It’s not often that a film comes along that completely beguiles you before yanking the rug from your feet, leaving you to wallow in dumbstruck melancholy. Some, like, say The Crying Game (1992), or Audition (1999) rely upon the twist as either a selling point or the chance for a opportunistic director to flash his business card to Hollywood, but in Sue Brook’s deeply moving meditation on love and loss, the abrupt change of tone is the film’s raison d’être.
Sandy Edwards (Collette) is an Australian geologist reluctantly assigned to escort prospective Japanese client Hiromsitsu (Tsunashima) around mining operations in Western Australia. After their car breaks down, an unlikely friendship develops, which leads from conventional love story into something far more profound.
The sudden lurch is all the more convincing because of events leading up to the fateful swim. At first, Japanese Story plays as an uneventful ‘fish out of water’ comedy, with Collette’s brusque, dishevelled manner perfectly counterbalanced by Tsunashima’s poise and Zen-like calm. It’s the kind of comedy of manners Hollywood studios have been churning out since the early 1980s, where self-fulfilment and self-education give way to one another and warring protagonists kiss, make up and head off into the sunset. How Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tillson enlarge this concept is achieved in two ways – firstly, through a strong sense of dichotomy, and secondly, through a strong sense of place.
In the former, the man and woman are held up as mutually interdependent opposites; he ying, she yang. He wears an immaculately pressed suit, she wears crop-tops and combats, he is deeply reflective, stopping to take photographs at any given opportunity, she is a workaholic thirty-something, not prone to flights of fancy. By setting up these differences, the burgeoning romance becomes more believable. This is not some trite May-to-December fling, but the coming together of two lost souls through intimacy, relief and joy.
Just as crucial is the depiction of the Australian outback. Rarely can a film have used natural surroundings to such hypnotic effect. Like Paris, Texas (1984) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the topography is a vital means of conveying narrative and underscoring emotions. The two journey deeper and deeper, Conrad-like, into a forbidding landscape, ultimately uncertain of what they will find or if they will survive. Kudos must go to cinematographer Ian Baker (he also lensed Cry in the Dark ) for capturing the stark beauty of the Pilbara desert and investing it with such tragic grandeur.
Collette gives a career-best performance in a role that errs just on the right side of histrionics. So often a capable supporting player – The Sixth Sense (1999), The Hours (2002) – she carries the burden of the second half of the film here almost single-handedly. The sequence immediately after the tragedy is deeply moving, not least because Collette’s helplessness, grief, anger and confusion come alive in one immaculately controlled piece of acting. A brief note should also be made of Tsunashima’s wife, played by Yumiko Tanaka. Her scenes are few, her words mumbled, yet she encapsulates a different sense of loss to that experienced by Collette. As such invests her role with stoicism.
Those looking for a ‘Japanese story’ similar to Lost In Translation (2003) will be disappointed, but no less touched. While both films play on the awkward mannerisms and diction of the Japanese (there’s a slightly laboured joke about business cards and endless pronunciations of the word ‘desert’ here), Japanese Story throws two different people into a comedy of manners, and then, through fate, through nature, through bad luck, defies conventional narrative resolution to fashion a tragic exploration of how a single unannounced moment can change lives. Often hackneyed when essayed by Hollywood, Brooks and Collette instead treat death and its aftermath as a short, sharp shock that no amount of closure will ever seem to assuage.