Movie review: "Shall we dance?"

I Find Karma (
Thu, 21 Aug 1997 01:37:16 -0700 (PDT)

Okay, I'm not a movie critic, and I don't profess to have any deep
insights where movies are concerned. For the most part, I like movies
(1) don't insult me,
(2) are somewhat interesting,
(3) give me a decent character to root for, and
(4) make me think about something I wouldn't have otherwise.

Big budget summer flicks usually violate (1). Examples: a plot so full
of narrative holes like "The Lost World" or technical holes like "Air
Force One" , a ridiculous plot like in "Batman & Robin" and "Con Air", a
plot that doesn't know where it wants to go like "Event Horizon" or
"Spawn", or a movie-by-numbers such as "Speed 2" or "Out to Sea". Of
course, this is not true for all big budget summer flicks: I happened to
like "Men in Black" and "Face Off".

Art house films usually violate (2). I don't care HOW many people liked
"Secrets and Lies" or "The English Patient", I was bored to tears with
most of them and their ilk. Still, I enjoyed "Sling Blade" despite its
excruciatingly slow pace, and "Chasing Amy" and "Grosse Pointe Blank"
were totally cool in my book despite their Generation X-centricity.

(3) is a doozy. Without a likable character, I tend to despise a movie.
Hence "My Best Friend's Wedding" gets low esteem in my book: the Julia
Roberts character is despicable, and the guy she's pining over is
pathetic. The bride-to-be is saccharine, and the gay guy is a prop.
Awful, awful movie. Then again, every once in a while I can like a
movie with no likable characters: "Austin Powers" and "In the Company of
Men", for example.

But movies that exhibit (4) are the real diamonds in the rough. "187"
was great because it really made me think about the war the teachers in
inner city schools in America face every day. "Hercules" (yes, the
Disney movie) was really neat because it had me considering the
difference between fame and heroism. And, of course, "Contact" was
wonderful because it got me wondering about the existence of intelligent
life in the universe, the role of religion in our lives, and the pursuit
of truth.

So this review is about an art-house movie currently out that's got (1),
(2), (3), and (4): "Shall We Dance?" It's easily one of my favorite
movies of this year (along with "Chasing Amy", "Grosse Pointe Blank",
and "Contact"). Let's factor out the fact that it's a Japanese film and
I'm completely fascinated with Japanese culture. At its heart, "Shall
We Dance?" is a movie with a heart.

First, a snippet from reviewer Terry Morgan:

> There is no shortage of artistic works about the place of the outsider
> in society: in some ways, that is precisely what art is about. Art is
> a hugely anti-social activity (painting, writing, or sculpting alone)
> that ironically ends up connecting the artist to the world at large.
> "Harold & Maude" posited outsiders as being capable of truer love,
> "Amadeus" argued for purer art. Sci-fi films such as "Starman" and
> "E.T." used the outsider as a symbol of peace, while "Natural Born
> Killers" screamed outsiders as the twisted reflection of a violent
> society. These, however, are extreme stories. More difficult to pull
> off and rarer are stories dealing with the outsider within us all, the
> secret self that waits in silence to be free. The new Japanese film
> "Shall We Dance?" is about just that, and accomplishes its goals with
> humor and a tone of bittersweet longing.

What's amazing about this movie is how it hits you with these things
without your even realizing it. The main character at first seems less
like an outsider and more like a successful person professionally and
personally: the manager of a small business, with the respect of his
coworkers, a loving wife and daughter, and a new home (no small feat in
Japan). We see him as he goes to work each day, seemingly content in
his life.

Or is he? 15 minutes into the movie, we sense that he longs for
something missing in his life, as each night when he takes the train
home he passes by a melancholy woman staring out the window of her dance
studio. We don't find out why she's sad until much later, and for the
moment, that's not important: what is important is that he realizes that
she is the key to unlocking the mystery of this abyss within him.
Slowly, subtly, he takes small, courageous steps to improve his life.
His character is quite sympathetic. You really come to understand his
longing, and this enables you to get closer to any suppressed longings
you might be harboring within yourself.

The film is a delicate, moving picture of unhappy people striving to
change their lives for the better. You come to realize the difficulty
that making changes in one's previously predictable life entails:
changes in you affect those around you and those you love.

There's some despair in the movie -- one character's tragic flaw is that
he's fat, and you really feel the frustration he feels in having been
ostacized by such a "proper" society. What's impressive about the movie
is how it walks that tightrope of complexity: there are no pat answers,
and everything has ramifications. The main character's actions have
repercussions in his family, and in some ways he behaves very selfishly.

There's some humor in the movie -- a good movie will keep the plot
moving, and insert humor where appropriate, and this movie does a fine
job of that.

There are also some surprises in the movie -- the fact that these
characters have personal responsibility to the people they are affecting
is quite amazing. A lesser movie would have made the main character
single so he could fall in love with the melancholy dancer and let that
be that. This movie doesn't take the easy road, and that's kind of
refreshing. (It's also what I liked about the movies "The Full Monty"
and "Copland", FWIW).

And, there's some hope in the movie. Some characters DO better their
lives by the end of the movie, and that's very uplifting. I could feel
the catharsis in the audience all around me.

So subtitles and "art house" flicks begone, I enjoyed the movie a great
deal. Rohit, I have a feeling you'll really like it, too. Of course,
when you do go see it, none of this silence garbage like you did with
the "unconditional love" and "moral relativism" threads on this list.
For once, your silence is not enjoyable. Tell me what you THINK.


I felt like giving up, but if I had, I would have been guilty of
everything you accused me of.
-- a Baudrilliardian experience in "Shall We Dance?"