Thursday, August 03, 2023

Japan Cuts ’23: Under the Turquoise Sky

During WWII, Japan’s invasion of Mongolia did not go very well for them. That is why they agreed to a neutrality treaty with Stalin. Yet, after the fall of Communism, the two nations forged strong diplomatic ties. That is a lot of history. The history is particularly complicated for Saburo, an aging industrialist, who served in Mongolia during the War. He has a daughter somewhere on the steppe, whom he hopes his wastrel grandson can find before he dies in Kentaro’s Under the Turquoise Sky, which screens as the centerpiece selection of the 2023 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Saburo is dying, but he knows the hard-partying Takeshi is not sufficiently responsible to succeed him yet. He hopes his mission to Mongolia might season him a little. Of course, he cannot send him alone. His unlikely companion will be Amaraa, a Mongolian national who was arrested for stealing one of Saburo’s horses (and giving the cops an extremely cinematic chase on horseback). Fortunately, the old man is a good judge of character, so he hopes the horse thief can help the clueless Takeshi find the woman known as “Japanese Tsermaa.”

In terms of storyline,
Turquoise Sky is not excessively complicated. It really is your basic road narrative with lessons to be learned by a young man—when he least expects them, of course, but the sweeping Mongolian scenery is an amazing visual (they do not even make to the massive Genghis Khan Statue Complex). Kentaro (an actor turned director, probably best known for roles in Rush Hour 3 and Kiss of the Dragon) also achieves a potently wistful vibe. Arguably, there is strength in the simplicity of his approach.

Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam (who also co-wrote the screenplay) is also quite remarkable as the taciturn but strangely charismatic Amaraa. His relationship with Takeshi is smartly written and subtly played. They do eventually reach friendly terms, but there is never any blubbering bro-mance. They just start to accept each other.

Yuya Yagira is also well-cast as Takeshi and he really shines in his later scenes with Tsetsegee Byanba portraying a pregnant nomadic woman who offers him shelter. Their largely non-verbal chemistry is just sweet and touching.

Turquoise Sky
is as predictable as the setting sun, but it sure looks great receding beyond the vast Mongolian steppe. Ivan Kovac’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, matched by Kentaro’s sensitive treatment of his characters. Lulu Gainsbourg minimalist string orchestrations of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” is an odd choice, but it seems to fit the mood. Even if it is not wildly original, Under the Turquoise Sky is very definitely aesthetically pleasing. Recommended for fans of road movies, especially the slower kind, it screens tonight (8/4) and tomorrow (8/5) as the centerpiece of this year’s Japan Cuts.