Friday, May 09, 2008

Japanese Story

2003, Australia, directed by Sue Brooks

Like so many films set in the Australian outback, Japanese Story casts the wilderness as an unpredictable and challenging character in its own right, a vast expanse not to be taken lightly - and sometimes even a malevolent presence (it's a pattern that dates back at least to Picnic at Hanging Rock). There's a mystery in the depiction of the landscape from the film's opening credits, with aerial shots finding strange patterns and unexpected formations, emphasizing the alien nature of the expanse. The different responses to that space underline the kinds of cultural differences that are central to Sue Brooks's film.

Sandy, her Australian protagonist - played by Toni Collette, who is almost never off the screen - is a blunt-spoken woman who seems well-prepared for whatever the outback might throw at her, but she's essentially at the service of a Japanese businessman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) who has his own distinct agenda, and the power dynamic compels her initially to follow his sometimes peremptory instructions.

The first part of the film mines the confrontation between the two for much humour at Sandy's expense, given her unerring tendency to trample on convention, a problem exacerbated by her annoyance at what she (correctly) perceives to be an insulting babysitting job; there's an especially funny running joke about business cards, which perplexes Sandy. The inevitable human connection that subsequently develops between these two people when they're shut together in a four-wheeled box is hard-won given the ill-will that has preceded it, but the transition also seems both natural and convincing, born of fellow-feeling in the face of the elements. Although the script perhaps telegraphs its emotions a little too much, there's also the sense that the two give each other a different way of looking at the landscape where their story takes place.

For a film that is so deeply concerned with the imaginative relationship to the landscape, it's striking that the Aboriginal population is almost completely absent, except in the form of a rock drawing and, later, a subordinate employee in a dusty outback town. At times, these two outsiders run the risk of romanticising their setting, while the camera's view of Hiromitsu occasionally feels as though there's a certain exoticization at work; however, there's also an unexpected and refreshing sexual candour, too, with a distinctly female gaze, that's more central to the film's purpose.

That candour is matched by the emotional rawness that follows an unexpected plot turn - Collette navigates the transition quite remarkably, her face conveying the depths of what we are seeing, and there's an intense physicality to her work that's draining to watch. The film swings almost completely on its axis during these scenes, revealing a frightening power in both the land and the human connection that's hitherto lurked just beneath the surface. The final sequences, scored with a musical refrain that lingers long after the film has concluded, reveal Sandy as far more complex than even she has imagined herself to be, and they carry with them a rich sense of another story about to begin.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States