Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story , from a screenplay by Alison Tilson, overcomes a whole array of mystifying improbabilities and unlikely affinities to serve as an emotionally compelling vehicle for Toni Collette, the Australian actress who was last this much the center of attention in the international hit Muriel’s Wedding a decade ago. At that time, her comically convincing incarnation of a bumptious, provincial wannabe bride served to typecast her as an ugly-duckling type aging slowly into a sparrow-like character actress, instead of as a graceful, swan-like leading lady. Her characters in hit movies like The Sixth Sense , About a Boy and The Hours seemed to have sealed her position in quirky sideline roles.
Now Ms. Collette has returned to Australia to take center stage in a picture tailor-made for her spiky, aggressive yet subtly vulnerable personality. She plays Sandy, an aptly named geologist working for a software company with an ill-defined interest in mining. (Informative exposition is not one of the optional features on this particular acting vehicle). In her early scenes, Sandy projects an aggrieved malaise with her employers, all-business males, as well as her proverbially clueless Mum (Lynette Curran). As the picture opens, there’s no man lurking on the horizon who can function even as a potential boyfriend-not that the almost mannish, rough-hewn looks and attire of the protagonist suggest a woman pining for a date. I never figured out exactly what Sandy’s problem was inasmuch as there were no places in the script (or interested listeners on the screen) to provide a clarifying back story. At times, Sandy’s brand of blond unruliness reminded me of Charlize Theron’s moody serial murderess in Monster . Death is lurking here, all right, but not quite murder. (To my readers who do not wish to find out more explicit details of the plot, don’t read any further until you have seen the movie for yourself-and I strongly recommend that you do.)
A love interest is suddenly and abruptly shoe-horned into the story when Sandy is sent by her superiors to pick up a young Japanese businessman named Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). His slim body and delicate features make him seem younger than the thirtysomething Sandy, and this visual disparity carries over into the subsequent sexual relationship, in which Sandy assumes the role of the male aggressor and Hiromitsu of the compliant female. But things get off to a rocky start when Hiromitsu casually assumes that Sandy has been hired as his full-time chauffeur; in one scene, he stands imperiously by his luggage, waiting for her to load it laboriously onto her rented Toyota minivan. Yet his youthfully poised simulation of dignity and self-control makes him seem as vulnerable as Sandy when it comes to breaking down emotional barriers.
It follows that we see the svelte Hiromitsu’s body mostly in a bathing suit long before we see much of Sandy’s-and more important, we see Sandy carefully appraising his physique long before he seems to show any interest in her as a woman. At first, he pretends to speak no English, forcing his Australian hosts to speak their very halting Japanese. But later, in a karaoke bar, he unexpectedly rises to sing a few bars of “Danny Boy” with its Irish-English lyrics. One cannot tell if this bizarre cross-cultural moment is meant to be meaningfully funny or mindlessly grotesque; his rendition of “Danny Boy” doesn’t last long enough to fulfill either interpretation. When Hiromitsu is too drunk to navigate his way to his hotel room, Sandy reluctantly lends a helping arm to get him home.
By this time, Sandy and Hiromitsu have already engaged in a hazardous adventure deep in the Australian outback; Hiromitsu insists on going to explore some mineral deposits in the surface mines, despite Sandy’s misgivings. Sure enough, the car stalls in a morass of loose sand with no traction for the tires. After a tense night in the cold desert, the couple team up to get the minivan on its way again.
It’s at this point of comparative euphoria that Sandy makes her first sexual moves on the stoically patient Hiromitsu. Their level of communication remains linguistically primitive (and yet oddly aphoristic on occasion), but Ms. Collette’s blazing eyes become beacons of desire on the visual level. She initiates an erotic escalation of their relationship by slowly undressing him as if she were preparing her child for sleep. She then moves away, and rejoins her curiously quiescent lover topless.
Then comes the strangest and most perplexing of all turns in the narrative: When Sandy rushes off tauntingly into a lake in her underwear, Hiromitsu follows her at the opposite end, but doesn’t resurface after apparently hitting a shallow bottom. When he comes up-instead of applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or at least turning his body over to get some of the water out of his lungs-Sandy keeps dragging him face-up to needlessly higher ground, sobbing all the while in frustration. My screening companion and I just didn’t get it: Sandy had been shown to be very resourceful in the Australian outback; why wasn’t she doing more to save her lover’s life? Had she too easily accepted the termination of a dead-end affair, after she had discovered that Hiromitsu had a wife and children back in Japan?
