AFI Fest 2019: To the Ends of the Earth, by Scott Nye
At first, there is nothing; nothing but yourself, your shabby collection of maps, and signs that could mean anything. You get off the bus or the train into a sea of meaninglessness. This is how To the Ends of the Earth begins, and it will not seem at all unfamiliar to anyone who has traveled alone in a foreign country. The “you” here is Yoko, the host of a Japanese TV program about Uzbekistan. She could not be further removed from her comfort zone – even in the modest crew that accompanies her, she is the only woman, and despite hosting the program, she has virtually no authority over what she is to say or do. She gets a script, she gets into the clothes provided, and she dives right in. Literally; her first location is a lake that’s supposed to have a very particular fish. Supposed to. Not a lot is going right on this trip.
There’s the unique Uzbek cuisine that’s undercooked. There’s an amusement park ride that seems closer to an astronaut training module. There’s an aquarium that revokes their filming privileges the day they arrive. Yet whenever she’s on camera, she has to be excited and upbeat, thrilled with the most mundane surroundings and inconclusive assignment. She is portrayed by Atsuko Maeda, who at only 28 has spent fully half her life in the truly grueling business of Japanese pop stardom, a gauntlet that demands obscene commitment to achieve success.
This role seems particularly suited to her, and writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa apparently wrote it with her in mind. “She’s distinct,” he told The Film Stage. “She has some qualities unique to her. Especially when she’s on her own on the screen, and she doesn’t share the shot with other people: she’s able to exist by herself.” Even when she has a scene with others, Kurosawa will foreground her experience, setting Yoko apart from everyone else, which underscores her isolation and focuses our attention on how she’s processing the scene. Her transition between depression or illness or sleep deprivation into the ideal image of adult girlhood she’s meant to embody as a host rings the bell of direct experience.
Kurosawa is apparently most known for horror films like Cure and Pulse and Loft and some other evocative one-word titles. There’s a certain touch of suspense here, as Yoko has to navigate dark roads filled with strangers who mean her no harm, but who are still mostly men, mostly much larger than her, who can tell right away she doesn’t belong. Still, he’ll always be the director of Journey to the Shore for me, as that was the first and so far only other film of his I’ve seen. In that film, a woman is visited by her dead husband, now a ghost, who takes her to the towns he has visited and the people who made an impact on him. Its travelogue is similarly filled with unknown elements that are a little uncomfortable at first, but which gradually reveal more about the protagonist’s inhibitions than the threat of her surroundings.
If you’re wondering what the heck a Japanese film is doing being set in Uzbekistan in the first place, you needn’t chalk it up to random curiosity – the film was suggested to commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the 70th anniversary of the Navoi Theater, which was renovated by Japanese prisoners of war immediately following World War II, and which figures into the film at two key moments. In both instances, the theater becomes a sort of sanctuary, a place of rejuvenation when much else seems to be going wrong. Its history and architecture helps explain this, but even before the story of the place is revealed, Kurosawa shoots it in a way that emphasizes the building’s calming effects, placing Maeda in a series of symmetrical shots as she navigates its cavernous hallways, refusing us the full path of her travels but setting us on a sort of spiritual journey to its center.
That this sequence sits comfortably alongside the thriller-infused paranoia of wandering foreign streets, which all works in tandem with some moments of outright comedy and others of tremendous warmth is a massive testament to Kurosawa’s talent. Like any trip abroad, the film feels capable of becoming almost anything from moment to moment, and is consistently surprising without resorting to shock or twists. There’s an inherent risk in this type of storytelling, but it follows so naturally the act walking in an unfamiliar place, all the thoughts than consume us and the potential wonder at what we might encounter.