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Sue Brooks

     There's It was at Sydney's Australian Film, Television, and Radio School (AFTRS) that filmmaker Jane Campion and cinematographer Sally Bongers discovered each other, and collaborated on Campion's early shorts and Sweetie (1989).

     Among an overwhelmingly straight, male student body, they were females and art-school hippies. Sue Brooks, the filmmaker of Japanese Story, was in AFTRS residence too.

     "Jane and Sally and I were good family," the fortyish director told me, when we talked last August at Colorado's Telluride Film Festival. "We were there at the height of feminism. Graffiti was put up [in opposition], 'Women in pink overalls are running the show.' But the running was really by men in suits."

     Brooks, bemused, recalled that, in 1984, she bested Campion in a short film competition at the Sydney Film Festival. As the prize was announced, "Jane was sitting behind me and hit me on the head and said, 'Bugger you!'"

     One wonders how Campion feels today, when her 2003 feature, In the Cut, badly failed, while Japanese Story swept the recent Australian Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress for Toni Collette, and, deservedly, Best Director for Brooks. Brooks's previous film, Road to Nhil (1997, is described by the filmmaker as "a slow comedy about four lady lawn bowlers in their 60s and 70s... ambitious for a first feature."

     Japanese Story originated with a female colleague at Film Australia, who imagined a movie pairing Australian women and Japanese men. Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson played about with the concept. Brooks: "Australian women think men must be strong and beefy, surfers and footballers. But could a slight man be attractive, whom these women might think is effeminate?" Japanese Story tells of a stern workaholic geologist, Sandy (a remarkable Collette), who is forced through her employ to give a desert tour by car to a small-framed, delicate-looking Japanese businessman, Mr. Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). They get lost, they camp out, they become closer, they make love.

     A lot of the shots are from Sandy's point-of-view: a woman watching a man erotically. "Even these days," Brooks said, "men in movies are still doing the looking, and women are still being looked at. We women filmmakers are beginning to change things. In Japanese Story, when Sandy sees Hiromitsu at the beach, she's conscious of his thighs. He's a small man but strong. I'm fascinated by that. I'm fascinated by his precision, how carefully he folds his towel. A lot of the communication is through the body, not intellectual communication."

     Is their sexual adventure feasible?

     "In strange circumstances, things can happen. They happened to me a long time ago. It's not something you expect to happen. It wouldn't have happened in Japanese Story if they stayed in the city, I'm convinced of that.

     When Alison wrote the screenplay, she was interested in the transformation landscape can have on you."

     I ask Brooks to discuss Japanese Story's titillating sex scene, in which Sandy takes the "male aggressor" role, even putting on Hiromitsu's pants. "Step by step, they're into a strange world that defies language. She's stepping into his skin in order to understand him. I think it's sexy. We all know the experience of waking up and putting another's shirt on, or wearing someone's clothes while they're away."

     Is Japanese Story influenced by Japanese cinema?

     "The boppy, irreverent current Japanese stuff doesn't interest me," Brooks said," but Rashomon is my favorite film. And I used to love Ozu: the classics still suck me in. I love that stillness, and yet somehow you are moving forward. In Japan, there's a sense in which space itself has value. Americans and Australians are always trying to fill up their lives. The Japanese value - in gardens, in their art - the sense of nothingness."

(February, 2004)


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