'To the Ends of the Earth' Review: One Woman's Journey, One of the Best Films of the Year [NYFF 2019]

I’ve been in a spot where the young Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) was (or maybe still in it): an existential anxiety about your prospects. For anyone who has ever done film production before, you know that small filmmaking roles can be a gateway to your desired grander opportunity. At this point in her life, Yoko is disillusioned with her position as a host of a reality travel show trailed by a trifling all-male crew in Uzbekistan. At first, Yoko treats her position like an unwanted obligation since she has been pining for better—or something she calls “better.” Now she fears she may be in stasis rather than moving forward toward her desired destination.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth encapsulates one woman’s blossoming from a reserved drone into a willing participant with Maeda’s subtle dynamism from a perpetually placid and pouty countenance to a focused visage.

Yoko’s stint in Uzbekistan takes off on undignified starts. When the camera rolls, she has to perform a bubbly persona—at odds with her current morose mood—that doesn’t pop enough for the director. The fishermen they film with also call her bad luck, since she is a woman, and their first shoot was reliant on them making a catch and the fishermen welcoming her. Her concerns and needs, while not ignored, are secondary in the production. When she is forced to endure an intense theme park ride, a crewmember checks on the camera before looking at her blatantly nauseated expression—then she is ordered to endure two more takes of the ride. To complicate matters, she cannot speak the Uzbekistan language and relies on a translator, which can be troublesome when she’s out alone and interacting with the locals. Along with it, she witnesses the deleterious effect of a production that doesn’t seem to be realizing its full potential, eavesdropping on the crew’s mulling over the quality of the footage. Obstacles are inevitable in any production.

On her break days, Yoko navigates the anxieties of traveling in a foreign country as she walks through the city alone, not for sightseeing but to buy supplies. She pushes away aggressive vendors—who profile her as a tourist and thus a potential customer—and breaks into a run when she walks past groups of strangers in an alleyway. However, she eases up in this strange environment, finding bits of enchantment, and getting lost in it, such as a penned goat on her encounter. Halfway through the film, does the story bring her desires to light as she wanders alone into an opera house and imagines herself on the stage. She voices this insecurity to her crewmember, who assures her there that her current station could still be a gateway for her singing aspirations.

The longer she stays in Uzbekistan, the more she feels attuned, even if she isn’t completely embracing the new world around her. She begins adding her two cents and pitching her ideas. One pitch comes through, her decision to liberate the penned goat she came across. They film her freeing the goat into the expanse, only for the owner to attempt to reclaim the goat. So they pay the original owners to let it wander, but she is more aware that the goat is more at risk when set free. Spoilers: the goat will return, and in a way that strikes the heart, and she accepts it as a sign from the universe that all will be well. 

Kurosawa stacks a twist or two that may seem over-the-top, but they somehow compliment Yoko’s transformation. After a harrowing chase scene at the height of Yoko’s anxiety, she doesn’t realize she has a paradigm shift. When there comes a moment a terror is resolved and she says, “The people here are nice and the country is nice” and means it. By that time, she has evolved in her potential as much as she evolved her perspective in a foreign place. 

The film twirls into musical territory at two moments, the final a-la Sound of Music. For a film shot naturalistically, it manages to earn these sparks of spontaneity. Some questions linger after her final song of exuberance. Has she made peace with the elements given to her? Is she still optimistic she’ll reach her initial dream, just in a way she never expected? Either way, she knows she’ll be fine.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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