of these stars is another distraction - they appear to be struggling with the incompatible objectives of exuding their full celebrity sexiness and yet at the same time somehow not getting it on.

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