"All day long, I watch people talk," Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi) tells Lucy (Alicia Vikander) at their first meeting. "Saying all kinds of things without saying what they are really thinking."
The contrast between what we say and what we're thinking becomes a main theme throughout Earthquake Bird. Honesty is touted as one of the best qualities to have, but when our honesty could hurt someone else, or even ourselves, is it better to lie? What will the cost of hiding be? These are the questions the film grapples with until the end, and the answer is worth the wait.
Based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Jones, Earthquake Bird, directed by Wash Westmoreland (Collette, Still Alice,) is a moody mystery-thriller set in 1980s Japan. Louisa Fly, called Lucy Fly for short, is an expat from Sweden working as a translator for imported Western movies. She is called into the police station because an American friend of hers, Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), has gone missing. From the interrogation room, the film takes us back in time to when Lucy first met Teiji — a handsome but mysterious local with a photography hobby — as well as the beginning of events leading to Lily's disappearance.
Earthquake Bird piggybacks on the same stereotype of Japan as films like Lost in Translation — the idea that it is a mystery land impossible for the Westerner to understand. Every foreigner is only there to run away or get lost. The shots of Lucy wandering emotionlessly through crowds on the streets and subways hammer this idea in. Cultural festivities and locations are prominent but not explained, to add to the feeling of not belonging. "It's weird how people stare at you here," Lily remarks to Lucy. "It makes you feel famous." Lucy's response is jaded and foreshadowing: "Some people get addicted to that."
Despite being a rehashed and stereotyped idea of Japan, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) does an excellent job of fleshing the country out. So many shots feature the landscape as prominently as the characters. Not only does he use the camera to create real scenery, but also to reflect what the characters are thinking. A highlight is when Teiji and Lucy, tense from an argument they aren't having, silently walk through the forests of Sado Island, full of giant zogesuki trees, a type of cedar. Not only are we seeing a famous landmark of Japan, but the giant trees looming over the couple highlights the massive rift between them that they aren't addressing. In this way, the shots of the film reinforce the themes of hiding from ourselves.
Every character in the film struggles with being honest with themselves. We are quickly tuned into a private trauma Lucy keeps hidden deep down. Her friend and fellow expat Bob (Jack Huston) is a struggling musician in denial about his chance of success. Lily used to be a nurse, but is avoiding the responsibility. Teiji, enigmatic and reserved, has his own secrets.
Whatever trauma we keep to or from ourselves, Earthquake Bird says it will come to light one way or another. As Lucy's trauma bubbles below the surface she breaks out in rashes and illness, and begins to doubt her own mental state. This touches on the popular idea that one can't move past their personal demons unless they can express them.
While the film relies too heavily on the stereotype of Japan as a land of "other," it also highlights the natural beauty and wonder of it. Earthquake Bird is an enjoyable neo-noir film, with enough twists and turns to leave you thinking long after the ending.