I suspect that Ms. Brooks and Ms. Tilson chose to risk losing suspension of disbelief in order to bring the story around to an unhindered contemplation of Sandy’s innermost emotional evolution. Or was it that Hiromitsu had completed his useful involvement in the narrative after observing the extreme irony of coming from an overpopulated Japan starved for space, juxtaposed against the vast Australian vistas, devoid of people? He concludes by saying that the stark contrast between these two worlds threatens to drive him mad. Japan, of course, plays an active part in Australia’s “Asia trauma,” and as such provides one subtext of Japanese Story .
But the heart of the story beats most strongly in Sandy’s final scenes of mourning, and her very formal but deeply moving meeting with her dead lover’s generous Japanese widow. It’s in these searchingly reflective moments that Ms. Collette’s enormous emotional range as an actress is thrillingly explored.
Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold , from a screenplay by Abbas Kiarostami, combines the talents of two of Iran’s most forceful critics of their country’s theocratic regime. Mr. Panahi, in particular, has paid a price for what the Iranian authorities perceive as Crimson Gold ‘s seditious cinema. The film has been banned in Iran, and Mr. Panahi himself has been detained and interrogated. The film begins with a robbery in a jewelry store just before the manager has been murdered, and before the alarm is set off, trapping the would-be robber behind an automatically descending iron gate that precedes his own suicide. The entire action is captured in a single four-minute, camera-steady shot taken from the inside of the store, and looking out onto the street and its passers-by.
The movie then flashes back to the incidents that led up to the death of the robber, who was formerly a pizza deliveryman named Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin). The actor who plays Hussein is not only a pizza deliveryman in real life, but also a certified paranoid-schizophrenic whose violent outbursts created many problems for the director. Mr. Panahi’s bizarre behind-the-scenes tribulations, as described to an interviewer, are characteristic of the uneasy comic tone that’s set in the film: In the course of Hussein’s misadventures, he exposes the deep gulf of inequality and injustice separating the rich from the poor in Iran.
To make matters worse for Iran’s official censors, there’s a long sequence detailing the police surveillance of a notorious establishment where unattached men and women congregate to dance and drink and do who-knows-what-else together. Hussein, who is engaged to the younger sister (Azita Rayeji) of his best friend Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), is much too repressed and underprivileged to partake in such secular delights, making him a curiously detached witness to the repressive mechanisms of the puritanical mullahs.
Mr. Panahi has dealt with this subject before, from the point of view of the victimized women in The Circle (2000), but he’s probably best known in America for The White Balloon (1995), in which a child’s wide-eyed view of Tehran serves as cover for some trenchant social criticism of a seemingly neutral background.
It’s clear that the director has more than a passing interest in the fact that Hussein is a wounded veteran of the long-drawn-out Iran-Iraq War-the seemingly endless conflict in which the United States took the side of that other Hussein, even after he’d used chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Though Mr. Panahi claims to be an “independent artist” free of any “political” agenda, his position seems very close to that of the disillusioned Marxist Iranian left-who, after clamoring for the removal of the shah, found themselves chafing under the more insidious tyranny of the ayatollah.
Tony Shalhoub’s Made-Up , from a screenplay by Lynne Adams, stars Brooke Adams as Elizabeth James Tivey, an actress who has given up her career to become a wife and mother. Now a single mother, Elizabeth’s older daughter Kate (played by the screenwriter) plans to shake Mom’s life up a bit, the plan being to film a documentary about the onetime actress’ “makeover” at the hands of her teen-age daughter, Sara (Eva Amurri). Elizabeth’s husband, Duncan (Gary Sinise), has already left her for a much younger woman, Molly Avruns (Light Eternity), making the jilted older woman much more amenable to Sara’s nonsurgical overhaul. All the while, Kate and her camera crew are on hand to record the process.
As tangled and tormented as these Pirandellian proceedings may seem, there is a lot of en famille involved in Mr. Shalhoub’s oddly convoluted film-within-a-film, a currently overworked conceit among neophyte filmmakers. Mr. Shalhoub has suddenly exploded from his respected niche as a colorful character actor into the cable-television superstardom of Monk , an irresistible mixture of cerebral sleuthing and hypochondriac hysterics. Here he doubles as Elizabeth’s shy suitor, both in the film and, happily, outside it (Mr. Shalhoub is, in fact, Ms. Adams’ husband).
Duncan, the defecting husband, wisely avoids Sara’s camera as best he can. The rest of the cast spend so much time trying to avoid tripping over each other and the electric wires strewn all over the carpets that the suspension of disbelief becomes an increasingly strenuous chore. Even so, we often get glimpses of the imperishably attractive Ms. Adams, now in her mid-50′s, as she summons the gloriously knowing expressions from Days of Heaven (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Cuba (1979) and The Dead Zone (1983). It’s probably these expressions that inspired Mr. Shalhoub to get this overly complicated enterprise off the ground, and I can’t find it in my heart to blame him.