“To the Ends of the Earth” was jointly commissioned by Japan and Uzbekistan to commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the 70th anniversary of the Navoi Theater in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which was constructed by Japanese prisoners of war after World War II. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose filmography boasts of various genres but is probably most well-known for his earlier J-horror films like “Cure” and “Pulse”, was hired to write and direct the film.

To the Ends of the Earth” screened at San Diego Asian Film Festival

Yoko is in Uzbekistan as a reporter to shoot a travel documentary about the country for a variety show, but it’s not going as smoothly as her team or she expects. A rare, almost mythical fish apparently native to a lake there which they want to catch and film won’t bite, the rice in a local delicacy she’s supposed to taste is uncooked and poor Yoko has to go time and again on a nauseating carnival ride because her director is not happy with the takes. Though she tries to take it all in her stride, Yoko clearly is in an unsuitable job, with her cautious nature and an incessant mistrust in local people. The film follows Yoko as she braves her job and her adventures with local life and people, during which she finds not just herself but an appreciation of her passions and the Uzbek people.

“To the Ends of the Earth” works primarily as an excellent character study, putting the audience square in the shoes of Yoko. To that effect, the film’s experiences of a foreign national in an unknown land with an unknown language feel well-researched and relatable, most likely coming from personal experiences. Equally well-researched seems the understanding of travel journalism as a profession, with the entire team going through one mishaps after another, with only their local translator to their rescue when needed. The cultural differences between the two people is also shown well, most noticeably in Yoko’s mistrust of the over enthusiastic locals as she wades through the local markets and bazaars.

It would not be completely wrong to assume that the film feels almost a semi-documentary in places- the males standing outside and looking on as Yoko changes clothes inside the van might as well be locals wandering around an open set- and it indeed works as a far better travelogue than the intended documentary that’s being shot within the film. But Kurosawa infuses the film with his trademark thrilling moments too, often when Yoko wanders by herself into alleys unknown as the sun sets on another arduous day of shooting. It is an interesting mix of genres which shouldn’t work, but in Kurosawa’s deft hands, the film manages to be funny, informative, entertaining, edge-of-the-seat thrilling and even fantastical in parts, specifically the two scenes where Yoko breaks out in song.

Furthering the documentary-like feel of the feel is Akiko Ashizawa’s cinematography, which has a very natural, earthen look to it as it captures the beauty of the generally unexplored country of Uzbekistan. Whether it be the local bazaars, the stunning interiors of the Navoi Theatre or the great outdoors with its vast lakes and majestic mountains, “To the Ends of the Earth” is an excellent showcase for the landlocked country. Yusuke Hayashi’s music is sparsely used, but really enhances the tense moments as well as the aforementioned musical sequences, the latter especially, since they are accompanied by lead actress Atsuko Maeda’s powerful vocals.

Kurosawa works with singer-turned-actress Atsuko Maeda for the third time after the thriller “Seventh Code” and the science-fiction film “Before We Vanish”, but this is clearly their most fruitful collaboration. Spending the movie’s entire runtime on-screen, Maeda really humanises the fears and insecurities of the character well, making Yoko very relatable to many. She also handles the change in emotions in the film’s final act, as she receives news from home on a television, exceptionally well. The rest of the members of her team, Shota Sometani has her bored director, Ryo Kase as the sympathetic cameraman and Tokio Emoto as the director’s assistant, are all well-cast, but it is Uzbek star Adiz Rajabov as their local translator Temur who is particularly good.

“To the Ends of the Earth” was always going to be an interesting watch, chiefly because of the involvement of Kiyoshi Kurosawa in a project one would not otherwise associate with him. Thankfully, the film emerges as a very interesting and unpredictable watch that stands shoulders above some of his recent, slightly lacklustre output.