To The Ends of the Earth ( Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2019) Japan, Uzbekistan, Qatar

Reviewed by Luther Richert at the AFI Film Festival.

Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari (2019)

Imagine that you’re a young Japanese professional women traveling to Uzbekistan where you don’t know the language or the first thing about the culture but your mission is to convince Japanese tourists what a fun place it is. If you’re having a hard time getting into character, you’re not alone. Now try to imagine you’re a brilliant singer trapped in the life of a lonely nobody and all you want is to be noticed and connect with the world around you in a meaningful way. If you can relate to scenario number two, you will likely relate to the film To the Ends of the Earth (2019) screened at the American Film Institute Film Festival under the category World Cinema.

Directed by internationally acclaimed director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and shot on location, To the Ends of the Earth tells the story of travel reporter Yoko (played by former J-pop icon Atusko Maeda) and her crew for an unnamed Japanese TV show shooting a travelogue in Uzbekistan. Yoko and her small team’s objective is to catch a mythical fish on a giant man made lake but fail, at least partially, because the local fishermen don’t want a women on their lake. They are not impressed that she is the host of a TV show. To fill in the gaps of the illusive (and possibly imaginary) big fish, her and the crew try to backfill the story with local color including a popular restaurant (Yoko discovers the hard way is terrible) and a dangerous DIY amusement park ride that almost kills her. Alienated by this series of uncomfortable misunderstandings with sexist overtones from both the locals and her own crew, Yoko begins to loose her ability to act enthusiastic on camera and starts to wander the streets of the menacing and unfamiliar landscape alone. One night, she comes across a tied up goat that appears to be very smart and desperately wants it’s freedom. The goat haunts her (and us) and she later suggests to the crew that they purchase the goat and set it free in the wild for the show. The crew like the idea. It’s a go! Of course the locals consider this act not only absurd but also wasteful and the goat’s release doesn’t go quiet as planned. What seemed at first like a bold exercise in animal rights and freedom starts to look more like awkward entitlement and privilege run amok. The goat seems doomed to be eaten by wild dogs… but is it? The answer to this question alone is worth the price of admission!

Reminiscent of Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003 ) the slow pace, wide angles, personal pensive moments and documentary style camera work start to reveal that this story is about much more than this particular woman alone and adrift in a strange and menacing land. While striding along with Yoko though Uzbek cityscapes, dangerous busy highways and back alleys we begin to notice and share her never ending anxieties and suppressed desires for personal expression and connection. This is not a musical so one of the most unexpected, and stunning, moments of the film is when Yoko (in what seems at first like a daydream fantasy appearance on reality TV’s “The Voice”) gets on a stage hidden in a desolate and strange corner of the city and sings! Not, as we expect, a meek off-key karaoke performance but a Japanese Whitney Houston performance as heard for the first time in the front row at a church choir. I mean this actress can sing and her performance literally comes out of nowhere. While singing, Yoko has finally found her voice. She experiences that illusive big fish, an honest and real connection to the once fragmented, but now whole, world around her. A voice we can all relate too and appreciate… and secretly yearn for ourselves!

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