“Death follows me” states Lucy Fly (Vikander), a troubled Swedish ex-pat working as a translator in Tokyo, where she has been living for a little over five years. She has her own house, plays in a string quartet and begins a passionate relationship with enigmatic ramen chef Teiji (Kobayashi), whose hobby as a photographer initially brings them together. Her seemingly peaceful life in Japan is turned upside down as she is introduced to fish-out-of-water Lily (Riley Keough), an American nurse who has come to Tokyo speaking no Japanese. When Lily goes missing Lucy becomes the main suspect in her murder, bringing to the fore some of the traumas of Lucy’s past.
Based on the novel by Susanna Jones, this vision of the psychosexual neo-noir was written for the screen and directed by Wash Westmoreland (Colette, Still Alice). It premiered at the BFI London Film Festival but has now made its way onto our home screens via Netflix.
The 80’s setting means that the pair are cut off from their countries of origin, with phone calls costing hundreds of dollars and letters from family back home taking 8 days to arrive. There are no mobile phones to connect people with the spontaneity to which we are used. Their life in Tokyo is punctuated by earthquakes, with the titular earthquake bird singing after each one. The tiny apartments in which they live and the tiny side streets of Tokyo, with their low doorways all give the film an innate feeling of claustrophobia and isolation.
Vikander speaks Japanese for a much of the film, (which I can only guess she does so well), and also with her necessarily sullen face filling the frame, meaning every nuance in her delicate performance is captured. Meanwhile Naoki Kobayashi is similarly brilliant in his first English speaking role as Teiji, giving a restrained but taut approach to his character. Lily (Keough), brings a completely different energy to the film as her lack of inhibitions begins to spark sexual tension between the trio.
Sadly, the actors are let down somewhat by the pace and structure of the film, which could have been a Mulholland Drive-esque surreal erotic thriller, but instead the lengthy scenes of the rainy streets of Tokyo will leave viewers feeling more damp than wet.
A brilliant soundtrack by Atticus Ross helps add to the tension and the cinematography by Chung Hoon Chung is simply gorgeous, all of which means The Earthquake Bird is definitely worth viewing. However, the somewhat muddled narrative and overly long running time mean the film never really lives up to its potential and it never becomes more than a sum of its parts.
Directed by: Wash Westmoreland
Written by: Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Naoki Kobayashi