Tourist Trap

December 15, 2020

JAPAN AND UZBEKISTAN have a friends-with-benefits relationship, one that sees the world’s third-largest economy and its sogo shosha investing in and importing the formerly-Soviet Central Asian nation’s resources—some radioactive (uranium), some laxative (dried fruit)—and bolstering a miscellany of Uzbek projects, from industrial modernization to Covid-19 response to tourism. Such a transactional bond doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff from which movies are made. 

Yet Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Tourism, its national cinema agency Uzbekkino, and a handful of Japanese production companies teamed up for a film commission celebrating “the twenty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic relations” between the two countries and the seventieth anniversary of  the Alexey Shchusev–designed, partly Japanese POW–constructed Navoi Theater in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. That film, To the Ends of the Earth, was unexpectedly written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a filmmaker who, in his mostly Tokyo-based works (including Wife of a Spy, which won him a Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival) has seldom drawn on the highly-visited city’s touristic potential. To put it lightly.

Instead, he’s trained his lens on sites of decay, emptiness, isolation, and claustrophobia. His is a Tokyo dotted with suicides; vacated by humans but teeming with souls from an overpopulated netherworld emanating from dial-up Internet into small, lightless apartments (Pulse, 2001); seething with the resentment of a disaffected generation and threatened by multiplying poisonous jellyfish (Bright Future, 2003); shaken by an endemic of hypnotized civilians perfunctorily carving Xs into loved ones’ and strangers’ throats (Cure, 1997); and, in perhaps his scariest work (which is in no way a horror movie), Tokyo Sonata (2008), inhabited by a family so close to unemployment-sparked implosion that it feels any of the aforementioned terrors could befall an awkward family dinner.

There’s no violence, and no supernatural lurkers in Kurosawa’s trip to Samarkand and Tashkent. But his protagonist Yoko, a fledgling travel TV personality (who would rather pursue a singing career, and is fittingly played by quondam teenage pop star and Kurosawa regular Atsuko Maeda), nonetheless internalizes the unfamiliar as an existential threat. Near the film’s beginning, Yoko is knee–deep in the giant, manmade Lake Aydar (which she describes with forced buoyancy as “a huge puddle”) searching for a two–meter “mysterious fish.” Yoko and the program’s four-man production team led by aloof director Yoshioka (Shôta Sometani) have come here, to one of the world’s two doubly-landlocked nations, in search of a jumbo fish in a lake made decades ago with overflowing dam water; given this oddity-fixated approach to depicting Uzbekistan, it makes metaphorical sense that Yoko repeatedly pulls trash from the nets she casts in the lake. When the camera finally cuts, Yoko shuts off as though an animating spell had been lifted, her head suddenly leaden and sinking. 

We follow Yoko through a number of scenes contrasting her onscreen ebullience and off-screen alienation, as her crew subjects her to micro-humiliations that Kurosawa queasily amplifies. In one scene, she goes to an amusement park where the ride she’s strapped into seems more like a whimsical execution device. As the ride begins, Kurosawa switches abruptly to the crew’s B-roll, shot from afar, where Yoko disappears within and is dehumanized by the machine; it flails and flips in the distance, as her screams become the only remnant of the character we’ve been following. When the ride stops, she looks petrified. She goes again as a crowd watches: this time Kurosawa films the ruthless ride directly from below, plunging Yoko downwards toward us. With a mix of paternalism and genuine concern, the Uzbek ride operator (who previously undermined his credibility by alerting them that the ride is “dangerous for a woman”) cautions that they “shouldn’t force that child...She’ll burst a blood vessel in her brain and die.” The production team ignore him and Yoko goes for a third time—but that last descriptive warning hovers, and we momentarily slip into the realm of horror as Kurosawa’s own footage switches to that of the program’s cameraman (Iwao, played by Ryô Kase), now seated next to her, finally capturing her horror-contorted face. When it’s over, she looks like her soul’s been shaken out of her. She vomits, then films a smiley scene, observing that fun parks “make lovely little journeys, without going far.”

Another scene sharply captures the shooting of a ubiquitous travel show trope: where a host skeptically tastes an authentic dish at a humble hole-in-the-wall eatery, swallows, and rhapsodically moans to the camera, pretending there was ever a possibility the program would spin a local dining experience as anything but superlative. (When Samin Nosrat swoons over a piece of focaccia so divinely simple yet apparently infused with the souls of an entire Italian family, who’s to know she isn’t thinking, “Panera wore it better”?) Yoko is served a rice dish (plov) that comes out uncooked at an eatery that’s run out of firewood; the program’s director pressures her to film the scene regardless, and she grins over a grimace as pebble-y rice cracks between her teeth, describing it to the camera as “exquisitely crunchy”—“it resembles fried rice but the flavor’s more complex.” 

