Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 10, 2020 10:49 am 
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Culture clash? or non-connection?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa turns away from his usual fare to focus on a Japanese TV thing, invasive travelogue-style variety programming with perky young women visiting "fun" cultures in a very superficial way. This movie is actually an Uzbekistan-Japan cooperative venture, but one that's offbeat indeed. This may amply distract us from the director's recent failure to live up to the quality of revolutionary creepy films like Pulse and Cure. This show's "reporter," who's more just an announcer, the slave of her small TV team shooting on location in the aforementioned remote landlocked country, is Yoko, played by by J-popstar-turned-actress Atusko Maedam who already starred in Kurosawa's 2017 Before We Vanish, and may be turning into a muse.

Yoko tries to keep a cheery front (that's the job) but is having a hard time, forced to wade into icky water looking for a legendary fish that never appears, to pretend to find an undercooked local specialty delicious, then to undergo torture on a rickety, probably dangerous caranival ride that makes her throw up. The director, Yoshi (Shota Sometani) is nearly always mean to her; the photographer (Ryo Kase) only connects once. She often escapes on her own into other mishaps, pursued by leering men, oppressed by hagglers, riding a bus where no one can tell her when her stop comes in a language she can understand, and her English isn't that great anyway. Once she discovers a goat she thinks is cruelly tethered all day. Other scenes aren't working, so she suggests they do one where she sets this goat free. See wehre that goes: it becomes one of this meandering film's memorable riffs. She only longs for her boyfriend back home, Ryo, a marine fireman. For now she may have to settle for the goat. A huge worry about what may have happened to Ryo is resolved in a reassuring manner.

Yoko dreams of becoming a singer and is practicing the Japanese version of Edith Piaf's "Chanson d'amour, which she dreams in an opera house she sneaks into, then does for real on a grassy hillside, a la Maria von Trapp. Thus the film swings from the struggles of a young woman in an abusive (but perhaps career-path) job toward sweet fantasies. And the opera house has a fascinating historical tie-in with Japan and figured importantly in the interpreter's life, occasioning his longest speech. A notable feature of the film is its self-conscious casting down to the smallest roles, which often surrounds Yoko with handsome men. They're all around her on that scary bus. The TV team's Uzbek-Japanese interpreter, played by Uzbek star Adiz Rajabov, is not only good-looking and kind, but the only liaison the principals have with the country. It's a handsome goat too, big, white, and fluffy.

This is a film of small incidents neatly stitched together and is not headed toward a real crisis. Yoko's willingness to follow her director's apparently, for once, kind instructions, arming her with a small camera of her own, does lead her into trouble with the authorities. The point, though, is that the Japanese videographers don't "get" the local culture, and it's really not scary but pretty nice. But what's outstanding about this film isn't it's critique of smug and superficial Japanese cultural tourism TV or its study of the travails of its plucky young speaker but a certain otherworldly and unexpected quality. It may be, though, that Kurosawa takes a little long, at a bit over two hours, to achieve this. But he creates a special space in your head.

To the Ends of the Earth 旅のおわり世界のはじまり, 121 mins., debuted at Locarno, also showing at Toronto, London, Busan, New York, and Barcelona (D'A Film Festival) in 2019 and featured at the Asian Film Awards (where Ryo Kase received the best supporting award, and Faro Island. Some other nominations. Dec. 11-18, 2020 exclusive release by Metrograph. Metascore 84.

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