At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center to April 15

One weekend, four Tokyo residents take an excursion into the countryside. When they return to the place where their SUV was parked, they find it has vanished. A stranger appears and escorts them to an abandoned house in the nearby woods, where they must all spend the night.

If this sounds like the setup for a horror flick, there are two preliminary indications that Distance will be nothing so simple. First, it’s a film by writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose work is about memory and loss. In most of his scenarios, the horrors have already occurred. Second, the film has already explained what brought the four acquaintances together. In an uncharacteristically forthcoming touch, Distance opens with a radio report: It’s the third anniversary of the day a religious cult, Ark of Truth, poisoned Tokyo’s water supply with a virus, killing 128 people and injuring thousands more.

Some viewers find Kore-eda’s films frustratingly elusive, and yet they’re always grounded in reality. In fact, the filmmaker began his career as a documentarian, and he incorporated dozens of real-life remembrances into his previous film, After Life. In Distance, the dialogue is partially improvised, based on an actual event that nearly everyone in Japan has likely discussed: the 1995 release of sarin gas on five Tokyo subway trains by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. From the personal recollections of After Life and Maborosi, the director’s suicide-themed first fiction film, Kore-eda has moved to a haunting collective nightmare.

Distance opens and closes in Tokyo, and it repeatedly flashes back to events in that city. Yet most of the action transpires in the sort of isolated place that, for Kore-eda, befits contemplation. After meeting at a rural train station, the four make their pilgrimage to a remote lake associated with lost loved ones. Construction-company executive Minoru (Susumu Terajima), schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and florist Atsushi (After Life star Arata) are mourning, respectively, a wife, a husband, a brother, and a sister. The dearly departed are not innocent victims: Each was an Ark of Truth member implicated in the virus attack, and each had split definitively with family and friends when joining the cult. Yet the bonds of family and marriage, awkward as they have become, remain.

The four Tokyoites don’t know each other well, which sets up Kore-eda’s traditional last-act surprise. But each comes to understand the others a little better during their night together, spurred by conversations with a fifth person, Sakata (Tadanobu Asano). He, it turns out, is a former cult member who fled when the order to unleash the virus was given. As the travelers give their names, Sakata recognizes each one. He’s the bereaved visitors’ link to what happened, yet he can’t explain it any better than people who were on the outside.

Distance, whose original title is the English, is clearly of a piece with Kore-eda’s earlier work. The director’s first feature was a string of exquisitely composed almost-still-lifes, all but one shot with a fixed-position camera. After Life, though more conventional, also had a strong sense of process. Much of the film was a series of interviews with people who had just arrived in heaven. Shot mostly with handheld camera, Distance continues to move away from the first film’s rigorous schema—but not its elegiac mood. And though many of its images are shaky and blurred, it includes some shots worthy of the luminous Maborosi (whose full Japanese title means “Illusion of Light”). An early-morning view of the lake, cloaked in mist and glowing orange from the reflected dawn, is the striking conclusion of the quintet’s uneasy sleepover.

Whereas Kore-eda’s other features started slow and built to quietly powerful emotional epiphanies, Distance begins at a dash, with quick grabs of the four preparing for the trip: Minoru drinks with his boss; Kiyoka makes rice balls; Masaru cagily sidesteps his girlfriend’s questions about the excursion; Atsushi visits a hospitalized man who seems to be his father. It’s Atsushi who provides the story’s final twist, but that element doesn’t work as well as in Kore-eda’s previous films. The florist’s secret is less integral to the story than the other movies’ payoffs, and it’s so enigmatic that it’s a bit distracting.

Made in 2001, Distance never hooked an American distributor; the AFI Silver booking is its U.S. theatrical premiere. It’s easy to see why buyers let this one pass: For all its visual authority, the movie has a wobblier structure than Kore-eda’s other features, and the subject of cult murder-suicides is certainly less accessible than the everyday losses invoked by the earlier movies. Still, it’s a beautiful, moving film, one that burrows even deeper into the mysteries of love and its inevitable disappearance.

Thoughtfully, AFI has also scheduled screenings of Maborosi (April 10, 11, and 14) and After Life (April 9–12). Although not literally a trilogy, the three do interweave, and the experience of any one intensifies the other two.

How many Japanese extras does it take to highlight an English-speaking star? Kill Bill—Vol. 1 and Lost in Translation enlisted dozens; The Last Samurai mustered hundreds. Director Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story basically has only one, but then, it’s not set in Japan.

The plot of this sometimes clumsy but ultimately affecting film pivots on how the Japanese behave when they leave home. On a trip to Australia, uptight young businessman Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) serves as the foil to geologist Sandy (Toni Collette), who’s a little uptight herself. Sandy isn’t happy when she’s told to guide Hiromitsu through he West Australia desert to a mine his company owns a piece of. Her mood doesn’t improve when her guest is revealed to be unfriendly, imperious, and unable to speak even a few words of English. As they drive across the outback, each complains to friends via cell phone: Sandy reports that Hiromitsu is a “jerk,” while he gripes that she’s “loud and aggressive.”

The visitor begins to seem a little more human when two of Sandy’s colleagues drag him to a bar for an evening of karaoke and Japanese-style drinking ’til you drop. (When Hiromitsu’s time at the mike arrives, he sings “Danny Boy” as if it were the direst of obligations.) Back on the road, he and Sandy haltingly bicker for a few hundred miles more, but Alison Tilson’s screenplay has not one but two tonal shifts in store: After surviving a potentially fatal desert mishap together, Sandy and Hiromitsu become close—really close. It helps that as the man loosens up—becoming “Hiro” in the process—his English improves exponentially. In a hour of screen time, Hiro evolves from an alien who simply babbles Hai, hai (“Yes, yes”) to a regular guy whose only problem with the local lingo is pronouncing “desert” as if he meant cake or pie. While Hiro’s personality undergoes a similar makeover, more convenient than convincing, even his wardrobe becomes more suitable.

Then the mood swings again, becoming much darker. As Sandy scrambles to learn more about the customs of Hiro’s homeland, the movie itself turns credibly Japanese with a final act that is hushed, somber, and surprisingly moving. In her first lead role since Muriel’s Wedding, the versatile Collette handles the transformations better than the script does. Trim, blond, and brasher than ever before, she doesn’t recall any of the mostly supporting roles for which she’s known. Formal, impassive Japanese culture and the beautiful, menacing outback contribute to this film’s unexpected resonance, but ultimately, it’s Sandy’s story. CP