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    Out Filmmaker’s Latest Drama Is a Twisty Mystery

    By Gary Kramer–

    Written and directed by out gay filmmaker Wash Westmoreland, Earthquake Bird is a twisty and absorbing adaptation of Susanna Jones’ celebrated novel.

    The juicy drama, available on Netflix November 15, is set in 1989 Tokyo. Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander) works as a translator. She has been living in Japan for more than five years, having escaped a troubled youth in Sweden. One morning, she is taken in for questioning by two detectives investigating the disappearance—and possible death—of Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), an American whom Lucy befriended. Lucy may, in fact, have been the last person to see Lily alive.

    Earthquake Bird toggles back and forth in time starting with how Lucy was picked up by Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a tall, handsome photographer. As he takes her photograph, Lucy and Teiji connect. They agree to go out to eat, talking frankly about their lives. He brings her back to his studio and takes more photographs. Their attraction develops, and they continue to have photo sessions and meals. However, Lucy’s new romance is disrupted by the arrival of Lily.

    The young women are introduced at a karaoke bar by their mutual friend Bob (Jack Huston). Lucy helps Lily, who knows little to no Japanese, to do things like order food, find an apartment, and settle into the rhythms of life in Tokyo. Lily comes to rely on Lucy, but Lucy would rather be with her boyfriend.

    Earthquake Bird chronicles how Lucy deals with both Lily and Teiji. Whereas Lily is needy, dropping by unexpectedly, Teiji is secretive, keeping files of his photographs in a locked cabinet. Lucy also experiences tremors with each of them: once, when an earthquake rattles Lucy and Teiji in his studio, and another time when Lily is sleeping over Lucy’s. The city’s unstable foundation is a good metaphor for Lucy’s fragile emotional state.

    What slowly becomes apparent—and what makes Westmoreland’s film so compelling—is that Lucy may be an unreliable narrator. As she recounts things to the detectives, or to other people, the truth may be slightly different than what she says. Moreover, Lucy insists that “death follows me,” and as she witnesses a fatal accident, or reveals unfortunate events from her life, her statement sounds convincing. And when Lily reads Lucy’s palm, there is a suggestion that things may be dire for her.

    Westmoreland seems to have fun keeping viewers guessing at the truth, and he enjoys putting some ambiguous scenes in Earthquake Bird. When Lily arranges to sleep in-between Lucy and Teiji, the women first kiss each other and then they each kiss Teiji. Is their relationship developing into a threesome? Not if Lucy can help it. She acts pretty jealous when Lily dances with Teiji at a club one evening.

    Earthquake Bird does pivot on the did-Lucy-or-didn’t-Lucy murder Lily, and while the film does eventually answer that question, it is more fun diving deep into Lucy’s complicated backstory or her more recent state of uneasiness. Flashbacks hint at Lucy’s dark past, and a story she tells is pretty shocking. Likewise, a trip to Sado island that the trio takes starts out friendly, but it soon gets uncomfortable—especially when Lucy experiences a sudden illness. Could it have been that fish eye she ate, or something more sinister?

    It is easy to poke holes in the plotting, where seemingly nefarious doings are simply explained, but picking nits ruins this entertaining film. Watching Lucy question everything one minute and take control the next is thrilling, in part, because of Alicia Vikander’s committed performance. She can feel terribly guilty and worn down and then suddenly be conniving.

    One of the more suspenseful sequences has Lucy getting caught red-handed breaking into Teiji’s photo cabinet. As she admits her bad behavior and breaks his trust, she apologizes in a way that shows her not just her regret, but also her silent personal pride in her transgression. She may be docile like good Japanese women are, but she has a feistiness about her that still comes out to play.

    Earthquake Bird also benefits from relative newcomer (and J-pop dancer) Kobayashi’s turn at Teiji. He is seductive and mysterious, and it is easy to see why both Lucy and Lily fall under his spell. In support, Riley Keough is terrific as the ugly American whose innocent actions may belie a more calculated and deceptive motive. The sexual tensions that percolate and ricochet among the three attractive leads infuse the film with its frisson.
    Westmoreland does include a few red herrings as the story builds to its dramatic climax, and some of Earthquake Bird may feel manipulative or unsatisfying. But those faults will be overlooked by viewers who go on this reckless thrill ride.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on November 14, 2019