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MOVIES: Earthquake Bird (LFF 2019) - Review

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Exploring isolationism and adaption to life in a foreign country centred around a love triangle gone awry, Earthquake Bird is a new thriller that deals with a complex murder mystery with an unreliable lead character. Told through flashbacks using the interrogation room as a framework for the story, the movie introduces us to Lucy, a Swedish girl who has escaped to Japan after a troubled past, followed by guilt and death everywhere she goes. Played by Alicia Vikander, who learnt Japanese for the role, the character finds herself at the centre of a murder case. For someone who didn’t talk for three years and prefers being alone, being in a city cut off from the outside world plays to her strengths, but when forced to connect with people who she doesn’t get on well with, her flaws and weaknesses start to come to the forefront in a film that brilliantly realises its characters.

Hypnotic dance sequences, karaoke scenes and lonely wandering through touristy areas of Japan echo Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, and Earthquake Bird feels very much like it was pitched as “Lost in Translation” but with a murder mystery. Yet the setting adds little to the script and it could be set in any country in the world without much difference, not achieving the same level of impact that films like Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper do when they take a character out of their native country and put them in a place where they are alone. Lucy – who speaks Japanese fluently, is able to befriend the locals and surprise the police officers interrogating her – is set up by her friend Bob to introduce a girl who he likes to the culture and help her get settled in, but Riley Keough’s Lily Bridges is the archetypal America tourist abroad, not bothering to learn the language, describing Japanese buildings as “so Japanese”, and complaining about how long it takes letters to get to the country.

But there is something strange about Lily who is more than she appears, at once a skilled palm reader, Lucy has visions of her that completely contrast with her personality. And Lily has developed an affection for Lucy’s new boyfriend, a photographer with a mysterious past, Teji (Naoki Kobayashi). Kobayashi and Vikander don’t have the strongest of connections however and the romance only becomes clear to the audience when Lucy tells Teji that she’s attracted to him, although that could be justified with both characters having closed off, reclusive personalities of their own. There is the odd funny line – with Lily immediately calling out Lucy as a Taurus earning laughs – but the script itself is mostly a dire affair, taking itself far too seriously. Whilst films like Greta went the extra mile and jumped the shark completely for the better, Earthquake Bird never has that moment, and instead, it never properly grabs the audiences’ attention.

To its credit, the performances are mostly excellent. Alicia Vikander is always reliable and once again she gives a sense of authenticity to Lucy – with the switching in language between English and Japanese being a more than conscious choice for her character, whilst Riley Keough is amazing at getting across her role so well, and the film could have easily been about those two without the murder mystery element attached getting to know the city and it probably would have been more entertaining. That said, the previous comment feels too harsh on Naoki Kobayashi who is equally fantastic, and although Jack Huston is in a limited role, he gets a scene-stealing karaoke moment. Whilst it is interesting to see Wash Westmoreland tackle the mystery element after Still Alice and Colette, which were both impressive films, it is kind of a shame that his first Netflix original film falls flat.

That said, I am glad that I got the chance to see this film in the cinema as it feels, ironically, much more at home on the big screen. The cinematography is the biggest draw, as every shot looks amazing, with Chung Chung-Hoon, responsible for bringing the worlds of It, Oldboy and The Handmaiden to life delivering another fantastic looking film. Every shot is a visual feast, taking place largely under the cover of darkness, bringing the neon lit streets of the city to life in glorious detail.

When taking everything into account as a result of this, Earthquake Bird an uneven movie – it’s not without its flaws but there’s enough to suggest the film is a rare standout among Netflix’s scattershot filmography – with it neither being a masterpiece or a trainwreck. It - unfortunately - is just fine.

Earthquake Bird is playing at the London Film Festival this year. You can find the trailer here. It arrives on Netflix November 15 2019.

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