Maeda’s riveting performance swerves between the game-for-anything persona her character exudes when being filmed and the anxious, deflated person the crew treat as a guinea pig. She and Kurosawa find humor in this polarity, and in that of the pleasures travel TV advertises versus the romanceless calculation with which the wanderlust sausage is made. 

Yoko’s isolation is in part her own making: She may be lonely, lost, and diffident, but these qualities coalesce with what might be a touch of xenophobia as she performs a clumsy ballet of avoidance across Uzbekistan. When she suggests the crew film a clip of her freeing a caged goat she encountered (and projected all her own feelings of confinement onto), she empathizes far more with the animal than anyone she’s met on her travels thus far. She makes no attempt to learn basic words in the language, averts eye contact with store clerks, recoils from attempted small-talk on buses, and hugs the walls of the streets she’s walking down. She runs away from vegetable vendors and theater security guards. (When she’s not filming or curled up, texting her faraway boyfriend in her hotel room, she’s often running.) If what we’re seeing isn’t a horror movie, there seems to be one happening inside her head. 

While Yoko is fearful, Yoshioka is conspicuously disinterested, his foundering attempts at getting enough footage a result of his own indifference to his surroundings. When Uzbek translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) suggests they film at the Navoi Theater, earnestly monologuing about its meticulous, regionally-specific décor and how its construction by POWs made him want to become a Japanese translator, it’d seem the crew had found the holy grail of tourism TV: an architectural marvel, a landmark of specific interest to Japanese tourists, and the first place to which their host (who visited the day prior, and daydreamed of singing “Hymne à l'amour” on its stage) feels a visceral connection. Yoshioka, who’s put most of his eggs in the basket of the bashful, oversized lake fish, remarks that the theater idea isn’t TV-worthy.  

Kurosawa’s film might sound like a Ministry of Tourism’s worst nightmare. A movie by an acclaimed Japanese director following the crew of a fictional travel show could be the ideal backdoor tourism ad, but instead of presenting an idealized vision of Uzbekistan’s history, customs, and beauty, Kurosawa’s protagonists instead bypass them for virality-chasing tidbits. Yet Kurosawa and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa sneak the former into the background. In Samarkand, we’re unceremoniously shown the backside of a vibrant Timurid-style building as the crew drives in their van to their destination (the goat). In Tashkent the crew stays in the landmark Soviet modernist Hotel Uzbekistan, whose imposing architecture Kurosawa and Ashizawa, if not the fictional crew, are sure to highlight in a few stunning sequences.

Rather than a portrait of healthy cultural exchange, To the Ends of the Earth is a film that stirringly conjures longing for that connection in its absence. At one point—after a long, brilliantly disorienting chase sequence—the film introduces a raisonneur in the form of a Tashkent cop who asks Yoko: “How much do you know about us? If we don’t talk to each other, we can’t get to know each other.” With this bluntly delivered message (also, it so happens, the moral of Emily in Paris and most everything about a person in a foreign place) and its attendant implication—that the key to understanding oneself is to vanquish fear of the unknown —the film ultimately falls in line with its softly propagandizing commission. It just takes challenging backroads to get there. By the end of her adventure, Yoko does seem to shake fear, to feel renewed and inspired, to see the beauty of Uzbekistan (“It’s a nice place—everybody’s so kind,” she finally tells her boyfriend)—and even sing on a mountaintop.

If this conclusion sounds like a self-actualization abroad cliché—or perhaps a strained metaphor for twenty-five years of cultural diplomacy—it also adds an alternate ending to Kurosawa’s career-long narrative of contemporary estrangement. In Pulse, a computer screen displays wraithlike dots moving past one another ad infinitum, apparently a simulation of our existence. And as spirits sneak out of the internet, the screen-absorbed living begin to evanesce, leaving mere stains in their wake. In To the Ends of the Earth, there are moments where Yoko herself looks like she’s retreated beyond the point of no return. Knowing that the potential for disappearance—either from oneself or into oneself—seems to linger in so many of Kurosawa’s worlds, there is a sense of triumph, when instead of vanishing in her interiority, Yoko chooses to project outward. And even here Kurosawa’s work feels as intriguingly slippery as the film’s fishy MacGuffin: As Yoko bursts into “Hymne à l’amour” on a mountaintop, the sentimentalism is troubled by its own implausibly dreamlike loveliness. Are Maeda and Kurosawa portraying transcendence and awakening? Or is this the illusion that travel, and the industries that sell it, instill in us—only to leave us right where we began, the same people we always were?

— Moze Halperin

To the Ends of the Earth plays online at Metrograph until December 17 before expanding nationwide. Upcoming dates are viewable here.