An Artful Japanese Story

in 21st Miami International Film Festival

by Kim Linekin

At the 2004 Miami International Film Festival, the entries in the World Dramatic Features competition were generally quite strong, but one merited the FIPRESCI prize on the basis of its subtle originality. Japanese Story, the second feature by Melbourne director Sue Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson, has already enjoyed a theatrical release in its native Australia as well as in selected parts of the U.S. It is the Miami FIPRESCI jury’s hope that in winning a prize, the film will receive the additional attention it so richly deserves.

The film stars Toni Collette as a geologist who’s charged with driving a Japanese executive (Gotaro Tsunashima) to her company’s mines in the outback so he can survey his investment. Early scenes establish the geologist as an aggressive career woman, then pit her against her more passive-aggressive Japanese companion. Much fun is had setting up their culturally-motivated disdain for each other: he treats her like a driver, expecting her to load his bags into the truck; she condescends to him as well, pointing out his mispronunciations with schoolmarmish glee. So far, so predictable. In a generic Hollywood film, the two would get stranded in the desert, open their minds fall in love, then overcome a series of obstacles before living happily ever after. Japanese Story heads in some of these directions, only to veer off course in thrillingly lifelike ways.

The film handles the characters’ culture clash intelligently, without indulging in too many stereotypes. For instance, consider the fact that the aggressive one is the woman while the deferential one is the man, thereby flipping the gender stereotype on its head. When the two go out with their colleagues one night, it’s the quiet one who gets stinkingly drunk, not the loud Aussie. The film seems to trade on the more defensible stereotype of the ignorant tourist rather than on obvious gender and cultural touch points.

Once the characters have seen each other through a rough night and a day filled with relief and enjoyment of the other’s company, they end up sleeping together. What’s unique about this film is that it doesn’t present the new lovers as soul mates. Their connection is filled with tenderness, lust and wonder, but also with a certain respectful distance. They are not going to end up living happily ever after, and according to this wise film, that doesn’t take anything away from their experience. This is a sweet, transient affair between two self-aware adults, and the film allows it to exist in the moment, not as the prelude to something larger and more lasting.

Of course, something larger most definitely follows from their affair. The filmmakers do not wish reviewers to reveal the plot of second half of the film, so it must suffice to say that something bad happens and the rest of the film is about coping with its aftermath. The event itself is rendered with such surprise and sensitivity that it would be a shame to spoil it for viewers. But this event and its aftermath are what truly distinguish Japanese Story from the competition. Films rarely deal with this subject, let alone in such a realistic, emotionally attuned way. The filmmakers allow the event and its aftermath to dominate the story, as it should, but they also situate it such that it would not make sense without all that went before. Japanese Story unfolds with all the looseness and unpredictability of real life, but that doesn’t not mean it’s unstructured. Meaning and emotion build to an utterly satisfying catharsis. Much of the credit for this goes to Collette for her confident, compassionate performance. The direction is also artful yet unobtrusive. Brooks delicately balances close-ups that reveal the characters’ mental states with wide shots of them positioned in an unforgiving environment in order to develop the film’s theme: that we are not as in control of our lives as we might believe. This theme is a refreshing contrast to the usual depiction of characters who achieve their dreams despite the odds. Needless to say, life is often more unexpected and interesting than that.

Japanese Story is not a perfect film – at times the pace lags, at other times the hand of the screenwriter becomes apparent – but it is original and uncommonly mature.