Australia offers two tales from the outback

Australia's underpopulated outback and wide-open deserts often provide fertile territory for that country's filmmakers, as evidenced by two of this week's openings.

"Japanese Story" doesn't sound Australian from its title, and star Toni Collette has acquired an international following via Hollywood releases like "The Sixth Sense" and "About a Boy." She hails from Down Under, though, and returns there for an occasional project like "Japanese Story," directed by filmmaker Sue Brooks.

Collette plays an energetic geologist who reluctantly takes on the job of escorting a visiting Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima) on a journey into the Pilbara Desert in the country's western region.

It's the sort of arduous excursion that's bound to make the participants more intimate even when they don't speak each other's languages or share similar lifestyles. You can't help bonding when your car is stuck in the sand a zillion miles from nowhere and there's nobody but the two of you to get it moving again!

Eventually they become lovers, despite the Asian man's ties to his wife back home. The plot takes a tragic turn at the climax, and the ending is bittersweet.

Brooks endows "Japanese Story" with a fair measure of suspense, pathos, and romance, despite the challenge of conjuring these qualities from only two main characters and not much else to look at in many scenes but sand, sand, sand. It isn't a major entry in the growing genre of Australian desert dramas, but audiences everywhere should respond to the fundamental human emotions it explores.

"The Tracker," set in 1922, stars the great aboriginal actor David Gulpilil as a native of the outback who's pressed into service by white men hunting a black fugitive accused of murder. Also in the expedition are an experienced old-timer and a young draftee who grows increasingly wary of the leader's ruthless, even cruel approach to the task at hand.

In keeping with the movie's effort to seem timelessly mythical as well as dramatically realistic, the characters are known only by archetypal labels: the tracker, the fanatic, the veteran, and the fugitive. In a similar vein, director Rolf de Heer leaves the tale's goriest moments off-screen, representing them by what appear to be authentic Aboriginal paintings inspired by Australia's sad history of racism. This lends the film more subtlety than one might have expected.

A third aspect of "The Tracker" is less successful. In a badly calculated move, Mr. de Heer and singer Graham Tardif fill the soundtrack with songs full of clichés, platitudes, and truisms.

As suitable as its wilderness settings are to big-screen presentation, this is one movie that may fare better on home video, where viewers can hit the mute button every time those awful ditties come along.

"Japanese Story," rated R, contains sexuality; "The Tracker," not rated, contains violence.

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