Two radically different women fending for themselves in a remote seaside town discover that no man is an island in “The Furthest End Awaits.” Directing a wholly Nipponese cast and crew, Taiwanese helmer Chiang Hsiu-chiung proves finely attuned to the cultural sensibilities of the story and characters, all of which are firmly rooted in the desolate beauty of Japan’s Noto Peninsula. Though far less ambitious than the masterpieces of her mentors Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao Hsien, Chiang’s modest femme-centric drama still brims with warmth and gentle optimism. While biz is limited to small Asian releases, a long line of festival invitations awaits before the pic opens in Japan in February.
Chiang entered the industry while still in college, when her professor Yang cast her as the second sister in “A Brighter Summer Day.” She continued to assist Yang and later Hou on several of their projects. Her experience on Hou’s productions led to an acquaintance with his lenser Mark Lee Ping-bing, who became the subject of Chiang’s award-winning documentary “Let the Wind Carry Me,” co-helmed with Hong Kong lenser Kwan Pun-leung. Her intimate approach in that film, as well as in her debut feature, the telefilm “Artemisia,” revealed a natural disposition toward character-driven storytelling.
In “The Further End Awaits,” scribe Nako Kakinoki plays to the helmer’s strengths with a screenplay that allows the plot to develop organically alongside the characters’ maturing sense of self, without disclosing too much all at once. Little is known about the adult life of Misaki Yoshida (Hiromi Nagasaku), a 40-ish woman living in Tokyo, but her proud and independent nature can be gleaned from the opening scene. When a private lending agent (Issey Ogata) tells her that her father (Jun Murakami) is officially presumed dead after having disappeared for eight years, making her liable for his debts, she makes no attempt to dodge responsibility.
Misako travels to Suzu City at the tip of Noto Penninsula, to claim her only inheritance — an abandoned boathouse where she spent her childhood. At first, she tries to get a room in the rundown lodge overlooking the boathouse, but the surly owner, single mom Eriko Yamazaki (Nozomi Sasaki), shuts the door on her. So she camps out in her weatherbeaten shack, and lovingly transforms it into the cozy Yodaka Cafe.
Misako runs into Eriko’s kids — teenage girl Arisa (Hiyori Sakurada) and perky younger brother, Shota (Kaisei Hatomori) — at the supermarket, where she turns a blind eye to their shoplifting. Eriko warns the kids to stay away from Misako, whom she regards as a sort of freak, but curiosity about the mysterious neighbor who owns a “steam engine” (industrial coffee grinder) gets the better of them.
Eriko’s deplorable neglect of Arisa and Shota initially suggests a less gritty version of “Nobody Knows,” but through a string of well-scripted incidents, her circumstances actually prompt reflection on the lack of safety nets for women in Japan. A more conventional film might have ended at the point where most of the conflicts are resolved; here, unexpectedly, a new chapter follows. As more emerges about Misaki’s dad, her motive for returning to Suzu becomes poignantly clear. The film’s two-part structure allows for a reversal of roles between Misaki and Eriko, as well as for connections to be made with a wider circle of women, affirming the story’s message of female kinship in a gentle but engaging way.
An actress who’s carved a niche playing strong-willed, sexually confident women, 43-year-old Nagasaku (“Wandering Home,” “Sex Is No Laughing Matter”) exudes a soft-spoken authority, her character inspiring other through her work ethic. Twenty-six-year-old bombshell Sasaki (“My Rainy Days,” “Afro Tanaka”) gets Eriko’s flaky neediness down to a T, but doesn’t bring enough depth to the later scenes in which her conscience awakens. The least affected performances come from the two young thesps, their characters’ interactions with Misaki providing the film’s most amusing and heartwarming moments
As befits the subject, men are practically MIA, though the production has mustered a prominent male supporting cast whose brief appearances add some spark to the proceedings, in particular a hissing, menacing Masatoshi Nagase as Eriko’s freeloading lover. By contrast, the surplus of distaff supporting roles sometimes dissipates the dramatic tension, making the 118-minute duration feel lengthy.
Tech credits demonstrate Chiang’s competence, especially in her ability to transform the rugged, hermetic atmosphere of a far-flung coastal town into an emotional landscape. Any feel-good mood is kept in check by lenser Dankuro Shinma’s distancing medium shots and Shuhei Kamimura’s discreet score; by contrast, the art direction is too decorative, especially in scenes where the characters’ clothing, their car, a building and the sky are all matching blue. The Japanese title roughly translates as “The Irreplaceable Place at the End.”