Young Amelie (Sylvie Testud) is a Belgian who spent the first five years of her life in Japan and never lost her love for the culture. Now out of college and fluent in Japanese, she returns to Tokyo on a one-year contract to act as a translator for the gigantic Yumimoto Corporation. But no sooner does she take her seat across from her immediate superior, the impossibly glamorous Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), than the culture clashes begin.
Amelie is soon indoctrinated in the ways of Japanese office culture, where you may only address your direct superior, shame is the managerial tool of choice, and any kind of creative out-of-the-box thinking is regarded, quite literally, as sabotage. Amelie is committed to fitting in out of respect and love for Japan (and because she develops a big girl crush on Fubuki), but she keeps tripping over herself, most notably when she speaks Japanese to a group of powerful clients as she serves them coffee, leading them to regard her as a foreign spy. News of this shocking transgression goes all the way up the corporate ladder and then comes crashing back down on her boss's boss, the sadistic Mr. Saito (Taro Suwa), who sets out to crush Amelie's spirit as punishment.
And yet she takes whatever abuse he heaps on her, from his insults to the demeaning tasks he assigns her. (There's no such thing as complaining to HR in Japan.) Amelie even tells Fubuki that as a child she dreamed of becoming God, or if not that, then Jesus, or if not that, then at least a martyr. Looks like she's getting her wish, especially when Fubuki reveals her own hidden agenda and makes Amelie's life even worse.
Fear and Trembling (the title refers to the traditional way in which foreigners are supposed to approach the emperor) features several fascinating debates about the different natures of the western and eastern minds. At first, we western viewers are naturally inclined to side with Amelie, but the more we see of the office environment and the ways that Japanese society organizes itself to get things done with a minimum of risk, the more we appreciate just how disruptive it can be to drop a quick-witted Belgian into the mix. Amelie knows that to quit would result in a shameful loss of face, and to fire her would cause her bosses equal shame, so everyone is stuck, and it becomes wonderfully suspenseful to see if she can tough it out.
Sylvie Testud has great fun with her role, making Amelie both impishly witty and scarily single-minded. "Are you aware of your handicaps?" Fubuki coldly asks her. She is, but she isn't. Amelie is deeply confused, and Testud gets it just right. It's a bravura performance in a memorable film.
Aka Stupeur et tremblements.
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 12th March 2003
Distributed by: Cinema Guild
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 32 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Alain Corneau
Producer: Alain Sarde
Screenwriter: Alain Corneau, Amélie Nothomb
Starring: Sylvie Testud as Amélie, Kaori Tsuji as Fubuki, Bison Katayama as Mr Omochi, Tarô Suwa as Monsieur Saito, Yasunari Kondo as Monsieur Tenshi, Sokyu Fujita as Monsieur Haneda, Gen Shimaoka as Monsieur Unaji, Heileigh Gomes as Amélie enfant