Directed by Sue Brooks, starring Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Matthew Dyktynski, Lynette Curran and Yumiko Tanaka.

Too wrapped up in her work and emotionally jaded, geologist Sandy Edwards (Collette) gets - what she thinks is - the nightmare job of escorting Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu (Tsunashima) on a tour of a mine in the Australian outback. Inscrutable and diffident, Hiromitsu thinks Sandy is his chauffeur, and the atmosphere is strained from the moment she has to load his bags into the back of their hire car. After a tour of the mine, Hiromitsu demands to be driven further into the Pilbara desert so he can take photos. But where Sandy brings him isn't far enough and he insists she keeps on driving, resulting in their jeep getting stuck in the sand. Now unable to free the wheels and with little food or water, the two are forced to put aside their differences to survive.

Usually seen in supporting roles, 'Japanese Story's genre-crossing plot gives Collette both a showcase for her strengths and a great co-star in Tsunashima. Mixing cultural comedy, survival tension, unlikely romance and an extreme about turn, it's a moving and unusual film where, like so many Australian offerings, the environment is also a key onscreen player. And Brooks doesn't let her audience get settled into one mood for too long, midway through springing a shock that will leave you reeling.

What follows it is a character study that examines people's search for meaning in their lives and how fleeting encounters and random incidents can change them forever. In a role that could've been a horror story of histrionics, Collette is faultless, but with her performance also comes the feeling that Brooks rushes the film towards the close. That said, you won't see anything else like it this year.

Harry Guerin