Earthquake Bird Director: Wash Westmoreland (2019) Netflix

Earthquake Bird    Earthquake Bird Film Poster

Release Date: July 10th, 2022

Duration: 93 mins.

Director: Wash Westmoreland

Writer: Wash Westmoreland (Script), Susanna Jones (Original Novel),

Starring: Alicia Vikander (Lucy Fly), Naoki Kobayashi (Teiji Matsuda), Riley Keough (Lily Bridges), Jack Huston (Bob Johnson), Kiki Sukezane (Natsuk),

Website IMDB

“I think that’s what I like about Japan, it gives you a second chance.”

Japan is a country that attracts a lot of a certain type of person. People unhappy with their lot in life or looking for adventure. Sensitive, misguided, naïve, whatever you want to call them, they are people looking to immerse themselves in something different and possibly change their reality. This is what I found to be most interesting in Earthquake Bird, the Netflix adaptation of Susanna Jones’ same-named novel. 

The need to become someone else is definitely the case with Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), a translator living in Tokyo circa 1989. When we first meet her, she is working on a Japanese translation of the dialogue of the Michael Douglas film Black Rain (1989). She’s soon arrested by police investigating the disappearance of an American nurse named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). When body parts wash up in Tokyo Bay and Lucy confesses to having killed the woman, it seems like an open and shut case. Except it isn’t.

The film opens as a mystery all about Lucy’s motive and it seems like the story will gradually coalesce around it via the police interrogation. The scene segues into a slow-but-steady confessional with flashbacks as we listen to someone lay out the whole story from their perspective. In its restrained pacing and lack of surprise or intrigue, the film becomes less of a murder mystery and more of a psychological thriller cum character study wherein we watch a woman reveal the dark secrets that make her tick. 

Earthquake Bird Lucy (Alicia Vikander)

The story centres the clash between Lucy and Lily, people with polar-opposite personalities forced to be pals until they could no longer be due to their differences. The film is successful in portraying this show of contrasts via the acting and costuming/make-up etc.

Lucy is Swedish, fluent in the local lingo and reserved in behaviour. Indeed, one might say severe in attitude, as shown in her striking dour looks. Vikander gives her a dead-eyed stare, is clothed with conservative in fashion sense, and is quiet and has highly controlled movements. It is clear that she is looking to disappear into Japanese life – watch her gracefulness on the morning commute! – and at one point in the interrogation, she declares she is just like her conception of a typical Japanese woman. When she gets a Japanese boyfriend, cod-philosophical photographer Teiji Matsuda (Naoki Kobayashi), Lucy seems satisfied and her Japan life perfect. Then Lily enters the story.

Earthquake Bird Lily (Riley Keough) and Lucy (Alicia Vikander)

First impressions of Lily are not positive for Lucy as the American is as vulgar as the stereotypes of the nationality make out. The new woman definitely puts Lucy in the shade. Keough has especially eye-catching wavy red hair, red dresses, lipstick, and nail polish, low-cut tops and an easy intimacy. But there is more to Lily than being the yang to Lucy’s yin. Far from being a floozy, we learn Lily has skills and knowledge in medicine. But it’s less these qualities and more the physicality that seems to attract Teiji and that disturbs Lucy as she suspects a love triangle forming. And we watch as she becomes upset. But upset enough to kill the other woman?

Of course, things escalate as Lily spends an increasing amount of time in Lucy’s orbit and the American begins to attract Teiji. While we are supposed to believe that a natural chemistry between Teiji and the American forms, aside from a dancefloor sequence, pop star Naoki Kobayashi doesn’t generate much heat with either leading lady. What is more interesting is the push-pull dynamic between the two women.

Keough maintains our interest as she believably makes Lily mercurial. She can go from a ditzy annoyance making boorish conversation about Japanese culture to sympathetic confidante to Lucy with a striking moment of vulnerability that draws the Swedish woman in. When her character reveals more depth and uncertainty to herself, it is like a surprising but natural growth in perception that we/Lucy experience. Keough is adept at channelling these switches in her character’s behaviour into the ambiguity of her interest in Teiji. What is certain is that there is an aspect of her vivaciousness that attracts others even if it leaves them questioning what her intentions are. She brings life to the film where Lucy is an all-consuming darkness.

Alicia Vikander as the central performer holds the most interest as she goes from unwelcoming and mysterious to disturbed by her love rival and we seek to understand where her frailty comes from. We in the audience are aware that Lucy may not be a reliable narrator and this keeps us engaged in trying to figure out what happened. 

The exploration of Lucy’s own mental instability is a simple but well-written and acted drama of a woman subsumed in her own past. It starts slowly with her behaviour and looks, becomes more pointed with her possessive nature that causes her to invest too much in Teiji and then goes up a level to her acting irrationally as  she has visions of people when they are not there and glimpses of a scene from her past.

The steady progression of incidents are things we have seen from other psychological features but it is still solid stuff here. The film leaves a bread trail of crumbs as the Swedish woman extolls her many problems – being human bad luck, being around death too much – and this overwrought thinking is reflected in her physical condition so we get just why she is in Japan. And that is interesting. Vikander is up to the task of being confrontational, guarded, increasingly unhinged enough that we follow her down the rabbit hole of her character’s background.

Earthquake Bird Lucy Commute

The climax of the film has a twist that audiences will probably see coming but there is a weird and satisfying parallel with Lucy’s backstory that helps wrap up the narrative while also containing the message that, you can travel as far as you want, you can never really escape yourself.

This is not an essential watch but it is a well-made film and its depiction of foreigners using Japan as a way to create a new reality was interesting. In particular, Vikander and Keough’s performances are good.

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