‘A Far Shore’ Review: A Burning Social Criticism in Okinawa Sets
“Okinawan kindness leaves no one behind!” signs a political radio commercial halfway through Japanese director Masaaki Kudo’s artful and influential Karlovy Vary competition title, “A Far Shore”. Already, it plays out as the bitterest irony. Aoi, a 17-year-old mother who works illegally as a nightclub hostess in Okinawa, the poorest prefecture in Japan, listens with a dissociated look in her eyes: She has been left behind by virtually everyone, and while Kudo’s film is deeply sympathetic to the weary , subdued teenager, this is an Okinawa with valuable little kindness.
We first meet Aoi – captivatingly played by Kotone Hanase – at work with her sweet best friend Mio (Yumemi Ishida), also a minor, while the girls giggle, drink and flirt with a couple of boys in town for a while. Customers congratulate themselves on the happiness of being with girls so young, and comment sadly that it would never be allowed in Tokyo. Technically, it is not allowed in Okinawa either, but the club owners are willing to take the risk, knowing that they can claim a premium for underage companies.
This means that this casual job, shabby as it is, pays off better than anything an unsupported, unskilled teenage mother can be hired to do, and tough but headstrong Aoi, perhaps naturally a bit of a party girl anyway, seems to have a certain extent. fun to do it. Still, as she makes her way home at dawn, wearily retrieving her acutely sweet two-year-old Kengo (Tsuki Hasegawa) from her grandmother, it is clear that the money she earns is not enough to keep her, Kengo and Masaya (Yoshiro Sakuma), her violent, alcoholic waste of a partner, all near comfort. Their home is a lousy studio, with few places for Aoi to hide his paychecks away from Masaya’s gripping gaze, and nowhere to hide from his fists when his temper rages.
Such an outburst, shot in an unshakable, upsetting close-up, leaves Aoi so badly beaten and swollen that she can no longer work for the club. And with the financial pressure mounting after Masaya discovers her bathing stock of cash, drinks it away and is arrested in a barroom brawl, soon the only option left is sex work, which drives a wedge between her and Mio, and will eventually lead to child welfare. intervened on behalf of Kengo.
The relentless narrowing of the possibilities that mark the film’s downward trajectory must indicate that this is an exhausting, pummel clock. But DP Takayuki Sugimura’s photograph shows a vibration and energy that contradicts the gloomy social critique, and can sometimes have surprised even the most miserable moments in an intensely touching, albeit desperate form of excitement. When Aoi and the other underage hostesses flee from a police raid on the club, despite the panic, the hunt appears to us filled with ecstasy, with the girls kicking off their shoes, climbing barefoot over walls and shouting and laughing at each other. slowly film through tangles of whipped hair. They are poor, without prospects and in danger, but they are also young and beautiful and at this moment full of alcohol and adrenaline and are alive.
The soundtrack can be similarly counter-intuitive, and include blasts of optimistic J-pop along with Masamichi Shigeno’s fascinatingly varied score. Sentimental piano motifs, such as those that often destroy Japanese melodramas, are suddenly elevated by haunting electrodes, and during a spectacular recording of an illuminated city silhouette, orchestral strings that give a central moment in Aoi’s sad journey an almost operatic grandeur.
Still, the misery gathers around the girl as detritus carried in by a relentless tide – no doubt too much misery in the later stages of the film, with Aoi maintaining beat after beat in a rhythm that sometimes feels manipulated for maximum pathos. This is not a movie for the fussy, slightly depressed or someone who thinks men have been raw lately. The male characters here, for a man, are furiously insensitive, self-centered and cruel, whether it is up close and personal as Masaya is, or casual, smiling, like the clients of the club or Aoi’s grinning, abominable pimp.
This view of terrible men and the martyr women they exploit spans generations. When Aoi visits her estranged father and he briefly brushes her hair away from her face, passionately noticing that she looks like her mother, it is difficult to tell if the resemblance is in her features or in her bruises. Compare that to a heartbreaking moment where Masaya’s mother falls to her knees and apologizes to Aoi for raising such a rotten son, or the scenes of dizzy sisterhood with Mio, or even the firm but caring tone of the female social workers. The little Okinawan kindness and decency it is, is exclusively the women’s province.
So “A Far Shore” is in its politics a very modern story. But centering the experiences of a sex worker who strives to survive a number of bad men is also firmly rooted in the classic Japanese tradition of Kenzo Mizoguchi. It is no small thing to say that Kudo’s film deserves the comparison, through its clear – eyed, broken heart script (co-written by Kudo and Mami Suzuki), and through Hanase’s painful empathic performance. These assets also make a tough watch a tender one, and worthy of a tacky story to the status of a tragedy.