Review: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ is a moving, eye-opening tale of cultural difference

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s absorbing new drama, “To the Ends of the Earth,” set entirely in Uzbekistan.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) sees more than she bargains for on her journey in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s absorbing new drama, “To the Ends of the Earth,” set entirely in Uzbekistan.

Like most television personalities, Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) knows how to put on a good show. She’ll dig into a plate of food, marveling at how delicious it is, even if the rice is noticeably undercooked (“Exquisitely crunchy!” she says). She’ll strap herself into a nightmarish-looking theme park ride no fewer than three times in ultra-rapid succession, then vomit discreetly off-screen before returning to report on what a blast it was. But as good as Yoko is at turning on the charm, she becomes a noticeably different person when the cameras aren’t rolling: sometimes distracted and inattentive, sometimes overwhelmed by her strange new environs.

“To the Ends of the Earth,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s effortlessly absorbing, deceptively simple-looking new drama, is set entirely in Uzbekistan, where Yoko and her crew are filming a report on the country’s culture for a popular Japanese travel series. Little about it seems to be going according to plan. A lot of her time is spent waiting around, texting her boyfriend back in Tokyo, and patiently enduring the erratic decisions and curt manners of her director, Yoshioka (Shota Sometani). She has a habit of running late and often ends up dashing from one location to the next. And when she strikes out on her own one day, her face becomes clouded with worry as she navigates bus schedules, tries to communicate in broken English and steers clear of large groups, especially of men.

Some of this is basic, street-smart alertness, especially for a young woman adrift in a country whose customs and language she doesn’t know. (All Uzbek dialogue is pointedly left unsubtitled, a decision that aligns us closely with Yoko’s mindset.) But there is something less obvious and more troubling at work here, too. One of Kurosawa’s aims is to acquaint us with the real Yoko, to reveal the accumulated layers of sadness and disappointment beneath the upbeat energy and canned smiles. But the movie’s clarifying power also works in the other direction. Casting a gently critical eye on the art and business of cultural tourism, it seeks to disabuse Yoko and her colleagues of some of the ill-informed assumptions they’ve brought to their latest assignment.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) sets a goat free in "To the Ends of the Earth." Her good intentions turn out to be naive.

And, inevitably, to correct some of ours as well. Filmed in locations ranging from the capital city of Tashkent to the mountainous landscapes of Zaamin, “To the Ends of the Earth” emerged from a project to commemorate 25 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan — a prompt that in other hands might have produced its own glossy cinematic travelogue. Fortunately, Kurosawa is not one to go the obvious route. His own recent output has been notably unpredictable in quality, subject and style: Still best known as a Japanese horror master with seminal early-aughts chillers like “Cure” and “Pulse,” he has also made superb family dramas, sly genre riffs and any number of films that fall somewhere in between. Increasingly, too, his work has led him beyond Japan, most recently with the France-set romantic thriller “Daguerrotype.”

Despite or perhaps because of its lightly sketched premise, “To the Ends of the Earth” emerges as the director’s most gracefully assured work in a while, though his natural gift for building tension is still made subtly manifest. Maeda, who previously appeared in Kurosawa’s thrillers “Before We Vanish” and “Seventh Code,” brings Yoko’s tremulous fears to the surface in a picture that views her with affection as well as ambivalence. Sometimes Kurosawa holds her in warmly sympathetic closeup; sometimes the camera all but races to keep up with her. Yoko is pretty good at running, and not just from bazaar merchants trying to sell her food. As we learn more about her, her background and her potential future, it also becomes clear that she’s running in a more figurative sense.

Kurosawa brings this chapter of Yoko’s journey to a sweet, even uplifting end, introducing elements of music, history and startling near-tragedy along the way. It’s notable, though, that the most resonant voices are not necessarily hers. Our attention is gently nudged toward the Uzbeki farmer who points out the naivete of Yoko’s good intentions when she tries to free a mountain goat. Later, a police chief gently asks Yoko why she’s so quick to assume the worst about people she doesn’t know. And then there’s her helpful local guide and translator, Temur (an excellent Adiz Radjabov), who at one point sheds light on his own journey into this unusual job, delivering a stirring monologue about their countries’ complicated World War II-era history. It’s a history lesson, yes, but it’s also a lesson in basic humanity.

‘To the Ends of the Earth’

(Not rated)

(In Japanese with English subtitles and Uzbek)

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Available through Laemmle Virtual Cinema