A cross-cultural love story, “Japanese Story” develops into a powerfully emotional experience thanks to a career-best performance by Toni Collette. What at first looks like a more realistic variation on Clara Law’s “The Goddess of 1967” (2000) — which also depicts a relationship between an Australian woman and a Japanese man during an Australian Outback sojourn — eventually transforms into something much more substantial and memorable. However, pic will provide plenty of marketing challenges, not least of which is how to convey what it’s about without revealing key plot elements.
This sophomore outing for director Sue Brooks reps a marked departure from her first film, the lighthearted “Road to Nhill” (1997). Despite sharp differences in tone and mood, new pic again displays the director’s observational gifts and ability to depict rural eccentrics briskly and sympathetically. “Japanese Story’s” powerful dramatic elements creep up on the viewer as unexpectedly as they do on the film’s protagonists.
Sandy Edwards (Collette) is a thirtysomething geologist who, with her business partner and former lover Bill Baird (Matthew Dyktynski), runs a boutique company that specializes in designing software for the mining industry. Sandy, who is clearly unfulfilled, lives alone, eats junk food, smokes too much and has a desultory relationship with her mother (Lynette Curran), who is obsessed with her scrapbook of death notices. Sandy is seemingly comfortable only when at her computer screen.
Baird asks Sandy to stand in for him and look after visiting Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), arriving at Port Hedland in northwest Australia, but she’s unenthusiastic. Nonetheless, she flies to Port Hedland to attempt to sell Hiromitsu her company’s product.
Hiromitsu’s behavior and dress are formal, despite the heat and the remote surroundings. Unprepared to act as a company sales agent, Sandy has no business cards; Hiromitsu mistakes her for his driver and treats her as such. Following a tour of a huge open-cut iron ore mine, Hiromitsu asks Sandy to take him on a drive around the area, and she reluctantly agrees. They end up getting bogged down in sand and have to spend a night in the open desert.
Inevitably, the experience brings them closer together, and, once they return to the township, they become lovers in scenes handled with delicately textured erotic intensity.
Thus far, the film shapes up as a pretty predictable, if unusually well observed, odd-couple romance. What follows, however, is strikingly different. In the second half, Collette comes into her own, dominating the film with a bold, intelligent and very physical performance.
In a less demanding role than that of his co-star, Tsunashima nevertheless registers strongly as a stranger in a strange land whose somewhat frosty demeanor begins gradually to melt. Other roles are strictly peripheral but are well etched, especially Curran as Sandy’s self-absorbed mother, and Bill Young as a small town businessman confronted with an unusual situation.
Aided immensely by the sweep and beauty of Ian Baker’s precisely framed widescreen camerawork and the sleek editing of Jill Bilcock, Brooks succeeds in presenting a credible portrait of a woman whose attitude toward life is changed by her unexpected confrontation with powerfully conflicting emotions. Film’s closing scenes are especially affecting, without being in the least bit mawkish.
Production is handsome and professional.