Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest is an enigmatic travelogue about a Japanese TV host coming to terms with lost dreams and loneliness
To the Ends of the Earth, the new film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for his horror films but also the brilliant societal drama Tokyo Sonata, is a strange travelogue about loneliness and lost dreams, the blurred lines between travel and tourism, told through the plight of a Japanese television reporter, Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), as she presents a travel show on Uzbekistan.
On camera, Yoko is child-like and hyperactive, the way Japanese hosts so often are, pushing a faux-naivety on an array of cultural experiences: fishing in a lake, visiting an amusement park, sampling the local cuisine. Off camera, though, it's a different story: Yoko is quiet, repressed, and ignored by a team of apathetic men who do little to consider her personal feelings. The Uzbek fishing guide is unhelpful and rude; the amusement park ride causes to her throw up; the cuisine is undercooked and inedible.
When she's not filming, Yoko partakes in a series of solo wanderings. Taking buses whose destinations she can't be sure. Getting lost in the country's maze of backstreets and alleyways. She is relentlessly gawked at by the locals – an anxiety trigger that causes her to break into a little run whenever it all gets too much. Yoko is literally lost, but she is also lost in life – unable to connect, more content with lying around in hotel rooms. Yet, for reasons we never quite get to, she insists on going out alone anyway.
As she explores, Kurosawa offers a level-headed but mostly complimentary portrait of a country few of us are likely to know much about. From the spiritual city of Samarkand to the intoxicating chaos of the capital, Tashkent, the filmmaker never dares to paint too romantic a picture of the country, but the hazy cinematography and quiet pacing sell it anyway. There's also a pleasing sub-plot involving a goat.
All the time, Kurosawa seems to be asking: What do we want from travel? Do we yearn for the picture postcard locales because it simplifies things? I was reminded, unexpectedly, of the moment in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, where Dr. Wu explains that the look of the dinosaurs is not based on the reality, but on the public's pre-existing perceptions; sometimes the lie is better because it's more comforting, more familiar, and aligns better with our expectations. Same goes for Yoko and her team, who sell audiences a false idea for the purpose of light entertainment. It's not that the real Uzbekistan is made to seem like a bad place; just that the film-within-a-film isn't true to what Yoko is actually experiencing. But what is the point of a travel show that isn't real? Who are we kidding – and for what reason?
In another moment, Yoko calls her partner back home and tells him, “It's so nice here. The people are so nice.” Does she say this so that he doesn't worry? Or is she merely trying to convince herself? Kurosawa's film is peppered with ambiguous but dramatically interesting moments like this, further complicating the portrait of a quarter-life crisis. It's hard to get a grip on Yoko as a character; then again, she can't seem to get a grip on herself. What we know for sure is that she wants to sing, and it's this forgotten dream that seems to haunt her – and later helps to liberate her – in the film's moving final scene, a full-on musical number to rival the mountain-set opener of The Sound of Music.
To the Ends of the Earth is a cryptic film that tells a different story depending on who's watching. But there is something to be admired in Kurosawa's gentle hand; a willingness to let the audience dictate meaning from a fascinating and ultimately moving collage of exotic images.
To the Ends of the Earth is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch