It’s de rigeur at this point to mention in a review whenever the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is working in a genre other than horror, but it’s a strange trend. Kurosawa certainly made a name for himself with his chilling and elegant horror films, most famously Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but he didn’t make any horror films between 2006’s Retribution and 2016’s Creepy, and he hasn’t made any since then. Perhaps hardcore horror fans are fickle enough to simply pass over the half of his output that isn’t explicitly scary, but it would be an utter shame to do so, especially when he’s still working at the top of his game. His newest, To the Ends of the Earth, finds him working in a quieter mode than usual, but it’s one of his most heartfelt and engaging movies.
The Japanese pop singer Atsuko Maeda stars in To the Ends of the Earth as Yoko, a news-magazine reporter who is visiting Uzbekistan to film an episode for a travel series. (Kurosawa was approached in 2016 about making a film to commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, though there’s nothing celebratory about this film.) She’s joined by a small camera crew, as well as their invaluable translator, Temur (Adiz Rajabov). Most of the things she has to film would only appeal to your grandparents, like when she visits a large, man-made lake in search of a mythical fish that almost certainly doesn’t exist. Other trips take her to a bustling bazaar and an amusement park where she has to ride a nausea-inducing attraction multiple times in order to get enough usable footage.
Yoko displays a bubbly personality when on camera, but as soon as the light goes off, her face begins to droop. The beaming smile collapses and dips at the corners, and her eyes become dark and stormy. Though she’s an integral part of the production, the camera crew — especially the chilly director, Yoshioka (Shôta Sometani) — often dismiss her opinions or don’t even ask in the first place. They send her into the lake in waders, even though there’s a hole in them that renders the pants useless at keeping out water. They send her up again and again on the amusement ride, even though a single ride is all the cameraman is willing to take. The culturally conservative men in Uzbekistan don’t help either. Their guide in search of the mythical fish tells the men that they’re having no luck because the fish can smell women. Whether she’s surrounded by foreigners or even by men she knows well, Yoko is always alone on her trip, and the loneliness starts to eat away at her.
To the Ends of the Earth lives and dies by Maeda’s performance, and luckily it’s a mesmerizing one. There’s a simplicity to her acting that avoids many of the traditional signifiers of ‘quality’ acting — a short-hand of unrealistic tropes that even the best actors regularly use. I wouldn’t have known that she wasn’t really a reporter until the movie briefly turns into a musical toward the end, in a welcome break from reality. Maeda movingly conveys the disappointment of being undervalued by all the men around her, but she also shows off her ability to display overwhelming dread when she fears something terrible may have happened to a loved one back in Tokyo. Kurosawa uses a more static camera here than usual, but it helps to not distract from Maeda’s performance. Those looking for more plot and drama like some of Kurosawa’s older thrillers may be disappointed by To the Ends of the Earth, but it stands among his best and most moving works.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15