Shall We Dance? (2004)

I feared the worst when first I heard an American version this film was made. Starring Jennifer Lopez. And Richard Gere.

Shall We DANSU? was a subtle film. Perhaps too subtle the first time I watched it.

(I’m using transliterated kana to distinguish the original Japanese movie from its US brethren, much in the same way The Ring is differentiated from RINGU.)

It drew comparrisons to Strictly Ballroom, and while the underlying setting was the same, Shall We DANSU? was the stylistic opposite of Strictly Ballroom. Still, I was expecting a bit of flash from Shall We DANSU? and came a way a bit disappointed.

But a second viewing convinced me of the film’s charm. The storyline was rich, and the actors propelled the plot with the most economic of dialogue. Even though some characters started out as comically flat, they became rounded as the film went on. Even the “suspenseful” conclusion of the film conveyed a lot with little action.

Shall We Dance? does everything a US adaptation of a foreign plot would do to fit in a Hollywood box. All the subtlety is wrenched out of the movie by Gere’s voice-over, and Susan Sarandon’s role as the wife suspecting an affair gets far more weight.

And it actually works.

Charming though Shall We DANSU? is, it’s still very Japanese. And the plot hinges on some cultural norms unfathomable by an American perspective.

For a salaryman to take up such a quirky pursuit as ballroom dancing would would tarnish his esteem among other Japanese. For an American lawyer to take up ballroom dancing would be seen as quaint, maybe a bit strange, but it wouldn’t ruin his reputation.

“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Sugiyama Shohei (played by Yakusho Kooji) has a lot more at stake than Richard Gere’s John Clark. Clark feels guilty for wanting to be happier, even though he “has a lot”. Sugiyama wants to feel alive, even though doing so would adversely affect his personal and professional life.

Which situation has a lot more dramatic juice?

It also makes more sense to play up Sarandon’s character. While infidelity is dire in both Japanese and American cultures, the prospect of a sex scandal resonates far more with the Puritanical foundation of American society.

On its own, Shall We Dance? is a cut above most feel-good, romance-rekindled love stories. It’s actually more of a multi-character bildingsroman, where everyone starts at one station in their lives and arrives somewhere unexpected.

The sub-plot of Chic’s (Bobby Cannavale) coming out, though, wasn’t handled all that well. The audience is expected to read into Chic’s constant protestation, but some other hints — like say a more pronounced ambivalence to the opposite sex? — would have been helpful.

And to be truthful? I’ve only ever seen one movie with Jennifer Lopez, and it happens to be the one in which she was really good — Out of Sight. Her presence in Shall We Dance?, though, is limited, which suits the plot fine (and in fact mirrors the Japanese version.)

Lopez’s Paulina is distant, a prize Clark would like to win but eventually finds another treasure instead. But her own personal history keeps her at a distance from the other characters, and Lopez handles that supporting role well.

In comparrison, Shall we DANSU? is still the better of the two, for being funny, dramatic, subtle and resonating. But Shall We Dance? is fine by itself, a seemingly formuliac movie that actually rises above its Hollywood confines.