Friday, December 11, 2020

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth

Uzbekistan has an authoritarian government that effectively outlaws any organized opposition. Freedom House scored it a “2” on a scale of 100 in their democracy rankings, but sure, by all means, consider it for your next vacation. Yoko’s vapid travel show will help you plan your trip. In doing so, she endures constant indignities in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth, which opens today via the Metrograph’s virtual cinema.

Yoko is the on-camera talent, but Yoshioka, the producer, and his crew show her little respect. Sometimes Iwao the cameraman is sort of an exception, but Yoko still feels very much alone during the shoot. The centerpiece of the Uzbekistan episode is supposed to involve catching a rare bramul fish in Aydar Lake, but the darn fish just won’t cooperate. Of course, the traditional fishermen do not help much when they balk at the notion of a woman on a boat.

Ends of the Earth
runs nearly two full hours, but there is not a lot of narrative stuff going on in there. Yet, it is often extremely uncomfortable to watch, especially when Yoko is forced to ride a sketchy amusement park deigned to approximate the G-force of cosmonaut-training, over and over again. Eventually, a bit of suspense crops up in the third act, followed by a genuinely moving emotional payoff, but it takes a forced march to get there.

As a Japanese/Uzbek co-production, the film was conceived to commemorate the 25
th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations (we all celebrated in our own special ways, didn’t we?) and the 70th anniversary of the Navoi Theater in Tashkent (which truly looks majestic on-screen). Yet, it often makes the Uzbek people appear less than enlightened. Regardless, Ends of the Earth represents a huge change of pace from the horror films Kurosawa is famous for, but arguably, it has a greater sense of foreboding than Tokyo Sonata, his last non-genre ringer.

He really puts a heavy load on Atsuko Maeda’s shoulders, but she carries it admirably. She is in every scene, some of which are clearly physically demanding, but she holds our attention and our sympathies every second. She also sings marvelously in two key scenes. It is a great performance, but it makes us start resenting Kurosawa for his treatment of her character.

Ends of the Earth
is clearly the work of a skilled auteur, but it is also an exhausting viewing experience. As beautiful as the Navoi is, it is doubtful the film will inspire much tourism. By the way, if you ever find yourself chased by Uzbek cops, I recommend you run like heck, despite what we see in this film (again, refer to Freedom House’s country page, if you need a further explanation).

Ultimately, Maeda’s remarkable performance and a number of arresting shots really should have added up to more. Even Kurosawa admirers will find it frustrating. Earning decidedly mixed feelings,
To the Ends of the Earth is we can respect, but not recommended for audiences anywhere close to mainstream or genre fans when it opens virtually today (12/11), at the Metrograph.