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Movie Review: "Japanese Story"

Roger Ebert drives me nuts.

In the middle of his review of "Japanese Story" -- and don't click on that link just yet -- he writes:

"And now you must put the review aside, if you plan to see the movie. There is something I want you to experience for yourself."

Now why would you write this? Why would a movie critic with 30 years of experience in the business write something like this? Why would anyone GO to a movie if they didn't want to experience it for themselves?

Sheesh. Yes, I wanted to see this movie, so I stopped reading there when I read it in the paper, and finished the review later. Yes, he spoils the whole second half of the film, so my advice is: don't read Ebert's review, read mine, because I will show you how you can write a review of this excellent film without spoilers.

Toni Collette, who's been great in everything she's done from "Muriel's Wedding" to "The Sixth Sense", plays Sandy, a geologist working in Australia for a company that's either part-owned or working on some kind of huge deal -- it's never really clear -- with a Japanese company. Tachibana, the son of the owner of the company (Japanese actor Gotaro Tsunashima), is coming to Australia to seal the deal, and Sandy is assigned to show him around.

Well, he shows up and he at first seems to be a traditional old-fashioned Japanese businessman, who expects Sandy to be his "driver" (she has to wrestle with his huge suitcase, for example), and then things start to happen. He doesn't appear to speak much English, but we learn later that he really knows much more than he lets on at first, and due to his pigheadedness he gets them stuck out in the middle of the Australian desert, where, as Sandy points out, "People die in this desert. Frequently."

And this is where I'm going to end the talk of the plot of this film. Suffice to say that there is a plot twist that is completely unexpected, and takes the film in a completely different direction than you would expect, after Sandy and Tachibana actually do get out of the desert, and their relationship becomes something you'd never have expected at the beginning of the film. There are lots of scenes in which you really have to think about the differences between Western culture, as expressed in an Australian way, and Japanese culture, and yet, in the end, we realize how much the same we all really are.

There is a character we see only briefly at the beginning, and again at the end, of the film, who at first seems to be a throwaway character, and in fact, an annoying throwaway character: Sandy's mother (Lynette Curran, another Australian actress who hasn't played in anything I've ever heard of), who does something you think nothing of until the very end of the film, when it becomes central to the final half of the plot.

I like movies that make me think, and this one definitely does. Toni Collette is probably the only one in the mostly-Australian cast you've ever heard of, but everyone here is terrific.

As with many films I've seen recently, this one is in very limited release -- right now it's on only one screen in the entire Chicago area -- so you may have to wait for a DVD release to see it. Don't miss it even if you have to wait that long.

And after you've seen it, then go back and read Roger Ebert's review. I'm glad I didn't. He'd have ruined the film for me.

AYRating: *** 1/2