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COMPLICITY


COMPLICITY (Complicity Yasashii Kyohan)


 January 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Kei Chikaura and
stars Yulai Lu and Tatsuya Fuji


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Lu, Fuji and Chikaura — a talented and affable trio. 
©Koichi Mori

Nearly two years ago, writer-director-producer-editor Kei Chikaura took to the stage at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival amid warm applause, following the world premiere of his feature debut, Complicity. In the ensuing months, the film would have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, its Asian premiere at the Busan Film Festival, and its Japan premiere at Tokyo Filmex, where it won the all-important Audience Award.

All told, Complicity would screen at more than a dozen prestigious international film festivals. Normally, this would lead to an early Japanese release, to capitalize on the film’s overseas success.

But these are not normal times. With relations remaining chilly between Japan and China, the Japan-China coproduction was delayed another year before finally making its domestic bow.

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Chikaura and Lu react to one of Fuji's gentle wisecracks.
©Koichi Mori

Yet the timing couldn’t be better: As Japan struggles to become more immigrant friendly, it’s crucial that local audiences see more progressive, less superficial depictions of non-Japanese in the country’s media and the arts. Complicity provides exactly that, treating its Chinese protagonist with empathy and authenticity, erasing cultural barriers as it touches on themes of trust, friendship, family and food as the catalysts for building bonds.

It doesn’t hurt that Chikaura was able to cast the film with two certifiable stars, and that he had worked with both of them on short films prior to the feature: Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen) on Empty House in 2013, and Yulai Lu (Soundless Wind Chime, Trap Street) on Signature in 2017.

Appearing at FCCJ after the sneak preview screening for a Q&A session that stretched to an hour, the three were affable and voluble, visibly united in their respect for one another, and delighted that Complicity would finally be available to Japanese audiences.

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Fuji (left ©Koichi Mori), Lu, Chikaura (©FCCJ)

“It’s really hard to secure cast and crew when there’s no promise of theatrical distribution,” explained Chikaura. “Fortunately, everyone believed me when I promised that it would be released in Japan, as well as internationally. I’m grateful that everyone had such faith in me, and that I was able to keep my promise.”

Fuji recalled that he’d first read the script three years ago. “I like Mr. Chikaura as a person, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee I would agree to appear in the film," he said. "However, I found the script to be very powerful, and I had faith that we would be able to get to where we are today.”

Lu concurred. “Since I first met Mr. Chikaura, I’ve seen him develop so much. Complicity was especially hard because we also filmed in China. As a director myself, I know how difficult it is to realize a film. I admire Mr. Chikaura’s confidence and hard work, and I really had a great time acting with Mr. Fuji.” (The feeling was mutual: Behind the scenes, Fuji lauded Lu’s acting skill, and his ability to communicate so much without dialogue.)

The scenes in China were coordinated by Chikaura’s Chinese producing partner, Wei Fu. “Without his help, I don’t think the film would have been possible,” the director emphasized.” He organized everything. We were shooting 1,000 km south of Beijing in Henan Province. We had to make the long journey by car three times before everything was ready. So it took a lot of preparation, but we were able to get the shoot permissions and wrap in 5 days.”

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Hiroshi and Kaori treat Liang like a member of the family. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Shot with a startling sense of immediacy and realism, Complicity opens in Japan, with Liang Chen (Lu), paying dearly for a fake ID and a cellphone so he can work. He’s immediately besieged with calls for Wei Liu, his assumed identity, and after finding language assistance, discovers that Liu has been offered a job as apprentice to a soba noodle master. It doesn’t pay much, but it comes with room and board. Given his circumstances, Liang doesn’t hesitate long. Soon he has moved into an attic room at his employer’s soba restaurant in Yamagata, and is arising at the crack of dawn to prepare the buckwheat with him.

Hiroshi (Fuji) runs the restaurant with his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto), and they are grateful to have this eager, hard-working young man helping out. Despite his limited Japanese — and total lack of experience in the kitchen — he proves a quick study. His dedication earns Hiroshi’s admiration, and a touching father-son relationship quickly develops.

