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December 30, 2003 2:00 AM
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Sue Brooks' "Japanese Story": Unexpected Results as Cultures Clash in the Outback

Sue Brooks' "Japanese Story": Unexpected Results as Cultures Clash in the Outback

by Erica Abeel









Toni Collette plays an Aussie geologist who meets a Japanese businessman in Sue Brooks' "Japanese Story."

She's an Aussie geologist; he's a Japanese businessman, and it's dislike at
first sight. Which means, of course, that they'll fall in love. The
attraction of two people from wildly differing cultures is not the freshest
premise to come down the pike, and the main novelty of "Japanese Story"
initially appears to be its setting in Australia's Pilbara Desert. Yet a
shocking twist midway (that only a spoiler would reveal) reroutes the plot
in surprising directions. Is this enough to make a wholly riveting film? Not
quite. Still, the mysteries it evokes about human nature and the vagaries of
fate linger in the mind. And the story is continually rescued from its own
limitations by the raw energy of Toni Collette.

She plays geologist Sandy Edwards, a driven, independent woman, who roams
her life in a state of absent irritability that in films always precedes the
advent of love. Sandy snaps at mom for obsessing about death; and chows down
on canned gruel, indifferent to the commitment-phobic date mouthing on her
answering machine. Hoping to flog some innovative software, she agrees to
accompany a Japanese businessman around the iron ore mines of Western
Australia, though loudly protesting, "I'm a geologist, not a geisha."

Director Sue Brooks puts her own spin on meeting cute, extracting humor from
the crossed signals of Sandy and her charge, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima.)
Assuming Sandy is his driver, he ignores her proffered handshake, and stands
by as she hoists his heavy bags into the back. He's glued to his camera and
describes Sandy in Japanese on his cell as "loud and aggressive," with "a
big bum." After he gets sozzled on sake at a karaoke bar, Sandy must sling
his dead weight into the van; not a word of apology from Hiro next morning,
A telling moment occurs when they arrive at a humongous mine, and Hiro and
the execs, who speak
rudimentary Japanese, commence with the bows and salutations, shutting Sandy
out of their boy's club. Moreover, it turns out Hiro has no interest in
software; for mysterious reasons, he insists they drive to a remote stretch
of the Pilbara desert.

When the van gets stuck north of nowhere, the film explores the terrors, in
what sometimes feels like real time, of their life-threatening situation --
though Hiro is more concerned with salvaging his pride than his life. As the
two try to engineer an escape, the desert becomes the laboratory where they
bond, suggesting that only here is it possible, since civilized venues throw
up barriers to human connection. It's the "swept-away" trope revisited, but
the only water is in a bottle, and it's fast dwindling. Their jubilation at
digging out the car segues into a love idyll that's exquisitely rendered
practically without language. For reasons that eluded me, the naked Collette
puts on Hiro's pants before they make love

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