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MOVIE REVIEW
To the Ends of the Earth (2019)

“Lost in Translation” remains a deeply wonderful and deeply problematic movie about two Americans at loose ends in Japan, a strange and alien culture for them that reflects their own confusion and discomfort. Being isolated and scared in their own separate ways brought the hero and heroine together. The Japanese heroine of “To the Ends of the Earth” has no such human companion on her journey in a wild and strange place – in her case, Uzbekistan – which means the emotional impact is very different. This is not necessarily wrong, especially in comparison, but the movie’s own mistakes are what lessen its power.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda, whose nerves are not all down to the character’s) is the host of a travel show, which has three weeks and minimal budget to explain the delights of Samarkand, Tashkent and elsewhere. Our first sight of her is her doing her makeup alone in a large house. She goes outside to discover the crew has left her behind; only a man with a motorbike, with whom she has no common language, has her producer Yoshioka’s (Shôta Sometani) business card. The impression of the crew does not recover from this casual contempt, not even that of dopey runner Sasaki (Tokio Emoto) or pragmatic cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase, whose jaded physicality does most of his work for him), who at least has the grace to try to make it up to her.

They move around the nation in a van driven by fixer/translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov), trying to find experiences of interest to people who know nothing of Uzbekistan. There is a legendary fish called the bramul, but the fishermen won’t take a woman out in their boats. There are training games for cosmonauts, which Yoko gamely straps herself into until she is sick. There are even casual eateries, but the kitchen runs out of fuel. Yoshioka doesn’t want to lose the filming time and asks Yoko if she’ll eat uncooked rice anyway. “I can eat it,” she says, “but not digest it.”

It’s no wonder that Yoko goes off wandering by herself during her downtime, and no wonder she gets so emotionally attached to the mistreated goats she sees tethered outside various houses. But it is a wonder that writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa saw the connection between Yoko and the goats as the potent metaphor of the film. We learn almost nothing about Yoko’s life at home, and the boyfriend she occasionally texts is unseen (although an excellent excuse for a terrific and unexpected display of kindness towards the end). It would have been so easy to expand upon the rapport between Yoko and Temur, a handsome man, fluent in Japanese and the only person to show a positive interest in her.

When he explains to the crew why he chose to devote his life to the study of Japan, it should have been truly emotional. Mr. Rajabov is an Uzbeki superstar; how Mr. Kurosawa found out he could do all this in another language is a story I’d like to hear. But the movie cheats. We’ve already seen the places Temur is rhapsodizing about, in what amounts to a dream sequence for Yoko, shot in the manner of the “perfect proportions” sequence of Cédric Klapisch’s “Russian Dolls.” If the dream sequence had come after, or if Temur’s monologue had been superimposed over it, this would have been spectacular. It would have given all of us a surprising and emotional insight into a little-known connection between Japan and Uzbekistan. That would have altered the meaning of the big finale, too.

It wouldn’t have taken much. “To the Ends of the Earth” could have been so much more than a travelogue during which one young woman must decide whether she wants a life as someone’s tethered goat. On the other hand, no matter where you go, you always bring yourself with you. And perhaps a young woman choosing a life of much less conventionality might have been too much to digest.

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