The recent vogue for international co-productions in Japanese cinema has spawned some fascinating hybrids, while transporting filmmakers to locations that seldom grace the nation’s silver screens. With overseas travel still a distant dream for most of us, this kind of escapism feels particularly welcome right now.
In “Under the Turquoise Sky,” Yuya Yagira plays a wealthy Japanese playboy, Takeshi, who gets whisked away to the steppes of Mongolia in search of a long-lost relative. The ensuing journey is full of unexpected turns, mixing realism, fantasy and comedy on the way to a surprisingly soulful conclusion.
This Japanese/Mongolian/French co-production is the debut feature by single-named director Kentaro, who is as hard to pin down as the film itself. Raised overseas, primarily in France, the Japanese filmmaker speaks English with a slight London twang, but talks the language of a Parisian cineaste.
“I wanted to make a pan-Asian film, but from the point of view of an Asian person,” he says. He recalls hearing a festival programmer once describe a tastefully exoticized movie as “ethno-joli — it’s an ‘ethnic-pretty’ film.”
“It’s an easy thing to do, and it’s what some Western filmmakers do,” Kentaro says.
While it may not be prettified, “Under the Turquoise Sky” is certainly attractive. Working with Tokyo-based cinematographer Ivan Kovac, Kentaro decided to shoot in high-resolution 8K, a video format that’s only beginning to be embraced by the movie industry. Post-production was handled in France, giving the film a luster that sets it apart from most Japanese indie flicks.
“We were thinking of doing something grandiose, a la ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” Kentaro says. “I’ve been going to Mongolia for some years, so I knew that potential was there.”
Although the film is his first feature as director, Kentaro has been working in the industry for a couple of decades now. He has an extensive list of acting credits to his name, including minor roles in big-budget action movies such as “Kiss of the Dragon” (2001), though his IMDb profile also erroneously credits him for a few that were actually Kentaro Ito.
“Just because you’re alive doesn’t mean that … everybody should know everything about you,” Kentaro says. “So I’m not spreading my information on Facebook or the internet and stuff like that, for that reason: because I don’t believe in it.”
Throughout his career, he’s chosen to go only by his first name, and isn’t about to break cover now.
“It’s got to do with a lot of things, because I believe in the weight of ancestry, and what that brings,” he explains, about not using his surname. “As I’ve been a rebel in my family line, kind of, I’ve chosen not to have that connection.”
Family lines are a central preoccupation of “Under the Turquoise Sky.” Protagonist Takeshi is sent to Mongolia to find the lost daughter that his grandfather, Saburo, fathered with a local woman in the aftermath of World War II.
The elderly Saburo — now a business magnate, played by butoh performer Akaji Maro — is seeking closure as he nears the end of his life. But he also thinks the trip will do his prodigal grandson some good, and mold him into a worthy heir to the family firm.
Takeshi is accompanied by a Mongolian horse thief, Amaraa (Amra Baljinnyam), who’s given the job after being caught trying to pinch a steed from Saburo’s stables.
Amra — known in Mongolia as the star of Hollywood-style thrillers “Thief of the Mind” and “Trapped Abroad” — came up with the original story, and had conceived it as a more straightforward adventure.
“I kind of pushed for the auteur film,” Kentaro says. “This kind of story, you could easily make it into an NHK drama. You could easily make it into a very commercial film.”
Although the director’s vision won out, he insists that he was keen to keep things accessible, too. There are scenes that capture the hardships of nomadic life, but also moments of bathos, including a chase that’s pure slapstick.
“There’s an attempt at a certain self-mockery, but I wanted it to be equal on both sides, not from a point of view of someone not understanding the culture,” he says.
For much of the film, Takeshi and Amaraa travel in a UAZ off-road van, the iconic Soviet-era vehicle whose blocky design earned it the nickname bukhanka — Russian for “loaf of bread.” Naturally, it breaks down.
“(When) you go to the countryside, you sometimes see a car or truck that’s stuck in the mud,” says Kentaro. “And they’re waiting, because it’s an area where there’s no telephone reception. So when that happens to you, you just have to wait — hours — for somebody to come by.”
Though the director had visited Mongolia multiple times, his local cast and crew helped him tap deeper into the community. While Amra called in the favors, Ganzorig Tsetsgee, a well-known TV personality who plays a policeman in the film, also worked as a unit production manager.
“We were really fortunate to have the network that we had in Mongolia,” Kentaro recalls. “Just by being there, it opened up so many doors.”
During the shoot, the cast worked without a fixed script, which enabled the film to avoid a common pitfall when Japanese actors venture overseas.
“You know, you’ve seen it so many times in films here, where you see the actor’s more worried about his English,” Kentaro says.
Rather than deliver stiff readings of word-perfect English, Yagira’s Takeshi communicates with the locals in a mixture of pidgin and pantomime. And he isn’t the only one: There’s a wonderful scene in which Amaraa conducts a business transaction with a nomad (played by screen veteran Batmend Baast) using nothing but furrowed facial expressions.
“I wanted it to be about the acting, and not about the dialogue,” Kentaro says. “Because, finally, emotion’s not really about words: It’s about everything that happens between the words, before the words, after the words.”
Yagira is still best known to international audiences for his debut role as an abandoned child in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows,” for which he won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. Kentaro says Yagira appreciated his freeform approach to directing.
“He said he liked it because it seems that it reminded him a lot of his first film … of not having prepared, and shooting in a verite style,” he says.
In conversation, Kentaro makes frequent references to the lexicon of cinema, from Buster Keaton to the nouvelle vague. As a teenager in France, he was able to soak up that country’s rich movie heritage, but also watch many Japanese classics on the big screen.
He notes that the French hold cinema in high esteem, calling it the septieme art (seventh art).
“That idea of cinema, not as entertainment — like they see it in America, or in a lot of places now — but as an art thing, always pushed me to want to make … an auteur film,” he says.
Speaking after a screening of “Under the Turquoise Sky,” he’s pleased that a French journalist in the audience had spotted a cheeky homage to Michelangelo Antonioni. Other aspects of the film will probably go over the heads of viewers who aren’t from Mongolia, but that’s OK, too.
“Even if you don’t have all the references, it’s not really about that,” he says. “It’s about the emotions, and how you feel; it’s about a connection to your family; it’s about identity; it’s about understanding your destiny. That’s what it’s about.”
“Under the Turquoise Sky” opens in select Tokyo-area theaters from Feb. 26, and in Nagoya and the Kansai region from March 12. For more information, visit undertheturquoisesky.com (Japanese only).
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