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To the Ends of the Earth
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by Jay Seaver

"Stranger to herself in a strange land."
4 stars

Movies and other pieces of art made to commemorate things the way "To the Ends of the Earth" apparently was (the 70th anniversary of an Uzbek landmark built by Japanese prisoners of war and 25 years of diplomatic relationships between the countries) are odd ducks, trying to serve more masters than usual, and one wonders both if that was on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's mind as he took the job and what the two countries involved thought as they watched it get made and saw the finished product. It's far from gauchely celebratory and often as unsteady as its protagonist, somehow direct and earnest but also seemingly uncertain what it's even doing there.

It follows Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the on-air talent for a television travel program whose current assignment has her in Uzbekistan, where nothing is going right, from being unable to spot a semi-mythical fish at one stop to having to choke down a severely undercooked piece of local cuisine at the next. Translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) and grip Sasaki (Tokio Emoto) and friendly and helpful, but producer Yoshioka (Shota Sometani) and cinematographer Iwao (Ryo Kase) often seem to treat her as just another thing to shoot. She may be kawaii and bubbly on-screen, but she's withdrawn and homesick off and increasingly pessimistic about having the career she really wants.

Kurosawa and star Atsuko Maeda give the audience the first bit of nervous-but-professional Yoko turning the big, fake, scripted charm on and off early on, but it's almost a diversion, something the audience knows to expect and thus takes for granted. Something more real and important happens a few minutes later, as Yoko tries really hard to be a the sort of tourist who tries to get to know a place - taking local transit to a bazaar to find dinner rather than ordering room service - only to freak out when people get too close, ducking into a convenience store to get some familiar junk food. It's a moment that one doesn't need to have traveled internationally to find familiar, but it's fascinating to watch what they establish about Yoko here and in the scenes around it, because it shows that she's not <I>just</I> the timid opposite of her on-screen persona, but curious and maybe wanting to be more like that, but having trouble finding the means. Yoko is often isolated, by language barriers, people talking about her off to the side, or how her boyfriend being multiple time zones away makes texting hard, so Maeda has to shoulder a lot of the load of showing who she is on her own, and she's great at it, whether it's those internal moments a fantasy Kurosawa doesn't signal as being such until midway through.

Part of what makes this work so well is the way Kurosawa plays with the film-within-a-film conceit. He's spent much of his career as one of Japan's best horror auteurs, and he not only uses that to highlight how fragile a thing reality and mental health can seem, but by peeling back some of the emotional whiplash involved in making that sort of thing. What to think about a scene where the producers make Yoko repeat the same miserable experience multiple times, drawn out so that the viewer can sort of marinate in her screaming, after which she feels she has to volunteer to narrate how it was kind of fun? He and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa also have a real knack for making it feel like they're shooting somewhere they're not supposed to, with Yoko skirting dangerous-looking crowds in low available light, having people in the crowd turn their head to wonder what the fast-walking Japanese girl is doing where extras are usually more stoic, or having something important happen in deep background, like they were lucky to catch it at all and couldn't reshoot. Maeda's frightened body language is good enough that one might not really think that Kurosawa was putting her through the wringer the way Yoko's producers do her, but enough of the idea forms to make those scenes uncomfortable.

It's a heck of a thing to do for a movie supposedly celebrating a quarter-century of friendship, but it surprisingly doesn't feel like a director biting the hand that feeds him. The camera unironically loves the countryside, even when there's an abandoned industrial building nearby, and also lovingly lingers as Yoko visits the Navoi Theater (heck, it even makes the brutalist Hotel Uzbekistan look good). That visit is fascinating in part because of where it's placed - before we get background from Yoko and Temur on why the place and the scene are important, and for how Kurosawa lets the music swell in a way that's almost melodramatic except that the orchestra is on-screen and the audience is appreciating them as much as anything.

The last act is three different types of tumult - Yoko unlocks something in herself in a way that cleverly asks the audience to reexamine the smug way in which many judge how young people interact with the world, and there's joy in it but also increased terror, with something even worse and more out of her control coming up as soon as she seems out of the woods. It's melodramatic but smartly played. Kurosawa is playing on his own reputation as a horror filmmaker and Maeda's history as part of a J-pop girl group whose collective image is tightly controlled, but he doesn't fall so much in love with the self-reflexiveness of it all so much as he makes it a part of how Yoko sees the world and what she's got to overcome to make her way in it.

"To the Ends of the Earth" has to build for a while to get where it winds up and as a result can be kind of slow going toward the start because there's not a lot of distraction as Kurosawa brings out all the little details that he'll be returning to and paralleling later. Once it starts to roll, though, it's awful impressive - and even, maybe, the sort of earnest story of finding a connection far from home that it didn't seem to be at first.

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originally posted: 01/17/21 10:31:15
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Directed by
  Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Written by
  Kiyoshi Kurosawa

  Atsuko Maeda
  Shota Sometani
  Tokio Emoto
  Adiz Rajabov
  Ryo Kase

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