Taking a pleasure trip abroad used to be a big, once-in-a-lifetime event for the average Japanese. The No. 1 dream destination was Hawaii, since it was seen as glamorous and exotic, yet safe and familiar. A view of Diamond Head out the hotel window and miso ramen on the restaurant menu, in kanji yet. What was not to like?
The two heroines of “Tourism,” Daisuke Miyazaki’s slight-but-likable road movie, are Japanese millennials with a radically different mindset. When one, Nina (Nina Endo), wins a trip to any destination in the world, she has no idea where to go. She and her best buddy Su (the single-named Sumire) pick Singapore more or less at random and fly off as casually as if they were going shopping at the mall, though their grasp of English and knowledge of their destination are pretty much nonexistent.
This promises comedy, but Miyazaki, who also made the 2016 culture-clash drama “Yamato (California)” with Endo as an American frenemy to a Japanese rapper, does not go for easy laughs.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||77 mins.|
In faux documentary interviews Nina and Su are quizzed about their lives (the former works part-time at a factory, the latter studies at a fashion school) and their dreams (Su wants to save money, Nina hopes to travel). Though their answers are ordinary enough, both women are cool, fashionable and camera-savvy. (No surprise, since Endo and Sumire are fashion models in real life).
Once in Singapore they set off nonchalantly to see the sights, relying on their smartphones for suggestions. They are unimpressed by the locally famous Merlion statue (“It’s smaller than I thought,” says one) and Orchard Gateway mall (“It’s just like Japan,” says another). Shot on the fly, this section is like a TV travelogue, featuring bluntly honest reporters.
Then Nina suddenly finds herself without Su or her smartphone — and instantly transforms from half-bored tourist to being out of her depth in a strange land.
First screened at the 2017 “Specters and Tourists” exhibition at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum, “Tourism” is something of a shoutout to the city-state, though a guy at Su and Nina’s share house compares Singapore to Disneyland. The film’s unspoken message: Singaporeans are kind and welcoming to clueless and defenseless Japanese girls, who in many places would be like lambs to the slaughter.
This may be overly optimistic — predatory types surely exist in Singapore just as they do anywhere — but Miyazaki is also not another parachuted-in Japanese director who regards the locals as funny stereotypes or background color.
Though his story may skim the surface, his camera, be it on a smartphone or a tablet, aims for you-are-there immediacy as it ventures into back alleys far from the tourist hordes. He also takes his protagonist into Indian and Muslim neighborhoods and finally into the bosom of a Singaporean family. This is tourism with an un-touristy difference.
And unlike the heroines in local films set in foreign climes who are scared or like homesick ducks out of water, Nina never loses her cool, despite her sore feet and increasingly desperate situation. Hopelessly lost, she nonetheless seems confident that, somehow, things will work out.
But as one who knows from experience that things sometimes don’t always work out, I was silently urging her to take her hotel key, show it to a cab driver — and get the hell out of Dodge.