Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.

Susie Porter in The Monkey's Mask

The Monkey’s Mask (2000) [Australia/Canada/France/Italy/Japan, certificate 18]

Perhaps films based on works of poetry just don’t translate well to the screen: the dialogue comes across as too arch and takes us out of the filmed reality. At the very least, it surely demands a heightened style to match the words, but although director Samantha Lang isn’t necessarily a slouch visually, there’s just nothing that’s ever quite as distinctive as some of the narration of Jill, a lesbian PI played by Susie Porter. Lang was one of many Australian women who made their first feature films in the 1990s — it was a good decade for women in that national cinema, and I remember seeing plenty of them (by Clara Law, Emma-Kate Croghan, Rachael Perkins, Ana Kokkinos) and in particular really liking Lang’s debut The Well (1997) when I saw it that year. However, this second film, an international co-production with an American co-star (Kelly McGillis) and a generic plot structure (the murder-mystery thriller), just never quite sparks, despite the fairly candid sex scenes — though even those have a sort of cold artfulness to them. I wanted to like this a lot more.

The Monkey's Mask film posterCREDITS
Director Samantha Lang; Writers Anne Kennedy (based on the verse novel by Dorothy Porter); Cinematographer Garry Phillips; Starring Susie Porter, Kelly McGillis, Marton Csokas, Abbie Cornish; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 15 August 2018.

Japanese Story (2003) [certificate 15]

This also is a rather odd film that takes quite a turn later on (that I shan’t of course reveal here), and as such it moves through several different genres — which I imagine is appealing to an actor, and it certainly tests lead Toni Collette’s range. Luckily she is excellent, playing Sandy, a geologist with little time for niceties, which becomes problematic for her when she’s assigned to escort a visiting Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima), ostensibly to sell him software though he’s far more interested in the remote mining sites. (As an aside, it’s fascinating the way that the middle-aged white male Australian business people we see here, even in remote communities, speak basic Japanese and observe polite protocols in dealing with their guest, and speaks to the importance of Japanese investment in this era perhaps.) Anyway, the two get stuck somewhere in the desert, and find themselves bonding despite their differences. I was a little wary of the cross-cultural depictions with the worry that the film might stray into exoticism at times; it comes close perhaps, but the film remains primarily focused on Collette’s character, and she delivers all the emotions.

Japanese Story film posterCREDITS
Director Sue Brooks; Writer Alison Tilson; Cinematographer Ian Baker; Starring Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima 綱島郷太郎; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 31 August 2018.


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