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A Far Shore (Tooi Tokoro, 遠いところ)

Director – Masaaki Kudo – 2022 – Japan – 128m

****

An underage Okinawa bar hostess attempts to raise her small son while worsening circumstances conspire against her – world premiere in the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) 2022 which runs from Friday, July 1st to Saturday, July 9th

A man in Okinawa club Night Babylon asks her age of a hostess: “you don’t seem very old”. It turns out the girls in question are under 18 (the legal age limit for working there; in Japan, it’s also illegal to consume alcohol under the age of 20). In fact, these girls are 17 and proud of the fact that in “wild Okinawa”, the hostesses in bars are so young. The hostesses in question are Aoi (Kotono Hanase) and her friend Mio (Yumemi Ishida), and when not working, they like to party hard, for instance to celebrate a friend’s birthday, which involves much drinking and dancing in a club. There don’t appear to be any men in their immediate peer group: they’re all women.

Once she returns home from her club night shift, Aoi calls in on her grandmother to pick up her two-year-old son Kengo (Tsuki Hasegawa). At home, a row ensues with her equally young husband Masaya (Yoshiro Sakuma) who she accuses of going drinking. He has an ongoing problem with work, sometimes not bothering to turn up, which will eventually cost him his job. He seems to think that because women have the option of working as hostesses, which makes more money per hour than any job he can get, they have it easy. His reaction is to spend Aoi’s money as it comes in to the household, and he’s forever asking her if her can borrow some for drinking or gambling. It’s her not him that pays essentials like the rent on their small apartment, and she has a couple of places in the flat where she hides money to stop him boozing it away.

With her grandmother telling her to quit hostessing, Aoi is considering switching to some sort of day job, for instance working in a shop, but is aware that the hourly rate is much lower which might make it difficult for her to make ends meet. This option becomes a necessity following a police raid on Night Babylon; at the same time, Masaya goes missing along with a sum of money Aoi had kept hidden in the bathroom. She tracks him down to a bar. Later, at home, he beats her up to find out where she’s hidden any money she has left, leaving her in financial hardship with a hospital bill to pay (Mio pays it for her).

While local politicians interviewed on the radio promote a social vision of “kindness that leaves no-one behind”, Aoi explores other ways of earning / getting money. She takes a trip to the seaside with her gran to ask her father for money, which he grudgingly gives, telling her it’ll be the last time because he’s already shelling out to his ex / her mother and he has a new wife and family to support. With the police cracking down on minors doing hostess work, she starts working as a prostitute. Masaya worsens the situation when he assaults some people in a drunken rage in a bar, saddling Aoi with a compensation settlement, while social services take Kengo into care when they discover she’s leaving him alone in her flat when she goes out…

Initially appearing as the archetypal ‘good time girl’, Aoi is a striking portrayal of a young mother with all the odds stacked against her – work pressures, financial pressures, childcare issues, an irresponsible husband on the wrong side of the law, social services snoopers. She’s trying to do the right thing and just get by, but the various factors playing against her from all directions just seem too numerous to deal with even as they compound one another. When Masaya beats her up, the swellings on her face prevent her from getting lucrative bar work in the short term. When she goes out to work in illegal jobs, she opens herself up to being having her child taken into care because she’s not there to look after it.

Her problems appear completely alien to her more traditionally-minded gran, who seems to have little experience of the way Aoi’s everyday world now treats young women. The hospitality business flouts the law to exploit underage girls knowing they will bring in more male punters, which in turn puts these girls on the wrong side of the law if things go wrong. Prospective shop assistant jobs demand the employee be in work every day, a terrible demand to make of a young mum with a child.

The seedier, illegal sector of the hospitality business, prostitution, exacts a terrible psychological price. We see Aoi with a number of clients in turn, clearly doing what she does as a means to earning much needed money and visibly not enjoying it.

Earlier, though, the breathless chase in which Aoi, Mio and others flee the police raid from Night Babylon on foot and look for a while as if they’re going to get away with it is exhilarating and makes you feel alive. However, when the cops catch and question them, a sobering reality sets in. This almost seems like a metaphor for the underage hostess lifestyle: Aoi and Mio clearly enjoy it, but because of its illegal nature, it probably won’t last forever and lacks viability as a long term career choice. The same could be said of Aoi and Masaya having a relationship at such a young age, or Masaya attacking people in a bar: exhilarating in the short term but they pay for it in the long term.

As a slice-of-life look at the problems facing young women in a certain social strata, this packs an undeniable punch and deserves to be seen.

A Far Shore had its world premiere in the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) 2022 which runs from Friday, July 1st to Saturday, July 9th.

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