Harry Potter!

Australian National Cinema
(National Cinemas Series)

. "Japanese Story"

This film is a textbook example of going into production without a finished script. The superficiality and structural defects you find in this Australian made film could only have come from a bare outline. 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 probably 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 instincts and appeal. But, ultimately, the mark of low budget desperation deprives the movie from realizing the fun and poignancy of a promising romantic premise.

As a geologist and partner in a small software company in Perth, Sandy Edwards (Collette) is asked by Baird (Matthew Dyktynski), the other partner, to accompany Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), a Japanese business executive, on a visit to inspect Australian mines. Baird's idea is that this accomodation will influence Hiromitsu's company to buy their 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 a rather direct and overly-capable female with a stubborn personality, he a wimpy, rigid, formal type who sees her as nothing more than a driver the company has provided for his adventure. 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 that becomes more hostile than the atmosphere in the car.

Sandy's warnings to her traveling companion about the difficulties of driving on the barely defined sand road results in their becoming stuck and, as they face this and other challenges, a thawing and mutual understanding breaks down the initial frigidity, ultimately leading to romantic discovery and the disclosure that he has a wife and children back home. Sandy accepts the reality but, just as happiness and fulfillment are being realized, tragedy strikes, leading to a last act that becomes an opera of extended sadness.

Not that that won't play well in Japan, where loss and emotional deprivation is as well received as rice, but what about the rest of the world's markets? The Japanese capacity for a complete immersion in emotional devastation is legendary and this film's extended ending in conformity with that sensibility makes me wonder if there wasn't a Japanese investment in this project important enough to demand a catering to their dramatic taste. The story itself grinds to a virtual halt while the emotions, not the ore, are mined for all they're worth to violin-heavy orchestral accompaniment.

Yumiko Tanaka as Hiromitsu's classically reserved wife is wholly appropriate to the requirements of that part of the story.

Much of this synopsis is inferred rather than witnessed from the under-expressed screen material. It isn't clear that Sandy and Baird are trying to sell software anymore than it's clear that they are ex-lovers. Maybe I missed something but, then, I missed so much. There is nothing, for example, to even suggest that this geologist knows a rock from a robot. 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 that has 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 product. But, no, that opportunity doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone.

Even when the pair is visiting the BHP Billiton working iron ore mine at Newman there isn't a single word coming out of her mouth to indicate that she is any more expertise in mining than a wide-eyed tourist. Whoever on this creative crew thought it wasn't essential to convince us that her specialized knowledge extends beyond that of company driver is in sore need of Screenwriting 101 and a few dozen viewings of "Lantana", a huge Australian success in 2001.

Collette is a talent of considerable range, as 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." Her essential quality is a gutsy earthiness, which is attractive in a leading lady as well as a lure to many a supporting role.

But here she's paired with a physically slender leading man with little to no charisma and the virility of an adolescent. What were these people thinking... or was this miscast part of the Japanese investors' package? Okay, so he's acted before in Australia (TV mini-series "Changi"), but where's Jet Li when he's needed?

The failures abound, but I can't say this movie coming to us from the colorful outposts of Australia is a waste of time. When all is said and absorbed after the exhaustion of a finale that's as fatiguing as a coda in a 1,000 page Russian novel, there is a lingering bond to Collette that she manages to pull out of the meager outline provided. Other positive virtues include exploring a cross-cultural attraction and the travelogue value of a journey through a rarely seen area controlled and cared for by indigenous peoples.

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                                      ~~  The Filmiliar Cineaste  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Poorly written, insightful
This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review

I especially agree about the mismatching of the pair (chemistry? what chemistry?) and about the lack of geologist talk from Sandy . Also about the interminableness of the tragic end. There was a lack of clarity in the movie that could well have been related to lack of a finished script. It was always making it hard for me to suspend disbelief. (So _why_ are they just going into the desert now? What is the purpose of his trip? That sort of thing.) I thought Collette seriously overdid the restless irritatedness at the beginning; to me this came across as being like a scowly teenager. Yet all the reviews I read praise her performance in glowing terms. In fact all the reviews I've seen of the movie are unstintingly positive and this was starting to disturb me. 'Poorly written' is a bit strong but I couldn't click Well written as there are grammatical errors.

                                                          ~~ Belinda
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Off Base
I've seen the movie and disagree with the review
Site Rating: 2

I feel that the writer has completely missed his/her mark. Who says that films now have to be like a Hollywood plot? This film is about the interaction of 2 characters from completely different worlds and the chemistry that they have that surmounts cultural and social boundaries. While true that Collette's performance is wonderfully multi-facetted, Tsunashima's sober performance is full of complex subtleties authentic to his role that perhaps the critic, who may be too conditioned by Hollywood movies, has failed to see. In addition, this film introduces a theme rarely seen in the media: The sexual attraction of a Western woman to an Asian man. Jet Li, who has wonderful screen presence as an martial artist but remains a poor actor, would have been completely inappropriate in this role. Although this film probably will not be a huge commercial success, it should be seen as a well-done independent film with an innovative and sensitive approach to cross-cultural relationships.

                                                          ~~ zipsy
Well written
This review will influence me to get my local newspaper to hire this reviewer
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review

kept me watching till 1 am during a work week - so I guess I enjoyed it

                                                          ~~ Tim R.

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