Ozzie / Japanese culture clash relationship drama that bravely tackles the etiquette of Outback corpse handling.
Australian films. Not a tremendous number of them kicking around, and those that make the journey to these fair shores tend to fall under the broad mantles of gritty gangster drama (The Hard Word), nonchalant comedy (The Man Who Sued God) or some combination of the two (Dirty Deeds). As about the only film with the gumption to go up against the quadruple headed disappointment beast of Troy, Van Helsing, The Day After Tomorrow and Harry Potter and the Merchandising Opportunity, Japanese Story deserves some respect and attention but sadly it turns out to be as unsatisfying (in our ever so humble infallible opinion) as the aforementioned budget hogs.
Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette) is a tough, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners geologist, at least as much as you can have such attributes in her profession. She's left an unhappy camper after she's assigned as a liaison for prospective client Hiro, who as the brighter amongst you may have noticed provides the 'Japanese' element for this story. After a tour of some Very Big Mines with some Very Big Mining Equipment, and one Very Big Explosion, Hiro is seized with the desire to travel to the middle of the Outback. Things quickly come to a grinding halt as boggy terrain leaves them stranded in a dangerously isolated situation.
Their adversity brings them closer, and not too long after they extricate themselves from their sticky situation they're getting into another, entirely different kind of sticky situation. They undertake a rather swift romance, which soon hits a rocky patch. More of a physical one than the usual trouble and strife, as Hiro takes a deep dive into a shallow pool. This suboptimal submergence leaves Sandy with the unpleasant task of improvised corpse handling in what can only be seen as a substantial deviation from the usual film-based course of romance dramas.
Turning into a character study of how someone copes with such bereavement and a legal study into the diplomatic and packing procedures of Fedexing coffins, this makes a bold change from the romcom norm but a rather ill advised one. It's a film of two halves in many respects, except the halves are different sizes. Perhaps a film of three thirds would be a more appropriate if equally nonsensical aphorism, spending roughly equal amounts of time between the initial terse conversations and dislike, the love affair itself and the tragic conclusion. This is certainly unusual, but not quite as effective or affecting as I'm sure director Sue Brooks intends.
I wouldn't want to start dishing out critical beatdowns with the hittin' stick, and it's certainly not in danger of suffering a barrage from our patented Vitriol Cannon. The problems stem purely from a simple lack of time. We don't spent long enough with Hiromitsu to know him as much more than a reserved businessman who happens to be more comfortable speaking in a different language from those around him. We don't spend long enough initially with Sandy to know her as anything more than the sassy independent woman character sketch of the first few minutes. There's not enough depth to the characters, and that's just as fatal to the film as it was the lack of depth in the pool was to Hiromitsu.
While the film exhibits a rather charming period in it's middle sections, a believable and charismatic relationship developing between the two leads backed up by the usual stunning landscapes that the Outback can provide, the final stretch grates like fingernails over a blackboard. There's a very limited amount of time that most people can spend watching someone bawling, no matter how well it's portrayed and to be fair Toni Collette doesn't do a bad job at all over the course of the film. There's a certain frame of mind one had to be in to appreciate a study in hopeless bleak despair, and the movie doesn't do anything to engender such a state.
I don't know if the fault for not liking this movie lies more with my watching it than with anyone involved in creating it. The structure certainly throws a bit of a curveball and finding the final reels to be tear filled merchants of misery came as a rather unwelcome surprise. There's no obvious lack of effort from anyone on screen, so I suppose the only real bone I can pick is the lack of characters we've spent enough time with and can identify with to feel their pain rather than merely observe it, at excruciating length.
Everyone always remembers the ending. Sadly for Japanese Story, the ending is the weakest part of it. The question we're left asking regarding the tragic events is simple, "Why should I care". Answers prove more difficult to provide, certainly if you're wanting them from this scrivener. As is the case with so many films, it's not offensively bad or ridiculously great. It's distinctly average, doing little to differentiate it from the vast sea of other average films. When it inevitably shows up on Channel 4 by all means tune in but there's little reason to actively hunt Japanese Story down.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
Gotaro Tsunashima (Tachibana Hiromitsu)
Matthew Dyktynski (Bill Baird)
Lynette Curran (Mum)
Yumiko Tanaka (Yukiko Hiromitsu)
Kate Atkinson (Jackie)
John Howard (Richards)
Bill Young (Jimmy Smithers)