When it comes to showing their dedication to a role, actors have been known to gain weight, hit the gym, shave their heads and even have a tooth pulled. But those are all signs of physical commitment. Far more challenging is going out of your way to learn a foreign language — or faking it well enough that audiences can’t tell the difference. In “Earthquake Bird,” Alicia Vikander plays Lucy Fly, a Western woman who’s buried herself in all things Japanese as a way of escaping a traumatic past, only to see the trail of fatalities continue all the way in Tokyo.
“Death follows me,” Vikander says at one point, delivering the line in perfectly convincing Japanese (remember, the Swedish actor previously learned Danish for her breakout role in “A Royal Affair,” and English isn’t even her native language). Here, she plays a Brit so desperate to reinvent herself that she finds herself at the center of a missing persons case. Her friend Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), also an expat, but the more typical kind — an obnoxious American, who came to Japan making zero commitment to the culture — disappeared a short time back, and Lucy was the last to see her. Besides the killer, of course. Unless Lucy is the killer. Assuming that Lily was murdered.
“You’re not like Japanese women,” the police detective across the interrogation table says, and Lucy is deeply offended. That’s the last thing she wants to hear. But he’s right: Lucy is not quite like any character you’ve ever met, which is where Vikander really ought to have invested the energy of her performance. The character works as a translator, and while the language-learning bit is impressive, the actor comes across as a blank in so many other key respects, she’s like the vacuum at the center of this otherwise compelling adaptation of the novel by Susanna Jones.
The British writer lived in Japan for a time (her story is set in 1989), and the real thrill of this understated thriller isn’t the mystery of what happened to Lily Bridges but the way Jones’ time in a country so unusual to Westerners has permeated the fabric of the narrative — as they also do the film, which represents writer-director Wash Westmoreland’s first truly solo effort since the death of partner Richard Glatzer (with whom he co-wrote “Colette”). Something of an earthquake bird himself, Westmoreland is still finding his wings in the wake of that tragedy, although it’s encouraging to hear his voice so soon after.
Westmoreland approaches the project every bit as respectful toward Japanese customs as Jones was, although only a percentage of her insights carry over to the film. They’re still there, mind you, but more difficult to detect. After all, a novelist can explain the social differences her protagonist discovers, while it takes a more practiced kind of attention for movie audiences to reverse-engineer them strictly through observation — to pick up on certain unspoken nuances, such as how Lucy wears her yukata, the way she manages to look seductive while eating noodles or the disconcerting practice of walking three steps behind her boyfriend.
Oh, yes, her boyfriend.… The police investigators take an interest in him too — as audiences surely will as well. It seems that Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi, who looks like the tall, square-jawed Japanese equivalent of Jon Hamm) has also disappeared when the film begins, although he doesn’t come up at first in the interrogation — which takes place in the present, whereas flashbacks make up the bulk of the story. Are they reliable? It would seem so, provided more for our benefit than the police’s — although there comes a point when reality begins to play tricks on her.
Lucy’s more guarded with her words than she is with her memories, withholding mention of the man who took her photo without permission one afternoon. “You asked in the wrong tense,” she later explains. That’s how keen Lucy’s grasp of the Japanese language is supposed to be. Teiji is certainly beguiled. He can’t stop photographing her, bringing her back to his lair — which is what Christian’s penthouse might look like in “50 Shades of Grey” if he were a poor noodle chef, and perhaps a serial killer. He insists on complete honesty but has certain secrets he has no intention of sharing. And Lily’s arrival complicates things, bringing mysteries of its own, all of which adds up to a kind of slow-burn version of last year’s “Burning,” minus much of the psychological intrigue.
Keough continues to be one of the most chameleon-like actors of her generation, virtually unrecognizable from one film to the next, whereas Kobayashi is a major discovery, a J-pop dancer, model and choreographer making his English-language debut here (the film is a mélange of English and Japanese dialogue). He could be a very big deal in American movies, although this low-key Netflix release merely puts him on the radar. Someone else will have to cast him in a much higher-profile film (Marvel, are you listening?) before his career takes off abroad. Westmoreland clearly chose him as a direct challenge to the West’s limited sense of Asian sex appeal. The problem is that Vikander is such a cold fish opposite him — or maybe a freshwater eel, slippery and elusive.
Lucy and Teiji have no chemistry to speak of, in part because Vikander’s doing the whole “Gone Girl” thing, where we’re being asked to guess who’s the psychopath: Is it her? Is it Teiji? Is Lily even dead? Jones’ analogy focuses not on local delicacies, but rather is a comparison to that rare bird heard only in the wake of the tremors that periodically hit Tokyo, its song mixing with the noise of car alarms. The metaphor doesn’t entirely fit the tale Jones has written, though it suggests a poetic sensibility the film aims to capture, which means it’s better suited for patient viewers and those with a genuine interest in Japan. Does Netflix have such viewers in sufficient numbers?