A terrific second feature by Australian director Sue Brooks, Japanese Story was one of the surprise discoveries on the festival circuit last year. Brooks’ earlier feature, the little-seen Road to Nhilll, was a well observed but fairly lightweight comedy. It provided little indication of the ambition and skill on display in the mesmerising Japanese Story, which starts out as a cross-cultural romance but develops into something altogether more original and affecting.
In what is perhaps the finest performance of her career to date, Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense) plays Sandy Edwards, a workaholic geologist who is in her thirties and emotionally unfulfilled. Assigned by her business partner to take a visiting Japanese businessman on a trip into the Western Australian desert, she is annoyed by the man’s formality and lack of respect (he mistakes her for his driver). A whole series of misunderstandings put the travelling companions at odds, and the hostility only begins to dissolve when they get stranded in the desert and have to combine resources to survive a near fatal ordeal. Inevitably, the experience brings them closer together and they enjoy a night of love-making before their adventure takes an entirely unexpected turn.
From its engaging play with the conventions of the survival-in-the-wilderness genre and the romantic comedy, Japanese Story moves into a new realm in its powerful third act. It is here that Collette’s performance comes into its own, as Sandy is forced to confront the meaning and consequences of an experience that ultimately transcends issues of cultural difference, national identity and even sexuality. A stunningly beautiful film in almost every respect, Japanese Story deservedly won eight Australian Film Institute awards.