This culture clash tale of love and loss is set mainly in the Australian outback, an eerie desert-like wilderness that suggests the pre-civilized world. The film chronicles how two people are nearly swallowed up by this menacing landscape: an Australian geologist (Toni Collette) and a Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima). She’s reluctantly taken on the job of driving him around on a trip that’s part business, part sightseeing. They make a perfect odd couple: he’s reserved, his English halting; she’s freely expressive and disgusted with this menial chore she’s been given. The film becomes an intriguing character study with much of its pleasure derived from the performance of Collette, who hasn’t had a showcase role like this since Muriel’s Wedding (1994).
And then something happens.
I know that a lot people think critics enjoy being, well, critical but few things are as disheartening as watching a good movie go bad. Japanese Story’s turning point, the prelude to its last act, is a tragedy that it behooves me not to reveal. It’s a genuine surprise, a turn of events that you just don’t see coming. Fine. And with that event comes a sharp tonal shift, as the story switches from a mildly comic and subdued romantic adventure to something more profoundly sad. Again, fine. How often do we see a movie willing to jerk our collective chain? The problem is that once we enter this grief-stricken territory the director, Sue Brooks, seems to lose control of her material, offering a few too many emotional climaxes, too much music meant to cue us that this is indeed very sad, and a slowed-down pacing that seems to be taking place underwater. The effect dissipates the obviously desired impact. I started out, during this last section, totally in sympathy with the story’s sufferer but ended up becoming impatient with the film’s heavy-handed machinations.
On the other hand, if you like a film that ends with a good overlong wallow, then here it is.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-3237 for more details.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].