3-1/2 stars (out of 4)
The desolate beauty of Australia's Pilbara Desert provides the haunting backdrop for director Sue Brooks' "Japanese Story," a romance-adventure-drama that keeps jarring us and the film's protagonist, cynical Perth geologist Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette), off the beaten track.
With its vast sweeps of sand and sky, its centuries-old rock formations, iron mines and tiny waterholes, the Pilbara and this often mesmerizing movie give us glimpses of the heavens above and the abyss below.
Collette is the brilliant Australian actress best known in the United States for "Muriel's Wedding" and her emotional work as Haley Joel Osment's mother in "The Sixth Sense," and she's even more emotional here. She does a stunning job as the tough, discontented Sandy, carrying us from angry detachment to passionate engagement, from ecstasy to grief, from bewilderment to acceptance.
Actors love to take audiences on emotional journeys and that's what Collette does here. She first shows Sandy in her psychological armor, brusquely sparring with her business partner and ex-lover, Bill Baird (Matthew Dyktynski), and her death-obsessed mum (Lynette Curran). Then she breaks down that veneer and builds up the character again with the effortless empathy of a true acting artist.
Equally memorable is Collette's main acting partner, Gotaro Tsunashima, who plays Tachibana Hiromitsu, a visiting Japanese businessman-geologist. Tachibana is a prospective client of Sandy's computer software company, being escorted by Sandy around the Pilbara to examine the local topography and an iron mine.
The sour-tempered Sandy takes this job resentfully after being pressured by Bill and Mr. Hiromitsu, a man of impeccable formality and almost doll-like good looks.
Tachibana has an uncertain grasp of English, and at first he mistakes Sandy for his driver. That's only the first of a series of misunderstandings that puts them at odds, and the hostility only begins to dissolve when the two are trapped in a sandy bog on an isolated road, far from any city or mine. Unable to communicate by cell phone (at first because of Tachibana's reluctance and later because of battery failure), Sandy and her antagonist are left to their own resources, trying to dig, drag, "dead-man" or maneuver their way out of the sand trap.
What eventually happens, of course, is that their mutual sexual-romantic hostility dissolves and becomes something else - and the film quickly reveals both a blissful side and then a darker one.
"Japanese Story" is a movie with surprises, some of which you should discover for yourself. But its main surprises may be the power of Collette's performance and the beautifully controlled mood and atmosphere Brooks creates. The film, from an original script by Alison Tilson, won eight 2003 Australian AFI awards (or Oscar equivalents) and six major national Film Critics Circle prizes as well, making it one of the most honored Australian movies ever - and one of the most heavily awarded by a woman filmmaker since Gillian Armstrong's landmark 1979 "My Brilliant Career."
There's a rich Australian film tradition of "discovery" wilderness films, and Brooks and Tilson get a mix of rapture and danger that suggests Nicolas Roeg's 1971 desert masterpiece "Walkabout" and classics such as Peter Weir's "The Last Wave." But there's a harder, cooler feel to "Japanese Story." This is a modern story, and Brooks gives us an almost oppressive orderliness and cleanness in the Perth scenes, a sterility from which the desert interlude becomes only an illusory escape.
Most of all, Brooks and Collette make us see how fragile our grip on outer reality can be, how quickly it can change, and how the Earth remains eternal beneath those temporal shifts above.
"Japanese Story" is a beautiful film and a chilling one. It plays with our sense of romance and adventure, only to awaken deeper strata of fear. Like its geologist lovers, with their practiced eyes, we're forced to look long and deeply at the world around us. What we see stays with us. Collette's Sandy is a traveler whose adventure and journey never breaks its grip.
Directed by Sue Brooks; written by Alison Tilson; photographed by Ian Baker; edited by Jill Bilcock; production designed by Paddy Reardon; music by Elizabeth Drake; produced by Sue Maslin. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release; opens Friday, Jan. 30. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: R (sexuality and nudity).
Sandy Edwards - Toni Collette
Tachibana Hiromitsu - Gotaro Tsunashima
Bill Baird - Matthew Dyktynski
Mum - Lynette Curran
Yukiko Hiromitsu - Yumiko Tanaka
Jackie - Kate Atkinson