People who wait excitedly for the film adaptation of a book that they thoroughly enjoyed often end up being disappointed. They watch after reading — then they compare.
I know because I used to be one of them. I looked forward to the film adaptations of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train only to be sorely disappointed. I used to think it was because the adaptation was bad. Well, some are, actually (The Da Vinci Code, for instance). But there are cases where I realized I was looking at everything the wrong way.
It’s really about whether a movie can stand on its own merits irrespective of whether or not it is a faithful adaptation of its original source. In the first place, an adaptation is not a reproduction. Print and film are two different media, and what works in one will not necessarily work in the other. Why so many critics label a film a failure for not being able to reproduce its original source right down to the last period and comma is beyond me.
Earthquake Bird does stand on its own merits — quite beautifully, in fact, although moviegoers who prefer a faster pace of storytelling will probably say otherwise especially since the movie is labeled a “thriller.”
The story of Earthquake Bird takes place in Tokyo in the 1980s. In the opening scene, Louisa “Lucy” Fly (Alicia Vikander) is on a train to work. Arriving at the office, we learn that she is a translator. A co-worker hands her a newspaper pointing to a story about the body part of a woman found on the bay and surmising that it might belong to Lily.
The police arrive. Lucy is taken in for questioning. The police, surprised that she can understand and speak Japanese fluently, say she was the last person to see Lily and want to know about their last meeting. She is asked about her family (seven brothers, she says, but one of them had died) and whether she had a boyfriend. She didn’t, she replies. And the first of many flashbacks begin.
Lucy is walking in a park and sees a Japanese man taking photos of a puddle on the pavement. As she passes in front of him, he takes photos of her. And thus begins a complex relationship between Lucy and Teiji. It doesn’t start out as anything sexual. Teiji just wants to take photos of Lucy, and she is a willing model.
That’s how Earthquake Bird unfolds. Most of the story consists of flashbacks. We learn that Lucy is part of a string quartet where the other three musicians are middle-aged Japanese women. She has a friend, Bob, who introduces a “new recruit”, Lily, a transplant from DC.
Lucy is, for the most part, a loner. And when Lily quickly inserts herself into her life, Lucy’s equilibrium is disrupted especially when Lily and Teiji meet, and they apparently develop an instant chemistry.
It isn’t hard to guess what happens next and why Lucy landed in the police interrogation room. But to properly appreciate Earthquake Bird, one has to look beyond the “thriller” label. It’s more than that. Earthquake Bird is, more than anything else, a character study. It delves on Lucy’s seemingly irrational feelings of guilt about the deaths of people close to her — an emotional baggage she has been carrying around since the death of a brother when they were children.
Earthquake Bird is also a commentary on social norms. For one, it gives more than a cursory glance at the dynamics of a “romantic” heterosexual relationship. When exactly does a man that a woman has been seeing regularly become her boyfriend? Why can’t a woman (remember, it’s Japan in the 1980s) simply ask him to clarify instead of waiting for him to make it official?
Then, there’s the friendship between two women. When does a girl friend cross the line that separates being a confidant from being an intruder? And I’m not talking about the love triangle because Lily crossed that line long before she hooked up with Teiji.
These nuances are lost on many male critics whose analyses I can only attribute to a lack of understanding of the female psyche.
“It’s almost a romantic melodrama, but it’s emotionally inert,” says one.
“One of the main problems with the film is that it’s barely a mystery,” says another.
But at least one female reviewer got it right.
If you haven’t seen Earthquake Bird yet and you’re planning on seeing it, well, you’ll get nothing if you try to fit it into a box — any box whether it’s labeled as “drama” or “romance” or “thriller” or “mystery”. But if you throw away the box, Earthquake Bird is a great cinematic experience.