Lush direction from first-time feature helmer Isao Morimoto and Brit thesp Edward Atterton's charismatic performance lend some poetic ardency to the essentially routine cross-cultural romance of "The Newcomer." Anglo lead and Western p.o.v. may give this accomplished, if overlong, effort a shot at offshore markets, though the novellettish, sentimental substance lurking beneath an artful surface is best suited to local auds.

Lush direction from first-time feature helmer Isao Morimoto and Brit thesp Edward Atterton’s charismatic performance lend some poetic ardency to the essentially routine cross-cultural romance of “The Newcomer.” Anglo lead and Western p.o.v. may give this accomplished, if overlong, effort a shot at offshore markets, though the novellettish, sentimental substance lurking beneath an artful surface is best suited to local auds.

Pic is based on the prize-winning 1996 novel by David Zoppetti, a Swiss-born author based in Japan. Story is based on his experiences as a culturally isolated foreign student (its Japanese title is a somewhat derogatory term for an outsider). Protag Boku (“I” in Japanese) was raised by German and English parents in French-speaking Switzerland; a resulting nomadic nature brings him to 1989 Kyoto to study Japanese literature.

Though his command of the native language is good, Boku finds himself cut off from the local populace, seldom regarded with more than curiosity or cold condescension. Choosing to volunteer as a reader, he’s paired with the young, blind-from-birth Kyoko (Honami Suzuki), who lives with her mother in a lovely country home. A mutual frisson soon charges their regular literary sessions, particularly when Kyoko selects an erotic story for her listening pleasure. The romance develops from there, interrupted only by Boku’s hitchhiking vacation, his determined (but cruelly rejected) work on a thesis paper and a brief stint working on a French filmmaker’s yakuza documentary.

Japanese-born, Australian-trained adapter-director Morimoto aims for an atmosphere of quiet, sensuous rapture, with the natural beauty of Kyoko’s rural home contrasted against humorously observed urban frenzy. A lyrical attention to physical and aural nuance lends the film distinctive, shifting textures. But there’s little story here to sustain two hours, and at core the tale hews to Nipponese romantic cliche in its pairing of lovers — the man melancholy and brooding, the woman schoolgirlish and chirpy despite her sentimentally viewed handicap — who must inevitably part.

Popular Japanese star Suzuki brings only conventional sweetness to Kyoto, but Atterton — a Brit stage thesp who played a supporting role in “The Man in the Iron Mask” and stars in the upcoming Noel Coward adaptation “Relative Values” — carries the film with a sensitive manner and looks that echo Ralph Fiennes’ aristocratic urgency. He handles the Japanese dialogue with aplomb, and appears a credible 25 at an offscreen 37.

Apart from a couple of rather silly karaoke-singing interludes, Morimoto nicely floats pic’s mood shifts and leisurely pacing, though the material still feels stretched at this length. Tech work is first-rate, topped by Aussie cinematographer Peter Borosh’s swooning imagery.

The Newcomer

(ROMANTIC DRAMA -- JAPANESE)

Production

A Sky Planning/Hori Pro production in association with the City of Kyoto. Produced by Toshi Shioya, Motoyuki Suzuki, Shigeji Maeda. Executive producers, Fumiko Honma, Kunio Sasaki. Directed by Isao Morimoto. Screenplay, Morimoto, adapted from the novel by David Zoppetti.

Crew

Camera (color), Peter Borosh; editors, Morimoto, Kimitsuka Fujiwara; music, S.E.N.S.; art director, Yoshie Kikukawa; sound recordist, Toshio Okazaki; sound designer, Mototsugu Hayasi; sound effects, Kenji Shibasaki; associate producers, Masafumi Goto, Misao Kumagai; casting, Toshi Shioya. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, Sept. 22, 1999. (In Mill Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Boku ..... Edward Atterton Kyoko ..... Honami Suzuki Yuriko ..... Yoshiko Nakata Man in Public Bath ..... Tetsu Watanabe Professor ..... Sokyu Fujita Yakuza Boss ..... Keizo Kanie
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