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A Trip 'To the Ends of the Earth' Is No Remedy for Loneliness

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IN A STRANGE LAND Maeda plays a TV personality negotiating cultural difference and fear of the other in Kurosawa's rich and odd drama. - COURTESY OF KIMSTIM
  • Courtesy Of Kimstim
  • IN A STRANGE LAND Maeda plays a TV personality negotiating cultural difference and fear of the other in Kurosawa's rich and odd drama.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I watched a new film from one of Japan's best working directors that you can stream via Montpelier's Savoy Theater. (The theater is open both physically and virtually, with two different slates of movies; see savoytheater.com for info.)

Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is well-known to fans of Japanese horror for combining paranoid tension with the surreal. But he's also an acute observer of modern life and mores, and that's the mode he's in with To the Ends of the Earth, released in Japan in 2019.

The deal

Yoko (pop star Atsuko Maeda) is the on-air personality for a TV travel show. She and her small crew have come to Uzbekistan to film an episode full of local color. For Yoko, that means enduring abuse from a misogynistic fisherman, eating uncooked rice, and riding a carnival attraction until she vomits. A pro, she does it all with an enormous smile, delivering gushy, vacuous commentary that she memorizes minutes before shooting.

Off camera, though, Yoko's smile disappears. She's moody, withdrawn and furtive as she explores the country, separated from the Uzbekis by an impregnable language barrier. Inch by inch, Kurosawa's film unveils Yoko to us, revealing her yearning to connect with others and the world in ways her job can never allow.

Will you like it?

To the Ends of the Earth was made to commemorate a quarter-century of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, but until a character delivers a bit of exposition toward the end, you would never guess. This is an intensely personal film about the loneliness of a hyper-connected global citizen.

Don't be alarmed when subtitles don't show up immediately; while the Japanese dialogue has them, the Uzbeki dialogue (with a key exception) remains untranslated. That filmmaking choice puts us in Yoko's shoes, which is initially a very alienating place to be. Capturing her in long shots, a tiny figure in a vast landscape, Kurosawa keeps us guessing about who she is under the brilliant TV smile. Then he allows us to discover for ourselves.

Some viewers might feel tempted to turn off this movie 30 minutes in, frustrated by what appears to be a beautifully shot documentary about the rigors of shooting cheesy TV travelogues. They would be wrong.

Personal story: When I first watched Kurosawa's cult classic Pulse (2001), I fell asleep. It was a hypnotic slow burn, but it was ... slow. I woke an hour later to witness the riveting ending of what felt like a movie in a whole different genre. Desperately curious to see how the story arrived there, I rewound and watched into the small hours.

I don't recommend this method of viewing To the Ends of the Earth, but it might yield similar results. While most American screenwriters venerate three-act structure and genre expectations, Kurosawa takes dramatic left turns. Without spoiling any of those, I'll simply note that the title of this seemingly sober and realistic movie comes from a translation of Edith Piaf's "Hymne à l'amour," one of the most hyperbolically romantic songs ever written. By the end, every bit of that romanticism is on-screen.

Without overt messaging, To the Ends of the Earth says a lot about being a foreigner — particularly a woman in a culture more restrictive than her own — and about the dehumanizing process of producing infotainment for mass consumption. It gets pandemic bonus points for taking us on a tour of a country not often seen on American screens. (The film also commemorates the 70th anniversary of Tashkent's Navoi Theater, which is ravishing.)

More than anything else, though, To the Ends of the Earth is a mesmerizing movie about isolation, real or perceived, and how it can warp our perceptions. When it finally connects with the audience, it does so in a big way.

If you like this, try...

Pulse (Kairo) (2001; Tubi, Vudu, Pluto TV, rentable): If anything, Kurosawa's arty horror film about ghosts that live online has only become more relevant. Avoid the American remake! Also, try his acclaimed mystery drama Cure (1997; Criterion Channel, rentable).

The Assistant (2019; Hulu, rentable): Like Yoko in To the Ends of the Earth, the title character in Kitty Green's dark fly-on-the-wall drama finds her dream job in show biz more dehumanizing than she could ever have imagined.

The Loneliest Planet (2011; AMC+, IFC Films Unlimited, rentable): Films about disaffected people being sad in foreign countries are their own mini genre. Everyone knows Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation but perhaps not this scenic indie from Julia Loktev, in which a young couple's relationship undergoes a shattering test in the Caucasus Mountains.

The original print version of this article was headlined "To the Ends of the Earth"

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