While certain Mongolians are well-known in Japan, especially the sumo wrestlers who have come to dominate the sport in the past 20 years, Mongolia the country mostly draws a blank in the popular mind.
Kentaro, a multicultural actor who goes by one name and has Hollywood credits (“Rush Hour 3,” “Taxi 2”), did not exactly set out to educate the audience with his first film as a director, “Under the Turquoise Sky,” but he still offers an affectionate, visually sumptuous love letter to Mongolia’s land, people and culture. Whether it motivates more Japanese to visit Mongolia (about 22,500 did in 2017) I have no idea, though its beauty shots of the wide open Mongolian landscape, made with an 8K video camera, may prompt many a Google search.
Co-scripted by Kentaro and Amra Baljinnyam, a Mongolian actor who also stars in the film, the story is simplicity itself: A sickly corporate titan, Saburo (Akaji Maro), decides to send his spoiled grandson Takeshi (Yuya Yagira) to Mongolia to search for the daughter he fathered with a local woman 70 years ago, when he was a World War II prisoner of war.
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The idea, Saburo says, is to give the kid “a purpose in life,” though how wandering about the Mongolian steppes will accomplish that he doesn’t say. Even more strangely, he hires as a guide Amaraa (Amra), a burly man who stole a horse from his stable and rode it through downtown Tokyo with the police in hot pursuit (a farcical, dream-like sequence that signals early on the film’s freeform mix of genres and moods).
Once in Mongolia, Takeshi and Amaraa head off into the backcountry in a rattletrap white minivan. Mishap after comic mishap follows, including the vehicle’s foredoomed breakdown. Meanwhile, Amaraa asks a succession of strangers for the whereabouts of the daughter. And predictably he comes up with exactly nothing.
Just when the film seems stuck in a repetitious rut, like the van’s wheels spinning in the mud, it begins to give us glimpses of another, more mysterious Mongolia. Takeshi and Amaraa encounter a chanting, drum-beating shaman atop a rocky hill and enjoy the infectiously rhythmic performance of traditional musicians around a roaring campfire.
And when the car gives out in a cloud of smoke, Amaraa successfully negotiates for a replacement — an aged motorcycle and sidecar — with its nomad owner using only gestures and glances. It’s a funny scene that is suggestive of an older, wilder world in which communication needs no words.
Also, Takeshi’s change of heart — that is, his progress from self-centered playboy to considerate grown-up — may be as inevitable as the sunrise, but it comes from a real, elemental place, not just a plot device. Playing this scapegrace hero, Yagira seems to be hugely enjoying himself: Compared with his more serious work for Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows”) and other directors, this role is a walk in the park — or rather a stroll in the steppes. But he also completely embodies Takeshi’s transformation.
And his mission? For all its detours, from the ridiculous to the sublime, the film doesn’t forget Takeshi’s search for his long-lost aunt. But the real value of the film lies in its Mongolian characters, who amuse, impress and inspire with a naturalness that feels uncalculated — much like that endless turquoise sky.
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