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Non-Review Review: Earthquake Bird

Earthquake Bird certainly embraces its late eighties setting, providing a hearty intersection of two largely forgotten eighties genres: the erotic thriller and the familiar story of westerners lost in Japan.

To its credit, Earthquake Bird wears its influences on its sleeve. The film is executive produced by Ridley Scott under his own Scott Free production company, and the opening credits include a quick glimpse of Lucy Fly working as a translator on Scott’s own Black Rain. After all, that film was part of a larger cinematic movement in the late eighties and early nineties reflecting western anxieties over the expanding economic and cultural reach of Japan; Blade Runner, Die Hard, Rising Sun.

So far things are going interro-great!

Similarly, the basic premise of Earthquake Bird owes a lot to the simmering erotic thrillers that emerged at around the same time; films like Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, even Disclosure. In hindsight, it is surprising that Earthquake Bird can’t work in a small supporting role for Michael Douglas as an acknowledgement of these influences. Still, Earthquake Bird feels very much like a throwback in more than just its late eighties setting. It is a surprisingly nostalgic thriller. In its own way, it affirms the idea that Netflix exists as a home for the kind of films that don’t really make it to cinemas anymore.

The only problem with Earthquake Bird is that it all feels a little too familiar and a little too rote. Earthquake Bird hits all of the marks and rhythms of these sorts of films in a dutiful manner, but without any real energy or ingenuity. It seems content to serve as a straightforward example of these tropes and beats, rather than as a celebration or examination of them.

The life of Riley.

Earthquake Bird focuses on Lucy Fly, a westerner working as a translator in Japan. Lucy has lived in Japan for years. She is fluent with its language and customs, and is frequently tasked with taking new arrivals “under [her] wing.” Nevertheless, Lucy has consciously isolated herself and kept herself at a remove from life itself. She lives a solitary existence. As Earthquake Bird unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear how Lucy’s worldview is shaped and informed by the traumas that she experienced at home. Her life in Japan is not an adventure, but a retreat.

The plot spurs into motion when a chance encounter throws Lucy into contact with an amateur photographer named Teiji. By her own admission, Lucy is immediately sexually attracted to Teiji. However, for his own part, Teiji is obsessed with Lucy merely as a model for his photographs. Living in an abandoned shack in an industrial district, Teiji obsesses over his photographs. As Lucy embarks on a relationship with Teiji, she finds herself frustrated by the lack of physical affection from the young man. “We haven’t done it yet,” she confesses to a female colleague. “It’s not my choice.”

Enough ca-noodling.

Teiji is a walking red flag. He casually drops pseudo-profound-but-also-ominous nuggets like “we live in the atmosphere of death, but we are alive” into conversation, and tells his model-slash-girlfriend that “the subject always gives a part of themselves to the photographer.” This all aside from the creepy filing cabinet full of photographs that he keeps for his own predilection. “What does he do with them?” new arrival Lily Bridges asks at one point. Lucy replies, “I don’t know.” When she asks Teiji, he responds, “I’m collecting them.” Lucy presses, “For what?” He answers, “For my collection.”

Of course, Teiji is a stock character in a story like this. The whole point is that he radiates danger, and the narrative requires that Lucy’s lust for Teiji overwhelm any common sense. This is where Earthquake Bird runs into trouble. The film is going through the motions of a standard erotic thriller, but it lacks the extra “umph” that a story like this needs to get it across the finish line. Alicia Vikander is effective as Lucy, while Naoki Kobayashi is suitably intense as Teiji, but there’s no chemistry between the two of them. They lack the sort of spark necessary to propel a film like this.

A by-the-book thriller.

It doesn’t help that Wash Westmoreland’s script leans heavily into the cliché. Without that central spark between the two leads, Earthquake Bird occasionally feels like an erotic thriller and “stranger in a strange land” madlib. The bulk of the plot is driven by an awkward framing sequence, in which Lucy is interrogated about the disappearance of a co-worker. No sooner has the interrogation ended than Lucy has a Kaiser-Soze-style epiphany on the walk home, complete with a snappy montage to communicate her understanding to the audience.

None of this is bad, per se. It’s just incredibly rote. Westmoreland clearly understands the mechanics of films like this, and understands their rhythms and beats. However, those rhythms and beats are so familiar that they occasionally seem self-parodic. At one point, Lucy leaves her house to track an acquaintance through the streets of Tokyo, leaving a kettle on the stove. The claustrophobic foot chase is intercut with the boiling kettle, underscoring the rising tension. It’s only marginally more subtle than having Lucy boil an egg during the chase.

Trying to get her out of the picture.

As the film peels back the layers on Lucy’s history, it feels less like a compelling psychological portrait and more like a game of filling-in-the-blanks character motivation. Lucy’s back story is almost comically bleak and tragic, a collection of familiar crime story clichés. Vikander does the best she can to suggest that Lucy is more than just a sum of the bad things that have happened to her, but the film adopts an awkward if-this-then-that structure. Even Lucy’s final confrontation with Teiji suffers from a far too cute callback to Lucy’s own formative trauma.

There is some interesting material here, particularly concerning themes of remorse and shame. One of the lingering anxieties within Earthquake Bird is the extent to which an individual can feel responsible for things that are outside of their control, the human need to draw a connection between action and consequence. “We all live in our own realities,” an ageing detective assures Lucy after a harrowing confession, as she tries to take control of a narrative that has escaped her grasp.

Failing to stand out from the crowd.

Unfortunately, Earthquake Bird is too conventional and too familiar narrative to successfully hammer that theme home. The audience never feels as lost or disoriented as Lucy does. While Lucy spends so much of Earthquake Bird trying to make sense of her surroundings and her emotions, the audience always understand exactly where they are positioned within the familiar trappings of an old-fashioned genre piece. The audience instinctively understands the nature of the reality at play in Earthquake Bird, which robs the narrative of some of its potential power.

Still, there is something to be said for Earthquake Bird as a nostalgic throwback to the kind of films that don’t really exist any more, perhaps as a period piece in more ways than originally intended. Earthquake Bird is certainly a long way removed from the epic elegiac tone of something like The Irishman, but serves as a reminder that even midtier old-fashioned and outdated genre pieces can still find a home on Netflix.

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