Refusing to Leave

Misread language in Decision to Leave and the Noriko trilogy

SOMEONE I LOVED ONCE TOLD ME that the pigeons were the best part of Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring. He pronounced it, in that gentle way of his, to be a perfect film, which it was; I had long known as much. The story is about an absent-minded professor who relies on the care of his daughter, Noriko. They are close, comfortable, and happy together until her aunt brings up that it is high time that Noriko gets married. Noriko resists; she wants to remain with her father. Finally, to convince her to leave, the father tells the “only and greatest lie” he has ever told: that he plans to remarry, and will no longer need his daughter. In the next scene, the aunt and father walk to a nearby shrine, reviewing a candidate for Noriko’s arranged marriage and discussing whether she had liked him. It is a simple scene. As they walk past, pigeons peck the ground and then, for no discernible reason, rise together into the air, flying out of the world.

Years later, I watched the scene again and again. When you share a movie as an act of love, and your beloved leaves, a pigeon can no longer be just a pigeon. The birds could mean so many things: the casual scattering of the father-daughter relationship; disapproval of an unnecessary meddling; the interruption of a fine balance. A rustling line of flight to show us the beauty of a departure. Or it could’ve just been a random set member behind the camera who surprised them at exactly the right time. Whatever it means, a few frames later, the birds come back. The conversation between the aunt and the father goes on until the aunt finds a purse on the ground, which she picks up for good luck. When she runs through the flock in a fit of joy, a few of the birds hop out of the way, grudgingly, and then resume their pecking.

The critic Shigehiko Hasumi says that you think of Ozu not when you face an impossible decision or an unthinkable situation, but when you sense that, no matter what you do or say, nothing will change. The birds fly away, and then they come back, as though they had never flown in the first place, as though only you had registered their disruption.

Courtesy of MUBI.

FOR A BRIEF PERIOD OF TIME, I wanted a translation collar like those on the dogs in Pixar’s Up, one that could translate silence as well as speech. A supple, adjustable collar that I could hook—on my whim—on some guy I liked, my dog, the big persimmon tree in my backyard, or perhaps the worn gorilla statue that stood like a tired sentinel in my local park. It was less that I wanted to read other people’s (or ecosystems’) minds, and more that I wondered whether they would allow their fears and desires to become readable to me. If they would even want to be translated.

In film, the act of translation is often erotic. In Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, the woman, Seo-rae, talks in Chinese when she is, seemingly, baring herself—when no other language but her “native” one will suffice. The film is a spin on Vertigo, though here she, a suspect in her husband’s murder, falls in love with a Korean detective who’s followed her lyrical movements in Busan through the first half of the film. Whereas Vertigo’s Scottie has a dizzying fear of heights and wanders the streets of San Francisco, unable to work, Hae-jun, the detective in Decision to Leave, has insomnia and fills his time with meaningless work—until, in both movies, he meets her. Having spoken fluent Korean during interviews and more casual exchanges, Seo-rae speaks in (un-subtitled) Chinese into her phone’s Google Translate when she wants to talk intimately to Hae-jun. She angles the phone just so, a breath away from her lips, and the beat it takes for the machine to translate her words—for the opaque to come clear—is the structure that fuels the anticipation of a romance, and the suspense of a murder. The non-Chinese-speaking audience sits through the beat of sound with Hae-jun. We know at first only that it is a passionate sentence, and that we want to hear exactly what she’s said. We draw closer and wait for the translation, sharing in his desire and demand for legibility.

What makes the film work is that she is not the only person to be translated. When he finds out that she committed her husband’s murder, Hae-jun tells Seo-rae that he had ruined an investigation for her. Unbeknownst to him, she starts recording on her phone. “Now I’m completely shattered,” he says, and then tells her to fling her phone—incriminating evidence—deep into the sea. After he leaves, she looks up the word shattered. “Ruined or broken,” the online dictionary tells her. She labels the voice memo “ruined or broken,” and listens to it again and again, long after he is gone.

Courtesy of MUBI.

This act of translation feels more true to me—more how translation actually works, in life and in love—not just because the pair’s Google Translate works too well in the film, a fantasy of machine translation without errors. When Seo-rae is translated, her “foreignness” feeds our fascination—the audience and the detective can’t help but be swept up in what’s next, in an ever new, ever unfurling narrative. This is the fantasy of the foreign as a frontier, and translation as a highway. But when Seo-rae translates Hae-jun, there is no sense of conquest; instead, she goes around a roundabout. She relistens to the recording, ceaselessly scraping the same ground. In it, she hears a confession of love, which can be heard only if she translates it through his rejection of her and his annihilating pain. To even begin to translate, in this sense, she must commit to starting at an ending.

When you have nothing else to prove that you were loved, you take what you can salvage. This is translation as gleaning, as a constant misreading, a counter to the idea of translation as conversion. For Park Chan-wook, the translator is not an innocuous agent of clarity, wiping fog away from a window. She is forever entangled in networks of power—colonized and colonizer, spectacle and voyeur, suspect and detective—and his films show how these relations can be subverted and flipped. But Park is also attentive to the vagaries of how translation works in love, how it often fails, creating a record of a unique, beautifully particular attention given to something difficult to read, and even more difficult to understand.

