A young mother struggles to find a way through a legacy of parental abandonment and exploitation in Masaaki Kudo’s Okinawan drama, A Far Shore (遠いところ, Tooi Tokoro). As the title implies, the heroine does indeed long to go somewhere far away but finds herself hemmed in by the nature of the island on which she lives while facing rejection from all sides. She tries to do everything right, working to support herself and her son, but is finally left with no place to turn in a fiercely patriarchal and judgemental society.
At 17 (Kotone Hanase), Aoi makes her living as a bar hostess leaving her two-year-old son Kengo (Tsuki Hasegawa) with her grandmother. Her husband, Masaya (Yoshiro Sakuma), is a drunken lout who can’t, and doesn’t want to, hold down a job. She hides the money she earns in various stashes around their apartment including in the bathroom bin fearful that Masaya will take it and they’ll be left short on the rent again. Though he refuses to work, Masaya resents being kept by his wife and often turns violent, viciously beating Aoi if he suspects her of hiding money from him or otherwise feels in some way belittled.
On the one had, she isn’t supposed to be working in the clubs because she’s a minor but realistically they are the only place where she can find the kind of employment that will pay enough to support herself and her son. The clubs know they make more money off underage girls so they are keen to employ them, a gaggle of men from Tokyo obviously taken with the transgressive thrill of buying cocktails for a girl who technically isn’t old enough to drink, but cut them loose when the police come knocking as Aoi discovers when she is picked up by a patrol who take her in for questioning and ask insensitive questions such as how a woman who does what she does can love her son while making her the criminal rather than prosecuting the bar which employed her. In any case when Masaya beats her so badly she is forced to take on even more debt paying for hospital treatment she can no longer do bar work because men won’t want to drink with a woman whose face is bruised. In another irony, it’s the inability to work in bars, which only requires sitting and talking with men, that finally leaves her with little option other than sex work in which her clients are also often violent.
Her plight in a sense echoes a legacy of abandonment in the Okinawan islands, her own parents having seemingly disowned her with her mother apparently in prison on the mainland and her father remarried with other children. When she asks him for help he just tells her that it’s easy for a woman to find work when men will struggle all their lives in Okinawa’s difficult employment environment, brushing off grandma’s reminder of the lucrative subsidy she assumed he had as a fisherman. Meanwhile Grandma also takes against her, believing she’ll end up wayward like her mother but seemingly accepting little responsibility for either of the women while suggesting that part of her problem lies in not having given enough respect to her local Okinawan heritage neither speaking the language nor obeying the customs. Grandma’s last straw is seeing Aoi take back Masaya after he abandoned her and ran off with all her savings, while he echoes his refusal to work by insisting they move in with his mother who can’t do anything with him either because he’s been indulged by a fiercely patriarchal social culture that encourages him to think he owes women no basic respect or decency. To add insult to injury he ends up landing Aoi with even more debt when he’s arrested after a bar fight and tells the police that his wife will pay the compensation money he owes to the other guy for throwing the first punch.
Eventually Aoi is brought to the attention of social services who do actually seem a little more sympathetic than might be expected but still largely fail to accept that she may be a mother but she’s also a child in need of care. She tries get to a respectable job in a cafe but encounters only further exploitation with extreme low wages, a shift pattern that doesn’t suit a working mother, and a one month probationary period during which she wouldn’t be paid which is obviously impossible for her to manage with no other means to support herself while everywhere she goes people just look down on her. A bleak portrait of life in contemporary Okinawa, Kudo’s icy drama suggests the hope of a distant place is all women like Aoi have to keep them going but in the end it may not be enough.
A Far Shore made its World Premiere at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.