Dissed in Translation

Japanese Story speaks little, says less

This may seem incredible, but there's a group of people in the world called "the Japanese," and apparently some of them like to travel to other countries. Within the skewed perspective of Japanese Story, this amazing "novelty" is represented by an uptight young corporate heir named Hiromitsu (pretty Gotaro Tsunashima), who becomes the charge of a rambunctious industrial software designer named Sandy (not-so-pretty Toni Collette) as they meander through some mostly mediocre tableaux in Western Australia's Pilbara desert. Since it is neither particularly Japanese nor much of a story, they should have called it Muckabout. Pretentious yet devoid of poetry, left-of-center yet artless, this well-intentioned trudge does not exist to be enjoyed or appreciated so much as to be coddled and patronized as one would a retarded child.

Speaking of which, from Alison Tilson's sloppy little screenplay to Sue Brooks' pedestrian direction to the leads' oops-too-late-we-signed performances, these characters really do skirt the edge of retardation. At first, ostensibly, there's a language barrier to account for their mismatched awkwardness, but this inexplicably dissolves, leaving us to assume that perhaps driving a rental SUV to the middle of nowhere could short out the synapses of a standard adult brain. How else to explain why, when their vehicle gets "bogged" in a few inches of dust, they struggle all day in the hot sun trying to free it, then spend the freezing night sleeping outside on the ground, then at the crack of dawn instantly escape via some cunningly arranged twigs?

All right, since the film isn't unwatchable but merely silly, we'll pretend we're in the realm of fantasy. This will help to explain why Collette looks remarkably like Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett wearing a Sandy Duncan wig. It will assist in swallowing why Hiro is so "velly implessed" with one mining operation that he insists on being driven to the distant source of a chunk of very boring-looking ore. The "fantasy" angle also clarifies why the whacked wayfarers--who clearly do not like each other--fall into bed together without so much as a how-do-you-do the instant they reach a motel. This leads to Sandy stroking Hiro's nipple, stripping down, donning his trousers and then straddling him, whatever that's about. Once your disbelief is hung from the highest bow, you're ready for the movie's "twist."

You are warned: This paragraph contains a spoiler. For a fair appraisal, however, it is necessary to tell you that Hiro abruptly dies in an utterly implausible and rather hilarious swimming accident. This is followed by unflattering shots of Collette caterwauling and showing off her trendy ass tattoo, after which she deals with his corpse, which doesn't detectably breathe but does flutter its right eyelid quite a lot while being scrubbed clean. Then we get what seems like about five hours of Sandy freaking out about wanting "to be involved" as Hiro's brave-faced wife (Yumiko Tanaka) and family come to carry him back to that mystical "Japan" place. We're basically left feeling like she ate the guy.

After giving low to middling marks to antipodal indie romances like Rainand Better Than Sex, watching this movie feels like karmic payback in the blah department. Its pointless rambles make the random wanderings of Gerry feel densely plotted, and its disjointed interest in Japanese culture actually makes the sophomoric but relentlessly promoted Lost in Translation seem vaguely cohesive. It even struts its amateurishness with character development delivered via answering machine messages, a crutch best left in film school.

Since we're practicing bad form here, let's mock a veteran critic who loves this movie. It's high time someone bitch-slapped Kevin Thomas of the L.A. Times again. Calling the part of Sandy "a gutsy, all-stops-out role worthy of Barbara Stanwyck" is akin to saying, "If only young Olivier could have played Agent Cody Banks." As for the couple's "tender and passionate love affair"--try instead "a few stilted glamour shots à la Vanity Fair." But his review's doozie is: "Brooks generates a smoldering sensuality few male filmmakers could equal." OK, so there's a virtually hairless, frequently half-naked boy-man who gets his svelte thighs and buns fetishized by the camera. Is this the element that pardons Japanese Story for feeling--but for a couple of scenes--like it was assembled entirely of dull outtakes?

Now, in a languid attempt to seem fair, you can indeed stare at this movie and think your own thoughts, which may include the sad notion of losing someone just as you were beginning to appreciate them. That's in there. Or you may just amuse yourself wondering why the moustache of Sandy's associate (Matthew Dyktynski) doesn't even approach meeting in the middle under his nose. The movie improves somewhat when the retarded characters interact with other people, especially Reg Evans playing a provincial and resignedly racist boatman, and Lynette Curran playing Sandy's well-meaning mother.

Otherwise, the project is easily summed up by a line from Hiro as he stares out across the barren wastes. "There is nothing," he says. "It scares me." In movie criticism, as illustrated by Japanese Story, this is also an occasional peril.

 
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