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Japanese Story Review

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Resentful geologist Sandy (Collette) is trapped into escorting a supposed prospective client, Hiromitsu (Tsunashima), around a mining operation in Western Australia. His insistence on venturing deep into the desert sees them stranded, forced to collaborate on their journey of survival and discovery.

★★★★

What seems at first to be a modest little Australian culture clash comedy shifts almost imperceptibly into an intriguing survival drama and an intense romantic interlude in which two people, forcibly made aware of their small place in the big picture, need to connect with each other. And then it becomes something else again.

Toni Collette is just right as a tough, ambitious woman the demanding visitor treats dismissively as a large, loud and aggressive Aussie. And Tsunashima appears to be the stereotypical Japanese of a bad joke, aloof and inscrutable when he isn't dishing out business cards, bowing, making a ghastly spectacle of himself in a karaoke bar and forever taking snapshots.

Barely able to converse and mutually uncomprehending of cultural niceties, each finds the other rude and irritating. Over Sandy's objections, Hiromitso insists that she drive him deep into the starkly beautiful Pilbara desert, one of the most forbidding, remote places on Earth. All we know of his motives for the trip is that he has a need to drink in the vast, unpeopled landscapes, but the jaunt goes dangerously awry when their vehicle gets stuck in the middle of a nowhere where people die all the time. (And, of course, their mobile phones don't work.) Deep in the arid desert, scorched by day and freezing at night, an uneasy bond quietly progresses to awkward intimacy and surprising, sensuous fun.

It is impossible to reveal much of what follows without ruining the film for audiences. Suffice it to say that about halfway through the story something so completely unexpected happens that it made a seen-it-all press contingent gasp, collectively thunderstruck.

This isn't just a plot twist. The ground falls away under your feet, and what has gone before takes on a new aspect. Confronted with a cosmic jest, plot suddenly seems as insignificant as life plans do in the face of unforeseen, chance occurrences. Outwardly the characters are occupied with the details of expected, reasonable behaviour. Inside is another story, the one about human beings wondering how to make sense of the universe.

Offbeat and downbeat, it's a film full of thoughtful stillness, powerful moods, reflective internal struggles and shattering, lonely self-realisation, suggesting more critical kudos than commercial impact. This emerges as a raw emotional journey in which character is everything - although the scenery is spectacular - and it's no good looking for 'resolution'. Collette is remarkable in her most demanding, wide-ranging role.

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