Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 25, 2019 12:58 pm 
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Being Chinese in Japan

In this painfully touching tale of illegal immigration, Chen Liang (Lu Yulai, in an intimate, committed performance), is a young Chinese man burdened with debts after the death of his father. He becomes "Liu Wei" when he takes on a false identity to seize a job opportunity in Japan, hoping to return with a pile and restart his dad's garage. Immigrant labor is much needed for Japan's aging population, yet foreigners aren't welcome in Japan, and there is a continual threat of deportation if Chen's false identity is discovered. It was not the wisest financial decision to move to a country not only resistant to foreigners but long economically stagnant. Chen/Liu was, obviously, spurred by optimistic rumors. Yet he takes to his new life with a quiet passion that makes its frailty heartbreaking.

Flashbacks show what it was like living with his sick mother and poisonous grandmother before he leaves. Selling stolen water heaters with some others is how he makes up the money to pay for his smuggler and fake ID papers when first arrived in Japan. He buys the latter on the black market, then takes the job, offered to the original owner of the phone number, without knowing what it'll be. Soon he is apprenticing in a rural soba shop, lugging huge bags of grain, cleaning up and politely serving at table, and most importantly being shown the trade by a fatherly old man. Unlike the others who were buying fake ID's with him, who go into shifty work under the radar, Chen's job is perfectly legitimate. He is terribly sincere to, and treated extremely kindly by, his rural Japanese employers, save for the fact that he is lying to them about who he is. Whatever structural weaknesses Chicaura's film may have (it can seem meandering and prolix at times), he makes his protagonist's complex, stressful situation intensely clear and emotionally vivid for us.

They give him a low-ceilinged room upstairs, scrupulously clean, and treat him like family, though understanding Japanese may be a struggle for him. What's said to him is translated in subtitles for us; how much he gets isn't always altogether clear, but he seems to follow quite a lot even if he doesn't talk much.

The immigrant is a nice looking, low-keyed guy and he not only bonds with his soba chef boss Hiroshi Inoue (Tatsuya Fuji of In the Realm of Senses) but also with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka), an artistic young women he meets through delivering a meal to her studio on the edge of a beautiful forest - who takes to him immediately. She has been learning Chinese, so they can communicate, though the more wordless communication with Hiroshi seems just as intense. Part of Chen's bonding with Horoshi turns out to be shared opposition to the son's stubborn desire to close the restaurant. In one fraught scene where the son comes to visit with his wife, Chen/Liu's "complicity" as a near-family member in the house becomes clear.

How would Ozu have treated this subject? The scene where sister and her visiting brother fight loudly in one room and Chen putters around in another listening and looking worried, is the most powerful and strangely intimate moment in the first half of the film. Later, when authorities suspect that Liu is Chen, the other meaning of "complicity" appears as the relationship between the young immigrant and his soba chef "dad" deepens.

Kei Chikaura’s aim in his feature debut is to perform an act of sympathy, providing insight into an experience rarely observed on screen. This story doesn't depict moving from one conflict zone into another like Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or-winning 2015 Dheepan. Chikaura need not go to such an extreme. He succeeds by staying close to its protagonist, following him up and down stairs, even calling out attention to the various T shirts he wears and how he adjusts the fan in his attic room. A little more detailed sense of Chen's personal motivations for immigration would have improved the writing, especially since the screenplay focuses on Chen/Liu's private experience much more than on political issues and has numerous little flashbacks, some of them unnecessary. But the intimacy and emotional closeness to the protagonist make a strong impression.

Kei Chikaura started a career as a filmmaker with his first short film Empty House in 2013. His second, The Lasting Persimmon, was selected for the Clermont- Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2016. In 2017, his third short film Signature, which focused on a Chinese immigrant and featured the same lead actor, premiered at Locarno.

In fact Chikaura, coming from shorts to a feature, seems trying to include too much and having trouble integrating different elements - the grim details of illegal immigration, the sudden intimacy in a family not one's own, and lighthearted and sentimentalized romantic moments with a semi-girlfriend don't quite mesh. This film could have used some sharpening up and paring down. But it also shows intense humanism and takes us pretty deeply into the world of its hopeful traveler.

Complicity コンプリシティ (katakana transliteration of "Complicity"), 115 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2018 and also showed at Busan, Tokyo FILMeX, and the Berlinale Feb. 2019. Screened for this review as part of the NYAFF June 29, 2019. Asian Film Pulse review by Marko Stojilković, Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermonde, Windows on Worlds review by Hayley Scanlon, Moviebreak review by Lida Bach, Filmrezensionen review by Oliver Armknecht.
NYAFF showtime:
Saturday, June 29
1:00 PM
Walter Reade Theater


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