To the Ends of the Earth (Review)

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the master of the uncanny. This is most evident in his J-horror staples – and cult classics – Pulse and Cure, but carries into wider work that takes place in filmic worlds that are always slightly uncomfortable, sometimes in a way that’s hard to articulate – in a way you just feel. To the Ends of the Earth, his latest feature is in some ways a departure – in terms of narrative and location – but there is a clear evolution of style here, as well as a continuation of key themes. Here, the discomfort is very focused – intimately so – as the uncanny is evoked to convey the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Though, in description, this film seems utterly unremarkable – pedestrian, even – Kurosawa’s continually excellent filmmaking lifts it up.

To the Ends of the Earth follows Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the cautious and introverted host of a Japanese TV travel show out on assignment in Uzbekistan. The film focuses on her overwhelming experience, her continuing sense of disassociation, and also showcases the harsh realities behind filmmaking. Yoko is treated like a commodity by her crew, she is forced to endure take after take in difficult conditions, given no respite and no sense of empathy or understanding. The film’s key strength, to begin with, is in unpicking the realities behind presentation. We see the gregarious Yoko on camera, then the introverted one when the cameras stop – a clear show of the falsity of supposed non-fiction, but also a symbol for the masks we wear to get by. Throughout, the film does a great job of locking the film’s perspective to Yoko’s point of view. Kurosawa flexes his skills as a horror director to evoke real discomfort. There are these lingering long or mid shots, punctuated by close-ups on the seemingly banal, and a harsh soundscape where background noise often seems to flood the foreground. Also, the editing often becomes strangely dreamlike – odd cuts and jumps seem to push the surreal into the real and there is a real sense of losing a grip on reality (but only every just a touch, a restraint that feels just right). There are a few scenes where our main character is under threat, or overwhelmed, and the filmic grammar is brilliant. Kurosawa and his crew know just where to place the camera, just how long to leave a shot going and just what sounds to the audience need to hear – or just how much silence is needed – to evoke an almost indescribable discomfort. It is the kind of un-showy but spectacular cinematography that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Through these techniques, and through the narrative in general, the film does touch on some really pertinent areas around social isolation. A sense of dissociation is nothing new for Kurosawa, Pulse being his strongest articulation of this theme, but while To the Ends of the Earth does not chart out new thematic territory, Kurosawa finds a novel way of extending and showcasing familiar themes. This does not feel like a re-tread, and the dramatic realism makes it really stand out. Though it is not a deep exploration of everyday misogyny, it does provide well observed insights into the everyday sexism our protagonist reveals. You see double standards and specific treatment based on her femininity, and the way the filmic language evokes helplessness and the overwhelming really sharpens the articulation of these themes. Regarding an incisive critique of reality TV, it is more of an exposé than an exploration. To the Ends of the Earth does not do for filmic tourism, and tourism in general, what Pulse did for the internet – and is definitely a weaker film – but it does provide keen insights. These observations cut both ways also, as we see Yoko as mistreated and alienated, yet we also see issues created from tourism itself. There is a naivety and an interventionism that is presented negatively, if not directly critiqued.

This cagey language around messaging all comes down to the film’s core purpose. Fundamentally, this is more interested in presenting a character, in presenting a subjective experience, than it is on delving into wider themes. The things it touches upon during its journey are really interesting – and uniformly well observed – but the journey is the real focus. To an extent, this does suck some of the momentum out of the film. In the second half, where we step further and further away from clear narrative drive, the film does start to lose itself. One could argue that this reflects Yoko’s disorientation but it feels more meandering than intentional. There is also a strong dose of narrative contrivance. The film has a number of brilliant sequences that are so well done (including a genuinely terrifying depiction of a fairground ride) but the steps taken to get to them often feel too artificial. A central moment involving a goat functions as a great metaphor for Yoko’s experience, it is a scene that encapsulates her desperate desires and also her naïve limitations – functioning as an empathetic portrait alongside working as an astute critique. Unfortunately, the implementation is just too crude. There is a thudding moment where a goat is encountered and then referred back to, just to facilitate this symbolic moment – and this clunky construction rears its head a few times. Backstory involving a partner is mentioned seemingly purely to contextualise a later point, for example. Setting something up earlier just to show something off later is hardly new to storytelling, it is just that the loose narrative of this film makes these strictly plotted moments feel disingenuous. The film feels free-associative, a subjective reflection of a character’s viewpoint, and it too often falls away from this into filmic artifice.

To The Ends of the Earth is not one of Kurosawa’s strongest films. It peters out towards the end, and its dreamlike diversions do not always coalesce with its realist depictions. It is, however, another show of real talent from a filmmaker always worth watching. The creepy evocation of the uncanny to illustrate the feeling of being overwhelmed in an alien location is excellent but is not always enough. The same is true with Atsuko Maeda’s central performance. She pulls upon her identity as a J-pop star to give a raw, grounded and affecting portrayal of a star when the camera stops rolling, but the film around her does not always make the most of this. At points, the lack of focus and the meandering feels totally cohesive but, ultimately it does the film a disservice. It is perhaps too reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore, a promising film that never quite achieved its lofty potential. And while it is a better film than that, and sports an excellent opening hour, this would have been better as a shorter and more constrained experience.

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