Marking the 25th anniversary of diplomacy between Japan and Uzbekistan, Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a freewheeling comedy of cultural errors. With J-popstar Atsuko Maeda in the lead as bored TV reporter Yoko, To the Ends of the Earth is a light, airy and fun journey with flashes of poetry.
Shooting on location in Uzbekistan for a bland lifestyle documentary, Yoko’s perky on-screen persona is a far cry from her real-life personality. Standing waist-deep in muddy water for a bit on catching a famously weird local fish, Yoko’s code-switching between the permanently upbeat TV personality and the bored, frustrated reporter are among the film’s funniest moments. Net after net turns up nought but old boots and plastic bags but still her crew – including callow, short-tempered director Yoshioka (Shôta Sometani, also appearing in Takashi Miike’s First Love) and interpreter Temur (Adiz Rajabov) – persist.
Later, Yoko is convinced to do a segment on some local cuisine, choking down the uncooked rice – “it’s deliciously crunchy!” – despite the food being inedibly prepared for the camera. As Yoko quickly changes in the crew’s van to give the appearance that each sequence has been shot on different days, the locals look on. It would be easy for this to read as voyeurism, but such is the delicacy of Kurosawa’s framing and the contextual tone of the scene that their curiosity registers as little more than slightly amused bafflement.
As a cultural interloper, Yoko is wonderfully, recognisably sympathetic. Certainly, the combination of her search for an authentic cultural experience, her homesickness, and her rather sullen attitude towards her job is doubtless more than a little resonant for tired festival hounds. For anyone who has ever had to grin and bear it on the merry-go-round of work, Yoko’s stomach-churning endurance on a rickety old fairground ride will ring nauseatingly familiar.
Kurosawa nurtures our empathy in several key scenes, such as Yoko’s decision to explore on her own on her night off, only to be spooked by the unfamiliar nightlife and a lone goat in a garden pen. Another sequence, in which Yoko fantasises about singing on the stage of a concert hall, is disarmingly beautiful, a moment of pure, unexpected poetry in the midst of the semi-farcical, realist comedy.
The film’s conclusion returns to the earlier scene’s flight of fancy, but this time it is played more for lightness against the stunning backdrop of the Uzbek countryside. The deeply-felt sensation of the concert hall is felt more closely in a sequence in which the sensitive Temur describes how he came to love Japanese culture through an anecdote about prisoners of war building a beautiful room in an Uzbek museum. That we never see their work gives the story a shaggy-dog quality, maintaining the film’s lovely lightness of being while sustaining a deeply-felt emotion that is easy to miss among all the effervescence.
The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell