No film festival would be complete without a road movie. For the 2023 edition of Japan Cuts, the U.S. premiere of Under the Turquoise Sky checks that box. The country being traveled is Mongolia, and the stated purpose is for Takeshi (Yuya Yagir) to find a woman at his grandfather’s request. It’s a film replete with beautiful images, but it’s not quite a beautiful film. There isn’t a single persuasive or winsome character in it; it falls into the same trap of Western films and the romanticized “going East” trope; and, quite frankly, there just isn’t all that much going on in between the appropriately simple images to make it worth watching.
Of course, the real purpose is the journey itself, filled with gorgeous landscape shots of the Mongolian countryside, often featuring the green of its natural backdrop rendered opaque by a layer of mist. This effect engenders a sense of serene peace in a place that, under the hand of cinematographer Ivan Kovac, somehow holds the perpetual look of early morning. This impression of hazy, break-of-day hours is only interrupted by the ugly white van carrying Takeshi and his Mongolian guide (Amra Baljinnyam), whom Kovac and director Kentaro depict (with fascination) urinating in several different locations.
There are a few flashes of boldness hidden in the caverns of this low-momentum film. Most notably, the scenes depicting Takeshi’s father (Akaji Maro) are quite striking in their abstract artistic choices; these sequences drench his office in blistering white lights — not unlike a movie set — with an ambitious production design to accompany it: nothingness. Apart from his desk and assistant, only the bright white holds sway in the frame. Even though this creative decision was likely born of low-budget restrictions, the viewers’ first glimpse of the office seems to carry a sublime weight, as if Takeshi’s father was a being from somewhere decidedly not here — a Japanese man from another time with a previous life, somehow involving the rural Mongolian woman Takeshi is sent to find, and entirely alien to the life of his son. Takeshi, like many of us, must confront the perspective-changing reality of his father’s life before he became his father. Unfortunately, these moments are too few to influence the overall impression left by Under the Turquoise Sky. Kentaro’s film is an ironically meandering movie about an unconvincing wanderer, and it left this viewer longing for something more substantial to pair with its beautiful images.