This unexpectedly moving film takes a tired premise and treats its characters with dignity and respect. An Australian geologist (Toni Collette, sporting her native Aussie accent for once) is enlisted to show a nerdy young Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the Australian desert. The film's poster already clues you in to the fact that, despite their initial differences and annoyance with each other, love is in the air.
Japanese Story pulls another whopper of a surprise after that, which I won't give away, so I feel safe in alerting you at least to the twist that these two characters do wind up getting it on. Which is significant for many reasons, not least of which being the rarity of an Asian man being depicted in Western cinema as being sexy enough for a white woman. We're all okay with the idea of white guys and Asian chicks, but you almost never hear of the reverse, so that's refreshing.
Also refreshing is director Sue Brooks taking a chance on the plain-looking Collette as a romantic lead. Collette must have been grateful for the opportunity, because not since her breakthrough performance in Muriel's Wedding has she been so alive. I call her "the glummest face in show business" because her characters are so depressed in all her American films. So watching her laugh, shout, and act sort of, well, dorky is like a breath of fresh air. Equally dorky is Tsunashima, who carefully balances his perceived exoticism with earnestness and soul. The chemistry between these two unlikely partners is real.
Elegantly framed and deliberately paced, Japanese Story may be too slow for some; for me, though, I found it smart, honest, and touching, with imagery that haunted me for days afterward. It's a lovely counterbalance to the only slightly similarly-themed Lost in Translation.