She's a single, capable, slightly testy geologist with an Australian mining company. He's a Japanese businessman visiting Australia to discuss a venture with her firm. She doesn't much like the idea of showing him around for a few days. But her boss asks her to do it, so she really can't say no.
Of course, they dislike each other at first. He's polite and aloof in that irritating Japanese way. She's "loud, aggressive and stubborn," he tells his boss on a cell phone call. Then, adversity: On a trip that he insists upon taking into the arid outback, their rented ATV gets stuck in a sand bog. He'd rather die than shamefully call for help. So they spend a cold night sleeping by campfires, free the vehicle the next morning, laugh about it over a hearty meal. And when they get back to his place, they begin an affair.
Written by Alison Tilson, and directed by Sue Brooks, Japanese Story tries awfully hard to be delicate and insightful about cultural differences. There's probably an Australian context here that we completely miss, perhaps about the way Australia sees itself: isolated and unsophisticated. What we do get from the clumsy minimalist plot is a sprinkling of Hallmark moments, combined with the sensation of a low-keyed Lifetime Original Movie, and scored with weeping undercurrents of lithe Japanese vocals and a moaning didgeridoo.
How much of Japanese Story is culturally accurate, and how much can we write off to its rather unpersuasive point of view? The Japanese do present their business cards by holding them with two hands. And you don't need much geography to know that Hiro (Gotaro Tsunashima) is right when he tells Sandy (Toni Collette), in English that sounds too hesitant for a young businessman: "You have a lot of space, no people. We have a lot of people, no space."
But do the Japanese really repress feelings as religiously as the Australians express them? Sandy -- which is, I couldn't stop thinking, the name of Olivia Newton-John's character in Grease -- asks Hiro if he loves his wife. "No need to say it," he replies. "When you say it, not so true." This makes the Japanese good existentialists. (Nietzsche: "That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.") Of course, I don't remember Archie ever telling Edith that he loved her.
And how different could their culture be if their men have affairs on business trips?
The first time Hiro and Sandy make love, she undresses as he watches from the bed, the sheets pulled up to his waist. Then, she slips into his trousers and climbs on top. This is symbolic intercultural sex at its most contrived, a perfect counterbalance to the lovely moment where an older Aussie fellow ironically recalls his country's fear of Japanese invasion during World War II. "Ridiculous, really," he concludes. "Now you guys own the place."