Tourism (Japan, 2018) [OAFF 2018]

Daisuke Miyazaki is fast becoming a director to watch, quickly following up his last film Yamato (California) (2017) with Tourism, the second of a two-part video installation commissioned by the ArtScience Museum in Singapore and Singapore International Film Festival for an exhibition called “Specters and Tourists”. The project aimed to explore the nature of contemporary life and an under-seen side of Singapore. Nina Endo, one of the stars of Yamato (California), takes the lead role here (as well as acting as stylist and co-producer) and is paired up with SUMIRE, a popular fashion model and daughter of Tadanobu Asano, to make a cute double-act that Miyazaki sends to Singapore on a journey off the beaten track.

Nina and Sue live with a male roommate in a shared house somewhere in Yamato City, Kanagawa Prefecture. Life is quiet and somewhat uninspiring for the three. Like many young people, they work part-time in stores like Tsutaya and Book-Off, study in their spare time, and chase vague dreams of a better life. However, some excitement enters their world when Nina wins two tickets for a free trip abroad. A different locale might usher in some excitement.

The girls head to Singapore, a cosmopolitan city not too different from Japan thanks to the proliferation of global brand stores like Uniqlo. At first, the girls travel around famous sightseeing spots on a typical holiday itinerary, but when Nina loses her smartphone at a cafe, she gets lost and finds herself wandering amidst parts of Singapore which are less touristic. It is here she finds the true freedom to explore unfamiliar places, see unfamiliar sights, and hear unfamiliar sounds and she meets new people on the way.

The most impressive thing about the film is the way Daisuke Miyazaki martials visual elements to frame a travelogue featuring two ultra contemporary girls as revealed by their nails that are blinged up, smartphones accessorized beyond conventional taste, and attachment to tech. They are from a generation used to streaming their adventures over the Internet and the visual quality of the film reflects that. Immediacy and unvarnished honesty are the senses brought up due to the use of digital cameras to capture scenes with very little staging. The format presents flat visuals leading us closer to reality. Sometimes the aspect ratio changes to match a phone’s screen when the girls record themselves or stream videos (complete with on-screen text when people comment on a live-stream) and when the phone is attached to selfie sticks, the world is a whirl of sensations and sounds as the girls tour, a variety of places. Documentary-like direct-to-camera talking head moments really add to the sense of how contemporary this tale is.

The use of these visual devices and careful deployment of tracking and long shots effectively puts us in the environment and head-space of the characters and, once in Singapore, viewers get the popular areas such as the Merlion which, according to Wikipedia, is ranked in Japan as the ‘Three Major Disappointments of the World’. Greeted with “Is this it?”, the character’s muted reactions prime us for Nina’s departure into various urban areas, the markets and restaurants of Chinatown, the Hindu and Muslim quarters with bazaars and temples and mosques, the quiet residential areas complete with tower blocks and bus stops. The film becomes Nina’s tale during these sequences while showing the multi-ethnic make-up of Singapore and the many emotions connected to travelling.

Endo captures the dislocation of being a traveller in a foreign land, half recognizing the symbolism of everyday things but unable to translate how she can relate to them or access them. The sense of her wandering around, slightly lost and a little fed up radiates from her slight frowns and exasperated comments. The lack of confidence and direction in her eyes feels realistic to anyone who has just wandered around areas and observed, uncertain about how to engage with people. What also feels realistic is the spontaneous nature of friendships that can spring up when people reach out to each other and conversations with passers-by occur. As any traveller will also attest, the best moments are when a kind person takes an interest because that is when you will see aspects of a city not on any tourist map and so it happens with Nina, as she is shown into a family home and taken to a rooftop concert.

Endo is magnetic in the lead role so that long sequences of her wandering around random urban spaces are bearable. The chemistry between the leading professional actors and some of the extras is solid as they interact on screen and most are good at communicating to the camera and with their fellow actors, working up a nice synchronicity. The best moment is reserved for a dance sequence next to the Merlion that will bring a smile to your face in an otherwise placid film.

It isn’t all fun and games as Miyazaki touches on issues like war as seen by shots of an AWAC aircraft flying and a war memorial but the film is mostly about the listlessness of modern life and constant travel which can be felt in the moments when the people enter a fugue state whilst on the move, staring at nothing in particular and lost in thought as ambient music plays. The film is a mellow space to enter, low-tension, but also a little hopeful as an adventure that has all the hallmarks of being a potential disaster turns into an interesting journey where human kindness can be seen.

Tourism received its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10. It will be shown again on March 15.