Lisa Schwarzbaum
January 07, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Japanese Story

Current Status
In Season
Limited Release Date
Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Kate Atkinson, Bill Young
Sue Brooks
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Alison Tilson

We gave it a B+

Coincidence and confluence link Japanese Story to a couple of bigger films in current circulation. It so happens that alien Asian ways confound an outsider before exerting their mysterious charms, as they do to Tom Cruise in ”The Last Samurai.” And a feminine filmmaking sensibility about differences and commonality, both cultural and sexual, shapes the storytelling, as it did for Sofia Coppola in ”Lost in Translation.” But just as water spins down the drain counterclockwise in the antipodes, so Australian director Sue Brooks allows her exotically drifty, cross-cultural drama to spiral in a hypnotizing new direction with antipodal force.

And just as Coppola drew energy from the neon clamor of Tokyo, so Brooks taps the frightening beauty of her setting to demagnetize compasses both of the audience and of the protagonists. In the looming Pilbara desert of Western Australia, a wild territory that defies maps and civilized plans for survival, Japanese visitor Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) plops down like the businessman who fell to earth, eager to study the geology of such big country with so few people. Sandy (Toni Collette) is the brash local sheila who reluctantly takes the assignment to show him around in the hopes of generating business for her geological software company. She’s a tough, bronzed bird, a swaggering Down Under single femme who drinks and smokes, squabbles freely with her mother and her business partner, and is herself an ambitious geologist; Hiromitsu is a traditionally dominant male, formal and inexpressive, whose stereotypical Japanese behaviors include compulsive photo taking and sloppy sake benders.

The two don’t understand one another, of course — until they do, which means, in the code of movie love, that they come to understand themselves better, too. But even after ”Japanese Story” takes a vertiginous turn midadventure, shifting from a love story to something more complicated, Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson pursue a notion of Asian-influenced understatement in their own sunny, big-boned Australian way. And so does Collette, usually a balls-out emoter, who here manages stretches of powerful naturalism. At ease in the (sometimes naked) skin of a woman from her home country, the actress fills out her character’s brawny contours with passion and instinct, even in the way she wolfs down baked beans.

”Japanese Story” is sometimes overgrown with vines of gawpy conversation (Sandy teaches Hiromitsu the proper local way to pronounce the word desert — i.e., ”DEZ-utt” — and he explains the shaded meanings of ”hai!”). But when the territory ahead clears again, we’re rewarded with a great scene in which Sandy’s rented vehicle gets mired in the dirt — and death by exposure becomes a real possibility. This is an origami story, really, about what a construction of chance the big world is.

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