Alicia Vikander stars as Lucy, a Swedish-born translator who’s used her years in Japan to escape reminders of her troubled past. The film’s events are largely shown via flashbacks (more on that below), which adhere to a roughly chronological order but also quickly settle into well-worn story beats. First, Lucy meets and develops a relationship with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a talented photographer with an enigmatic reluctance to share the work he obsesses over.
Shortly afterwards, Lucy’s boss introduces her to Lily (Riley Keough), a recent expat struggling to settle in much like Lucy had once. Although the two women appear to have little in common, they begin spending more time together; Lily even becomes first of Lucy’s friends to meet Teiji. Before these extended flashback sequences start, I should add that we’re told Lily is missing and possibly dead in EARTHQUAKE BIRD’s opening minutes. In fact, Lucy is telling this story to detectives as part of an interrogation. I guarantee some readers will be able to guess the rest of the plot from here.
Although Vikander’s incredible turn in Ex Machina proved she doesn’t need much dialogue to shine, I found her role here underwritten. Lucy is too often relegated to jealous glares or thousand-yard stares, particularly once Westmoreland leans into the love triangle trope. In the brief scenes where her character begins to elaborate on the tragedy and abuse of her upbringing, Vikander is utterly devastating. Yet these moments occur past the film’s halfway point, resulting in an uphill battle to regain viewers’ attention. I will say though, Japanese is difficult to pick up as an additional language and Vikander did consistently impress me with her ostensible fluency even during lengthy monologues.
Kobayashi and Keough are also given very little to work with (the former is basically just a dick in most of his scenes), but I did at least think Lily’s thin characterisation works in the context of the film. After all, Lucy is reluctant to pursue a friendship and later sees Lily as a threat to her relationship. We’re clearly being shown a biased depiction, which Keough subtly affirms during moments of compassion like tending to Lucy’s injuries on a hike. Keough’s performance is my favourite of the core trio, primarily because she managed to create some actual subtext.
EARTHQUAKE BIRD is simultaneously one of those films where the setting itself is a character, with its reverence for Japanese culture flowing through every frame. Westmoreland sets most of the Tokyo scenes in traditional households and crowded restaurants, far away from the sprawling metropolis at the centre of Western portrayals of the city. This version of Japan feels lived-in, once again perfectly matching Lucy’s experience. Similarly, the leads’ trip to Sado Island is beautifully filmed on location; cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung becomes the MVP for these scenes, especially when Lucy storms off alone at sunset into a festival. Between the energy of the crowd and dimming natural light, it’s a stunning portrayal of her disorientation.
Nevertheless, I wish the same care had been shown in the rest of the adaptation process. I don’t detest every film which prominently uses flashbacks, but establishing the wrap-around premise only to abandon it for over an hour makes me wonder why it wasn’t structured differently. While it’s isn’t bad per se, it’s jarring to suddenly cut back to Lucy being interrogated. Speaking of Lucy, as the novel’s original narrator she suffers the most from Westmoreland’s rushed and lazy characterisations. This is highlighted by just how good EARTHQUAKE BIRD’s final scene is: without spoiling too much, Lucy and a friend discuss individual’s reactions to trauma and grief. Not only is it emotional, it’s genuinely insightful and thus maddening that I had to sit through the previous 90 minutes to see it. Consequently, my lasting impression of EARTHQUAKE BIRD has simply been to wonder what could’ve been.