Toni Collette can have an angular presence on the screen; she can look hard and tough, and is well cast in "Japanese Story" as an unmarried geologist whose idea of dinner is a can of baked beans poured over two slices of toast. But then there comes another side that is tender and dreamy. Her body becomes sensuous instead of distant, and her eyes are seeing from a different part of her soul.
Both of those identities are used in Sue Brooks' "Japanese Story," a film in which her character journeys into the Australian desert with a Japanese businessman she begins by hating, and then begins to... not love, but cherish. She plays Sandy, an expert on the mining of minerals. She's assigned to baby-sit Tachibana (Gotaro Tsunashima), who has flown in from Kyoto and whose father owns 9 percent of the company.
Sandy flies with him to a dorp town in the interior, rents a Jeep and shows him the mine: A massive hole in the ground whose terraces remind him of a Mayan temple. Then he wants to drive on, farther, into the vastness. She protests. There's only a one-track dirt road, and "People die in this desert. Frequently." Their Jeep gets mired in the fine powder of the red earth, they can't drive it out or dig it out, they spend a cold night around a campfire, and she is very, very angry, because Tachibana got them into this mess, and it looks as if they may die, and he refuses to use his cell phone because of shame: Having caused their trouble, he refuses to admit it to his colleagues.
This sounds like some sort of survival adventure, but even in the moments of despair in the desert, "Japanese Story" is about characters, not plot. The Japanese man is not fluent in English, but he knows a great many more words than he first reveals. He doesn't know she's a geologist, and treats her like his driver (he lets her wrestle his heavy suitcase into the Jeep). But during the long cold night (at one point she shifts to put her back against his, for warmth), something rotates in his consciousness, and the next day there are scenes in which each looks at the other for a long time, thinking, sensing, beginning to like. That night in a motel, they make love; undressing, she puts on his pants before walking over to the bed.