Japanese Story Movie Review

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Here's a textbook example of going into production without a finished script. The superficial character development and structural defects in this Australian romantic adventure suggest that it was made from a bare outline and smacks of fund-raising compromises. That anything appealing survives such weak material is a testament to the collaborative power of film.

Mostly, it's Toni Collette who pulls it off, much as she was depended on to do. The drive to go into production seems largely based on her ability to take a bare treatment and convey a dimensional character, a feat of creating on the fly that demonstrates something about her acting instincts and earthy appeal.

As a geologist and partner in a small software company in Perth, Sandy Edwards (Collette) is asked by partner Baird (Matthew Dyktynski) to accompany Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), a Japanese business executive, on a visit to inspect Australian mines. Baird's hope is that this accommodation will influence Hiromitsu's company to buy their geology computer program and inject some sorely needed capital into the firm's cash flow.

Immediately upon Hiromitsu's landing, the cultural and personal differences between him and Sandy is obvious: she's a rather direct and overly-capable female with a stubborn personality; he's a wimpy, taciturn, formal type who sees her as nothing more than a driver provided for his convenience. His attitude of superiority over his "glorified tour guide" grates on Sandy with growing irritation as she dutifully responds to his demands to drive out to the Jilbara, a desert more hostile than the atmosphere in the car.

Sandy's warnings about leaving the main road and driving on the barely defined sandy one is rejected and results in their becoming stuck. After a contest of wills and an unplanned sleepover, the pair cooperates and manages to get the car going. As they continue the trip, we slowly become aware that these two "geologists" couldn't tell shale from shinola. They wouldn't know an alluvial deposit if they ran into one.

In a scene when Sandy and Hiromitsu pause to rest in a rocky enclave that might be a geologist's wet dream, he picks up a rock with unique striations. A perfect time for Sandy to wow us (and him!) with a little geologist tech talk. She is still trying to get him to buy her software. But no technical communication enters the dialogue. Not even when the pair is visiting the working iron ore mine at Newman is there a single word to indicate that they have any more knowledge of mining than a wide-eyed tourist. So why does he come all the way from Japan to visit? Why, to set up romantic possibilities, of course.

To get to that part, mutual understanding develops to make the travelers more receptive to each other and to break down the initial frigidity. This leads to sexual attraction, steamy gratification, and the disclosure that he has a wife and children back home. Sandy accepts the reality but, just as they have to confront the kind of relationship they have going, that thorny issue is avoided with a tragic development that throws the last act into soap opera territory.

Grief, not ore, is mined for all it's worth to violin-heavy orchestral accompaniment. Was this a story direction demanded by Japanese investors or an accomodation to the Australian Film Commission, perhaps also suggesting why Collette is paired with a physically slender leading man with little to no charisma and the virility of an adolescent? Okay, so Gotaro Tsunashima's acted before in Australia (the TV mini-series Changi), but where's Jet Li when he's needed? Yumiko Tanaka as Hiromitsu's classically reserved wife is proper to the requirements of the agonizing finale.

Collette is the key to what is engaging about the film. Her talent to project a human, sexy vitality in a variety of contexts has been proven by her American lawyer Michelle in Changing Lanes, her suicidal British hippy Fiona in About a Boy, her intense mother Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense, and her American housewife Kitty in The Hours. Here, she's provocative enough to emerge with impressive effect even after her character is rendered irrelevant by an inept last act. The threadbare story is credited to writer Alison Tillson, who didn't seem to bother researching her characters' unique specialty. Director Sue Brooks ignored that and the other problems of story structure. But, besides the fun of a seductive trip with Collette, there's travelogue value in the setting, a rarely seen area controlled and cared for by indigenous peoples.

Tough road to hoe.

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Japanese Story Rating

" Weak "

Rating: NR, 2003

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