AFI Fest Review: ‘To The Ends of The Earth’ Is An Evocative, Emotional Journey

2019 AFI FEST: Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “To The Ends of The Earth (Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari)” absolutely nails the isolating feeling of being a traveler in a foreign land. This insular, introspective drama about a reserved woman who feels displaced once she travels to another country for work speaks in universal profundities. Though a spotty third act keeps it from perfection, the final five minutes pull the audience right back into the highly emotional crux of her journey.

Japanese variety host Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) and her crew are filming a travelogue in Uzbekistan. Her job demands her to be “on” the second after they begin rolling no matter the circumstances. Whether she’s wading through the cold waters of a lake, attempting to catch an elusive mythical fish, or exploring a local amusement park, doing multiple takes on a stomach-churning carnival ride, Yoko’s upbeat, unflappable spirit shines. But when that camera turns off, Yoko does too, dimming her soul’s light, transforming into a shrinking, inhibited personality. This only worsens the longer her travels keep her away from her homeland and the firefighter boyfriend with whom she texts.

The Uzbeks whom Yoko, her crew and translator Temur (Adiz Radjabov) encounter range the gamut, from a misogynist fisherman, who blames Yoko for the lack of fish caught on camera, to a Chaikhana cook, who morphs from curt to caring within minutes. Their sojourn also brings them across a sexist carnival ride operator who continually infantilizes Yoko, a local resident whose goat Yoko liberates (in an overt scene that practically screams, “It’s a metaphor!”), and a few intimidating cops.

Kurosawa ramps up tension between Yoko and strangers by placing us in the protagonist’s shoes. Unless Temur is in the scene with her, there are no subtitles when she’s conversing with Uzbeks. We’re just as confused and anxious as our heroine. While she manages to find her way out of daunting situations like getting lost on a trek to the market (twice!), she becomes overwhelmed fleeing a couple of cops that caught her videotaping a prohibited area. This leads into the narrative’s weakest point, when she’s brought into jail, which completely bogs down the momentum of the character-driven stakes. It’s a contrived scenario in an otherwise uncontrived feature.

There’s a palpable, evocative undercurrent running through the picture, specifically when Yoko starts feeling adrift and unmoored, experiencing the subtlest of existential crises. The auteur’s aesthetic poeticism mirrors the thematic resonance. The freedom Yoko desperately craves is not only reflected in the scene where she sets the goat free, but is also represented in wind gusts that blow through the curtains of her Tashkent hotel room, and in the swelling symphonic song she imagines singing in an opera house she stumbles upon. She’s even given a “Sound of Music” moment at the end that’s thoroughly heartrending and satiating. Kurosawa’s aim to end on a soaring, hopeful uptick is terrific and he does so with earned artistic panache.

Maeda delivers a star-making performance as a woman pushed far beyond her comfort zone. She shines a light on the character’s hidden, delicate facets which radiate off the screen. The universality of Yoko’s longing is handled with a deft touch and copious amounts of tenderness and vulnerability. Her approach to the character is more than cerebral – it’s physical. There’s a fascinating contrast in the confident stature of Yoko’s imagined self (the performer) versus her everyday self, which is demure and withdrawn as seen in her shifting posture.

Despite this being a very modest story, Kurosawa captures it with grand scale and scope. The epic nature of the widescreen format provides an interesting dichotomy when juxtaposed with the themes of isolation and loneliness. It serves to augment Yoko’s arc, which is earth-shattering in her eyes.

These two cultures may appear disparate in beliefs and values. However, Kurosawa makes a fine point to continually show that empathy and humanism are what bind us and transcend cultural divides. It’s sentimental commentary without an ounce of saccharine schmaltz.

“To The Ends of The Earth” played at AFI Fest. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.

GRADE: (★★★)