The Furthest End Awaits (Saihate nite – Kakegae no Nai Basho)
Japan (2014) Dir. Chiang Hsiu-Chiung
Here in Old Blighty when bad news is received or the world is about to end, our default reaction is to reach for the kettle and make a cup of tea. In Japan it seems that coffee is the drink of choice to heal wounds or put the world to rights if this film from Taiwanese director Chiang Hsiu-Ching is to be believed.
For Misaki Yoshida (Hiromi Nagasaku) coffee is also her livelihood, running a roasting coffee shop in Tokyo until she learns that her estranged father has been declared dead after being missing for eight years following a boating accident. Leaving no assets aside from an old boat shed, Misaki moves to the Ishigawa Noto Peninsula in the hope of finding answers.
Misaki refurbishes the boat shed and turns it into another coffee shop. Meanwhile she befriends her neighbours, two young children Arisa (Hiyori Sakurada) and Shota (Kaisei Hotamori), whose young mother Eriko (Nozomi Sasaki) constantly leaves them alone whilst working in the city. Eriko resents her kids warming to Misaki until a traumatic incident brings everyone together.
Despite being from a neighbouring country Chiang has made a film which sits neatly within the milieu of quiet and contemplative Japanese cinema, right down to accurately reflecting the cultural mores and bespoke nuances that differ from her native Taiwanese foibles.
Ignore its laconic pacing and generally sedate atmosphere, this is a quietly potent pro-feminist film, in terms in presenting strong women who resolve the problems caused by men without the help from men. That is not to suggest this as anti-male or full of misandry, and it teeters on the line of passing the Bechdel Test, but female empowerment is a key feature of this simple story.
Looking closely, Chiang cleverly depicts this in its more purest and nascent form when Arisa is forced to care for her younger brother in their mother’s absence – without her Shota doesn’t eat or know when to get up in the morning. This pressure makes Arisa grow up rather quickly something her mother fails to notice, being too self absorbed in her hostess work.
Eriko is no brute since she is working for her children but she doesn’t value them as she should, putting her (surprise surprise) sleazebag boyfriend (Masatoshi Nagase) first. Another male dependant, he steals money Eriko leaves for the kids and shows up whenever he wants some company. When Eriko is out of town one night Sleazebag decides Misaki would make a fine substitute.
This is where the film loses a bit of credibility. Eriko is hot headed and takes offence at the slightest concern for her kids, like when Arisa can’t afford her lunch money or is accused of shoplifting. Misaki takes pity on Arisa and gives her a job at the coffee shop which allows her to pay off her debts, but this only angers Eriko.
After the Sleazebag incident and the two women are forced to talk to each other, Misaki offers Eriko a job at the coffee shop and literally Eriko’s personality switches from truculent to polite and humble. No settling in period, no gradual acceptance of having to work for the former enemy, she becomes the perfect employee and Misaki’s best friend overnight.
I’m sure this is a niggle most people will overlook and possibly even defend as Eriko finally receiving the wake-up call she so desperately needed, which is valid, but with a two hour run time here was plenty of time to chart the change and growth of the friendship between her and Misaki, and the eventual “family” unit they form with the kids.
This however exposes another issue with the film, the fact that Chiang is fond of the protracted take and lovingly shot but often superfluous scenes which could have been excised in favour of moving the story forward. Again, many will enjoy these moments and here is nothing wrong with them but the story ends up being rushed as a result, especially in the second act.
But the journey overall is very worthwhile. Misaki remains a sangfroid and very dependable presence, putting others before her own needs, becoming a secondary but still integral character in her own story. In the third act, Eriko pushes Misaki to get the closure she needs but as ever it comes at a cost and Misaki handles it without any drastic changes to her character.
Elsewhere the subplots involving the kids are a mixture of drama and cutesy comedy, neither of which are burdened with schmaltz or saccharine. True to the Asian cinema ethos, the kids come across as genuine and natural, even if young Shota’s script was apparently typed with Caps lock on!
Yes he is a noisy brat but he is quiet a character too, and the actor Kaisei Hotamori creates a tangible chemistry with screen sister Hiyori Sakurada, a young lady with a big future is she sticks with acting. Babyface ex-model Nozomi Sasaki never seems to age so her being a mum of two is aesthetically a stretch, supported by her initial selfish petulance.
A truly underrated talent in this writer’s opinion, Hiromi Nagasaku possesses the rare ability of appearing non-descript and plain on screen yet emits a warm and reassuring presence, while the quiet dignity and grace she carries herself with suffuses her performances with an ethereal quality. Hard to believe she was once a teen J-Pop idol but roles this reaffirms her already impressive acting credentials.
Equally impressive is how Chiang managed to make such an emotional yet understated film with such challenging themes despite not speaking a word of Japanese, nor her cast capable of conversing in Mandarin. Whatever alchemy occurred to overcome this hurdle, it worked beautifully and the rewards are shared by all who watch this graceful outing.
The Furthest End Awaits might fly the flag for Girl Power but men shouldn’t feel excluded from enjoying and appreciating the sincerity and the heart of this film, or from shedding a tear at the denouement.