Film Review | Earthquake Bird: No flavour to the aftershocks

Psychological unease looms large over this lush adaptation of an award-winning novel, though Wash Westmoreland’s exploration of Western angst in 1989 Tokyo doesn’t quite stick the landing

The marriage between the universal and specific is perhaps one of the great boons of storytelling. Being able to immerse a listener, reader or viewer in a story that is emotionally engaging but which hints at greater philosophical or historical truths or moments will likely always be one of the most significant take-aways we can hope for when we tuck into a (largely) made-up story about characters making their way through the world, whatever world that may be.

Adapting the award-winning novel by Susanna Jones, writer-director Wash Westmoreland is very much poised to take advantage of this particular branch of storytelling, plunging our nervy protagonist with a past, Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) into 1989 Tokyo, where she has come to escape a troubled past by working as a translator.

She begins a stumbling, will-they-won’t-they romance with local noodle-chef-by-day, photographer-by-night Teji Matsuda (Naoki Kobayashi) roughly around the same time she is nudged to make friends with another expat arrival, the extroverted Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Things come to a head when the three of them take a trip to Sedo Island, with Lucy’s traumatic past returning to cloud her judgement and actions, as events loop back to the ominous police-station set up which introduces us to the story…

Lucy’s traumatic past reduces her to a paranoid wreck at the slightest nudge in the wrong direction, and what is meant to be a healing trip away from the worst of it all – i.e., her self-imposed exile to Japan – ends up adding a pinch of disorientation to that toxic cocktail. She’s certainly an engaging if not entirely likeable protagonist to have in a psychological thriller, though the razor-sharp subjectivity required to make that point of view effective is blunted somewhat by Westmoreland’s understandable desire to linger on the external details of the setting. And that’s where the film attempts to mix the macro with the micro.

The Tokyo it invites us to look at through the eyes of our idiosyncratic characters is one that’s on the brink of collapse, 1989 being the tail end of an economic bubble that was soon to burst. It’s not that the glamour on display isn’t fun to take in. It’s just that it reduces the visual and tonal palette into something that could have been wilfully and memorably disturbing into a postcard-friendly slideshow that does the over-arching mood no favours.

Thankfully, things are kept very much afloat thanks to Alicia Vikander’s performance: a brittle one, but also a woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown powder keg that is compelling to watch. If the actual plot developments don’t keep us on our toes, wanting to know what happens to this afflicted creature certainly does – we root for her even as we suspect that the damage being done is not just self-destructive on her part, but also destructive, period.

The verdict

Though its psychological undercurrents throb with an almost audible potential, Earthquake Bird gets more out of a strong central performance from Alicia Vikander and the undeniable allure of its stunningly evoked setting than it does out of how the narrative proceeds. Awkward where it should have been rewardingly unsettling, Wash Westmoreland’s adaptation of the award-winning Susanna Jones novel makes for a passably good watch that comes laced with a frustrating aftertaste owing to the oceanloads of missed potential visible right on the horizon.  
Earthquake Bird is currently streaming on Netflix