Perhaps that’s why Park’s greatest frames are not when people are facing each other, but when they’re talking on their own. In Decision to Leave, the detective takes voice memos during his stakeouts of Seo-rae, recording what kind of TV she watches, that she eats ice cream for dinner. They’re half-formed love letters, poignant because they slip between talking to himself, to addressing her—“Is it those period dramas that make her speech so classical?” “Don’t smoke after meals”—to addressing no one at all. His self-talk says more than his face-to-face interaction ever could, and so, before his discovery of her betrayal, the detective lets the girl listen to his voice memos as they sit next to each other. She cries, for she hears in it what she will lose. (And wasn’t that what I wanted a translation collar for? To know how the birds and plants talked to and among themselves?)

Of course, there’s no such untouched state in Decision to Leave. Like Vertigo’s Madeleine, Seo-rae always knew that she was being listened to, and therefore she was always acting. But this does not mean she was necessarily false. For self-talk too is a form of acting—a rehearsal of a self for ourselves, ever mis-readable, because we might not know yet what the words are trying to say. In one scene, the detective listens in as she tells her cat something in Chinese. He checks Google Translate: “Bring me the head of that kind detective.” Later, after they become intimate, he asks her: “Why did you ask the cat for my head?” She smiles, and corrects him. She had asked for his heart, not his head.

She’s articulating something nearly impossible to translate: the happiness found in what she already has, not in what could be.

AT THE END OF OZU’S TOKYO STORY, after a series of selfless acts, Noriko famously says, “Really, I’m quite selfish.” At least, that’s what the English subtitles say. What she actually calls herself is zurui, an odd word choice for an adult. Like the word mean—as in, mean girls—zurui is typically a label for children and adolescents, flung as an epithet on playgrounds during snack time and in games when someone is being unfair, when they’ve taken more than their allotted share, when they’ve cheated. The word has the scent of a young fox, of something snatched by the muzzle and stolen into the night. Adults are selfish, but children are sly.

Placing either label—selfish or sly—on Noriko is even odder because, until that point in the film, she is the “selfless” standard against which all the elderly couple’s children are compared. In some senses, you feel sorry for them. They are simply busy being out in the world—busy pursuing a career, busy with their own children, busy wanting their mother’s kimono immediately after her funeral. But next to Noriko’s glow, we catch every instance of their casual selfishness, their cruel, competent language of efficiency and practicality. The question is whether the demands of the social world cause their selfishness or are simply an excuse for it. What we understand is that their grown-up appetites make them predictable; they follow a script for various social selves.

Courtesy of MUBI.

Enter Noriko, who goes out of her way to make time for the elderly parents, even though she is the widow of their long-dead son. In one scene she gives a woman an envelope of spending money even when she herself has barely enough to scrape by. There is no conniving fakery in her care, no sense that she is constructing a “selfless” facade to feel good about herself or to impress. This is why it is so surprising when she insists that she is zurui. When she calls herself that—when she repeats the word, when she insists she is not “the nice woman” the elderly parents think she is—what is she trying to claim? What is selfishness, for Noriko? And why is she claiming the selfishness of a child?

I ask this because the question of Noriko’s vexed selfhood—her selfless selfishness, her selfish selflessness—ignites each film of Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy, forcing her family to consider this quality, which is always sudden, stunning, and oddly opaque. “It was thoughtless of her to decide on her own,” Noriko’s mother says in Early Summer, after Noriko suddenly decides to marry a poor widower who already has a daughter, without first consulting her family. “She acts like she grew up all by herself.” In Early Summer and Tokyo Story, if the other adults’ selfishness makes them more legible to us, Noriko’s “zurui”-ness makes her more unreadable, for it is her refusal to share herself with the world, her decision to keep us at bay.

But in the culmination of Late Spring, Noriko does translate this quality, and argues for the selfishness of her selflessness—quietly asking to be allowed to continue to care for her father because that is her idea of happiness, hard-won and far surer than any future bliss marriage promises. We do not know where this assurance comes from, but we see it in her every look, every gesture. It cannot be overstated that to argue this way is a risk, a risk she’s decided to take, to translate her “selfishness” to her father. It is a childish want, and will be dismissed as such—and she knows this too. But still she insists: let everyone else sprint in their pursuit of happiness, but let her stay this way, let things remain as they are. The first time she does so, she looks over and realizes her father has fallen asleep. She’s been talking to herself. Only we witness her flight.

Nothing moves me quite the way she does. When Noriko in Late Spring refuses to move on, when she insists on her selfishness, she’s articulating something nearly impossible to translate: the happiness found in what she already has, not in what could be. Something about her refusal to leave exists within Seo-rae as well, sitting alone, listening to the recording again and again. And in how I felt, rewinding those pigeons. If anything is left after the pain of making a person legible, it is perhaps simply the trace of a voice that can be held close, even after he is long gone.


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Moeko Fujii is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Aperture, the Criterion Collection, and elsewhere.