Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 117
To the Ends of the Earth is one of the Grand Illusion’s streaming-service movies right now, giving us a chance to look in on what the far-ranging filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is up to these days. I delved.
“What if I set a goat free? Would that be good TV?” By the time we’ve gotten to this point in To the Ends of the Earth, it seems perfectly natural that our protagonist, Yoko (Japanese pop star Atsuko Maeda), might pose this question. She’s the host of a travel show, and her small crew has been stumbling through Uzbekistan in search of dumb local-interest vignettes, which probably have little to do with actual life in Uzbekistan.
The stories, in which Yoko is little more than a chattering prop at the mercy of a bored director, are punctuated with sequences in which Yoko goes out exploring on her own. Hapless and fearful, she invariably gets disoriented, quite the opposite of her plucky camera persona. (In one sequence she wants to explore a lively bazaar, only to run from the overly-aggressive vendors, finally slipping into an anonymous but safe convenience store to buy a couple of packaged rolls.) She dreams of being a singer, as we see in a quasi-fantasy sequence set in a huge theater in Tashkent.
In the middle of the film there’s a somewhat improbable sequence in which Yoko comes alive while toting a camera in a marketplace (the sympathetic cameraman has told her that having a camera changes things, and we see how it affects her otherwise wary demeanor), and is then chased by police for filming in a forbidden area. There’s also the bit with the goat, kept as a pet, whose name is sounds suspiciously close to “Yoko.” Its fate could make a decent human-interest tale, if only the TV crew could figure out how to set it free.
Somehow this movie was commissioned as a way to acknowledge the anniversary of relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, although neither country comes off especially well, except for some spectacular vistas in the landlocked Asian crossroads. At times it feels like a film in search of purpose, but in that it reflects its heroine’s vague presence, which makes her all the more touching. The movie’s humor is dry but consistent, and the characters are skillfully outlined, partly through sheer presence (we get the essence of each crew member, and how different they are from each other, including the considerate translator, played by Uzbek star Adiz Rajabov). It all feels a little like one of Wim Wenders’ wandering narratives, but not like the mighty early Wenders pictures—more like Lisbon Story, a gentle mid-career doodle where place and atmosphere might agreeably substitute for urgency.
That fact that tiny Maeda communicates both blankness and sadness goes a long way toward making the movie work. And Kurosawa’s observations about the distance between projected reality and—well, real reality—are nicely animated, even if the observations themselves aren’t new. He may be past his prime phase of horror mastery (although 2016’s Creepy was a strong return to that world), but for this filmmaker, even a side project—and To the Ends of the Earth does have that vibe—can be pleasurable exercise.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.