Review of “A Far Shore”: A Searing Social Critique of Okinawa
“Okinawa’s kindness leaves no one behind!” says the bubbly signature of a political radio ad midway through Japanese director Masaaki Kudo’s artful and moving Karlovy Vary competition title, “A Far Shore.” Already it plays like the most bitter irony. Aoi, a 17-year-old mother working illegally as a nightclub hostess in Okinawa, Japan’s poorest prefecture, listens with a dissociated gaze: She’s been left behind by virtually everyone, and while the film by Kudo is deeply compassionate towards the troubled, stubborn and subjugated teenager, he is an Okinawa with a precious little kindness.
We first meet Aoi – played fascinatingly by Kotone Hanase – at work with her lissome best friend Mio (Yumemi Ishida), also underage, as the girls giggle, drink and flirt with a few guys in town for quite a while. Clients rave about their chance to be with such young girls, sadly commenting that it would never be allowed in Tokyo. That’s technically not allowed in Okinawa either, but club owners are willing to take the risk, knowing they may charge a premium for underage businesses.
That means this casual job, no matter how seedy, pays better than anything an unsupportive, unqualified teenage mother could be hired for, and callous but willful Aoi, perhaps understandably a bit of a party girl anyway, seems to have some measure of fun doing it. Yet as she returns home at dawn and wearily collects her adorable two-year-old Kengo (Tsuki Hasegawa) from her grandmother’s house, it’s clear that the money she earns isn’t enough to keeping her, Kengo, and Masaya (Yoshiro Sakuma), her abusive, alcoholic partner, in anything near comfort. Their home is a squalid one-room apartment, with few places for Aoi to hide his wages from Masaya’s staring gaze, and nowhere to hide from his fists when his temper turns violent.
Such an outburst, filmed in unwavering and heartbreaking close-up, leaves Aoi so bruised and swollen that she can no longer work at the club. And with financial pressures mounting after Masaya finds out about her bathroom money, drinks it, and gets arrested in a bar fight, soon the only option left is sex work, which drives a wedge between her and Mio, and will finally lead to child protection. intervening on behalf of Kengo.
The relentless narrowing of opportunity that marks the film’s downward trajectory must suggest that this is a grueling, grueling watch. But DP Takayuki Sugimura’s photography displays a dynamism and energy that contradicts dark social criticism, and can sometimes halo even the most sordid moments in a kind of intensely moving, if desperate, elation. When Aoi and the other underage stewardesses flee a police raid on the club, despite the panic, the chase appears to us as sip of ecstasy, the girls taking off their shoes, climbing the walls barefoot and calling each other laughingly. others in slow motion through tangles of whipped hair. They’re poor, hopeless, and in peril, but they’re also young and lovely and, right now, drunk and adrenaline-drunk and alive.
The soundtrack can be equally counterintuitive, incorporating outbursts of upbeat J-pop alongside Masamichi Shigeno’s mesmerizing and varied score. Sentimental piano motifs, such as those that often spoil Japanese melodramas, are suddenly heightened by haunting electro drones and, during a dramatic shot of an illuminated urban skyline, orchestral string stabs that provide a pivotal moment in Aoi’s sad journey an almost lyrical grandeur.
Still, the miseries gather around the girl like rubbish carried by an inexorable tide – arguably too many miseries in the film’s final stages, with Aoi suffering blow after blow in a rhythm that at times feels manipulated for maximum pathos. It’s not a film for the squeamish, the easily depressed, or those who think men have suffered a lot from it lately. The male characters here, for a man, are furiously insensitive, self-absorbed, and cruel, whether up close and personal like Masaya, or casually, snickering, like club patrons or Aoi’s grinning, repulsive pimp. .
This view of terrible men and the martyred women they exploit spans generations. When Aoi goes to visit her estranged father and he briefly brushes the hair from her face, dispassionately remarking that she resembles her mother, it’s hard to tell if the resemblance is in her features or in her bruises. Contrast that with a heartbreaking moment of Masaya’s mother falling to her knees and asking forgiveness from Aoi for raising such a rotten son, or the giddy sisterhood scenes with Mio, or even the firm but caring tone of the social workers. The little kindness and decency of Okinawa is exclusively the domain of women.
So “A Far Shore” is, in its politics, a very contemporary story. But centering the experiences of a sex worker struggling to survive a succession of evil men is also firmly rooted in the classic Japanese lore of Kenzo Mizoguchi. It’s saying a lot that Kudo’s film deserves comparison, through its clear-eyed, heartbroken screenplay (co-written by Kudo and Mami Suzuki), and through Hanase’s painfully empathetic performance. These assets make a hard watch so tender, dignifying a sordid history with the status of tragedy.