'To the Ends of the Earth': Film Review | Locarno 2019

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Offbeat international co-production dramatizes culture-clashes in beguiling, freewheeling style.

J-pop star Atsuko Maeda leads veteran writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Japanese-Uzbek drama, the closing film at the Swiss festival this year.

The pleasingly zigzag career of Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes yet another left-field turn with To the Ends of the Earth, commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between his homeland and the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. An unpredictable, freewheeling affair which semi-humorously chronicles the wanderings and misadventures of a Japanese TV presenter compiling a travelogue about the landlocked country, the gentle-paced odyssey was quite warmly received as the closer at the Locarno International Film Festival.

The front-and-center presence of J-pop icon Atusko Maeda, formerly of the mega-selling girl group AKB48, is the major domestic selling point. Elsewhere it's more of a festival title — that circuit, where Kurosawa's works have been welcomed since his 1990s J-horror era (Cure, Pulse, Charisma), and more recently via the likes of Tokyo Sonata (2008) and Daguerrotype (2016), will display Akiko Ashizawa's widescreen visuals to maximum advantage.

Not that this is in any way a conventional homage to the spectacular landscapes of an off-the-beaten-track nation. Scenic interludes do punctuate the narrative, but Kurosawa, a prolific director who ranges freely across genres, seems insatiably curious about nearly every aspect of Uzbekistan, a California-sized country of long-standing strategic geographical importance. His hunger for uncharted, unlikely places mirrors protagonist Yoko's penchant for solo meanderings, which often lead her into improbable, potentially hazardous corners of both urban and rural environments.

A perky pro on camera (most gallantly during protracted, nausea-inducing spins on a miniature-fairground ride), Yoko is in her private life a complex character keen to expand her emotional and geographical limits. The film finds considerable humor in the contrast between the two sides of her personality as she negotiates a tricky career crossroads. At two crucial junctures (around the midway point and in the final minutes) we accompany her into the realm of fantasy. Kurosawa here smoothly switches gears into movie-musical mode as Yoko gives full vent to her singing abilities — warbling the cheesily romantic number that provides the film's title — against the backdrop first of an ornate Soviet-era theater and later on a meadow amid mountainous terrain.

At each step of the way, the film convincingly evokes various milieus with documentary-style verisimilitude: It really does feel like Maeda/Yoko is stumbling haphazardly from one real setting to another, in a film expertly cast down the to the tiniest of roles.

Particularly good value in this regard is hulking Yunusjon Asqarov, who exudes genuine screen presence in his fleeting appearances as a short-tempered fisherman on Lake Aydar, recruited by Yoko's crew as they seek evidence of a probably mythical fish. Uzbek superstar Adiz Rajabov makes the most of his sympathetic, prominent supporting role as super-competent interpreter Temur, though the pic stands or falls on the relatively inexperienced Maeda, who copes notably well with the demands of a tricky leading part.

A shaggy-seeming but carefully modulated affair, To the Ends of the Earth gradually emerges as an offbeat but persuasive investigation of culture-clashes and the potential for trans-global bridge-building: "We can't know each other unless we talk," a police chief informs Yoko after she bumblingly ends up in custody due to a chain of mishaps and misunderstandings. Officially endorsed international co-productions are usually stilted, self-consciously didactic affairs; the seasoned but adventurous hands of Kurosawa, however, here yield quietly immersive and spellbinding results.

Production companies: Tokyo Theatres Co., Loaded Films
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Adiz Rajabov, Shota Sometani, Ryo Kase, Tokio Emoto
Director-screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Producers: Eiko Mizuno-Gray, Toshikazu Nishigaya, Jason Gray
Cinematographer: Akiko Ashizawa
Production designer: Norifumi Ataka
Costume designer: Haruki Koketsu
Music: Yusuke Hayashi
Editor: Koichi Takahashi
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Free Stone Productions, Tokyo

In Japanese, Uzbek
121 minutes