Love Translated follows a group of men from North America and Europe as they tour the Ukraine on a trip organized by an international dating service that links male clients with “letter order brides.” Over the course of their ten-day trip, the men travel to several cities, judge a beauty pageant of women who have joined the agency, attend social events, and go on “one-on-one” dates (accompanied, normally, by a translator). The film opens with men telling stories of their experiences (or lack of experiences) with women in their own communities, accompanied by a voiceover from an agency representative exhorting the men to be reasonable and keep in mind that they are looking for a partner, “not a statue to hang on the wall.”
Julia Ivanova, the film's director, writer, and editor, does a skillful (and sometimes humorous) job of juxtaposing the men’s views of who the women are and how they will behave with the women contradicting these statements. One man says, “There’s been this transition through feminism and a number of other movements in the United States that have altered how women look at themselves and it has, I think, robbed them of some of the identity they once took great pride in.” The woman he is on a date with replies, “Our women want to have it all; a husband, children, money and their own business. The woman is the head of the family. The man is just an accessory.”
All of the issues that normally come up when the topic of mail-order brides is discussed are on display: the somewhat primitivist notion that the women will be untainted by feminism and, therefore, more ideal; the objectification of women’s bodies; the unequal power dynamics. As much as some or all of the men may be sincere in their desire to find a true life partner, they have also come to the Ukraine because it is, as one man says, like a candy store for middle-aged men. In the absence of the ability to speak directly due to language barriers, the men rely on the women’s looks and letters. The letters have, at the very least, been translated by someone else, but have possibly also been written by someone else. Despite (or perhaps because of) the power that the men have in the situation, there is also uneasiness. Many express concern that the women are using them for money, gifts, and/or a visa.
This uneasiness comes to a head in an uncomfortable scene. A client is displeased because a woman he has been on several dates with expected to receive flowers more often than he would have liked. He physically blocks her ability to sit down and join the group, pointedly ignores her, and explains that he is going to blow smoke in the face of the person who should be punished. His date looks like she is about to cry and becomes conciliatory. By the end of the night, we see them walking hand in hand into a hotel elevator. While it would be unfair to judge all of the participants from the actions of these two individuals or even judge the individuals from the one interaction, it is an uncomfortable reminder of the type of isolation that the women could potentially face if they did follow the men to a foreign country.
Ivanova is impartial in her portrayal of both the male and female participants. Although the film is filled with uncomfortable and awkward moments, the explicit involvement of the documentarian is rarely evident. Instead, Ivanova is confident enough to let the story unfold on screen, supplementing long scenes of the men talking amongst themselves and some awkward—and often silent—dates with individual interviews with the male and female participants.
Despite the uncomfortable and sometimes disturbing subject matter and the long history of subjugation and objectification that are impossible not to consider when viewing it, Ivanona’s film is compelling, watchable, and even—perhaps most surprising of all—entertaining.