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The New York Times (2004)
Back in the Spotlight after 10 Years
January 16, 2004 | Written by A.O. Scott
The main reason to see "Japanese Story," the new film directed by Sue Brooks from a script by Alison Tilson, is Toni Collette's performance.

Since "Muriel's Wedding" 10 years ago, Ms. Collette has been a familiar presence on American screens, almost entirely in supporting roles. She is one of those actors - Philip Seymour Hoffman is another obvious example - whose talents are apparently without limit but whose ordinary looks too often relegate them to the margins of the frame. She was so good in "The Sixth Sense," in "About a Boy" and in her few minutes of "The Hours" that it seems high time for her to have another picture of her own.

Ms. Brooks's film, a stretched-out short story about cultural misunderstanding set against the natural sublimity of the Australian wilderness, obligingly provides Ms. Collette with an opportunity to display her range. She plays Sandy, an ambitious and self-sufficient geologist sent to a remote desert surface mine to meet a visiting Japanese businessman named Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), who mistakes her for his driver and treats her accordingly, standing beside his enormous suitcase and waiting for her to load it into a rented Toyota S.U.V. Mr. Hiromitsu (it takes her a long time to discover his first name) is at first chilly and imperious. With his dark blue suit and crisp white shirt, he cuts an awkward figure among the Australians, with their relaxed manner and khaki shorts. He commands Sandy to drive ever farther into the desert, turning an uncomprehending ear to her protests.

Inevitably, they find themselves stranded on a desolate, dusty stretch of road, and perhaps just as inevitably, the angry friction between them softens into romance.

Thanks to Ms. Brooks's quiet, austere style (and to Ian Baker's beautiful cinematography), this two-person drama acquires a third character: the outback itself. While "Japanese Story" is part of a miniwave of English-language films exploring (and exploiting) the mysteries of Japanese culture, it also follows in the footsteps of movies like Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout" and Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" in imparting to the vast emptiness of the Australian interior a mystical, almost malevolent force. The land's inhuman presence makes the differences of language and temperament that separate Sandy and Mr. Hiromitsu seem trivial indeed, and it appears to push them together.

At the same time, though, the transformation of their relationship feels artificial. The mellowing of Sandy's prickly, driven personality is believable enough. But Tachibana Hiromitsu's change from a selfish man whose outward decorum masks a crude, sexist sensibility into a sensitive nature-lover seems forced, as is the rapidity with which he advances from speaking almost no English to expressing his inmost thoughts and feelings poetically.

But the movie, ultimately, is not about him: it is about the change in Sandy's perceptions and also about Ms. Collette's impressive ability to tear through the gamut of emotions, from wounded pride to tender sympathy to complete devastation. A jarring plot twist in the middle turns the film from a delicate character study into an acting tour de force - slightly overdone, as such things are, but also enthralling to watch.

"Japanese Story," which opens today in Manhattan, is ultimately too thin for its length and too dependent on easy assumptions about its characters. But it does demonstrate that Ms. Collette is more than able to carry a movie, and it leaves you hoping she will soon have another chance to do it.

"Japanese Story" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for a scene of sexuality and profanity in two languages.