Delivering noodles one day, Liang meets and is smitten with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka), an artist who is studying Mandarin in hopes of attending school in Beijing. But after she reports to the police that he’s lost his wallet at a club, he stops taking her calls, fearful that his true identity might be exposed at any moment.

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Liang attempts to master the way of the noodle. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

And then there’s his guilt: we learn through flashbacks that he has left his ailing mother and demanding grandmother in his native Henan, where family responsibilities had curtailed any dreams he might have had. He’d come to Japan in the hopes of working for 3 years, saving money and returning to start his own business. But an urgent phone call from home and the threat of exposure puts his new life, and his new family, in danger.

Chikaura was asked whether it was personal experience with the immigrant community in Japan that had enabled him to create such a sensitive depiction of Liang’s plight. “I didn’t know much about the issues before I embarked on the project,” he admitted. “But back in 2014, I read an article about a Vietnamese man who was part of the government’s technical trainee program, and it said that he’d slaughtered a goat and eaten it. That got me thinking about why he would have done that, so I began researching the immigrant experience. I spent about 18 months meeting and talking with immigrants here, which was crucial to bringing a sense of reality and conviction in the film. I felt a moral imperative to [do the research first].”

And how did he decide on soba as the film’s culinary metaphor? “There are two reasons soba became the film’s motif,” Chikaura explained. “The first is that we’d decided on Oishida, Yamagata Prefecture for our shooting location, and it’s famous for its soba culture. As you see in the film, the ‘restaurant’ is really a tatami room in someone’s house. It was apparently a custom for wives in the town to make soba to entertain visitors, and if they were particularly good at it, they would start serving the noodles and earning a living from it. That’s how the [home-restaurant] culture developed.

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 ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

“The second reason is because of soba’s metaphorical qualities. It’s something that’s very simple, but it takes a lot of time and technique to master, which is exactly what I wanted to depict: something that’s simple but goes very deep.”

Fuji makes a thoroughly believable soba master, heaving huge bags of buckwheat, rolling and cutting with practiced finesse. Asked how he had achieved such realism, the star responded, “It’s troublesome when you have to play a detective or a cop or a yakuza gangster because you really can’t do research by becoming a yakuza. But when you’re playing a craftsman, you can try to become that craftsman. I get immense pleasure out of delving into role models for such a role.

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©Koichi Mori

“A month before principle photography, I went up to Oishida. I had two masters as coaches. Every day for about 20 days, I practiced all day, [eventually] processing about 100 kilos of buckwheat. Once you’ve embodied a craftsperson, you [can concentrate on other things]. I focused on embodying how grateful I was that this young Chinese immigrant had come all the way to this small town in Japan and was willing to help out with my work.”

Chikaura recounted an anecdote illustrating Fuji’s mastery of the craft. “The meijin soba masters agreed to teach us on one condition: that the soba making would not be a lie when depicted on screen. They said that even with months of training, it probably wouldn’t be possible to show closeups of the actors making the noodles, since it would be instantly obvious that they weren’t professionals. Mr. Fuji said, ‘I understand. I’ll do my best.’

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©Koichi Mori

“Toward the end of his training, one of the masters came to me and said that he’d passed the room in which Mr. Fuji was cutting soba, and that he’d heard a professional inside. He could tell just by the sound of cutting that it was a professional, and he was convinced it was a pro. When he found out it was Mr. Fuji, [he was amazed]. So the closeups you see in the film are really Mr. Fuji.”

Lu also trained to handle the noodles, and recalled, “Even when I read the script, I loved the parts with soba making. When I was making soba, I felt a natural connection to Mr. Fuji. I remember one scene in particular, when he was rolling out the dough and being very serious. It seemed like he was in his own world, and there was an aura around him that made me feel like he was really my father.”

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©Koichi Mori

On the subject of family, the director was asked whether the sour relations between the Hiroshi character and his son were to be interpreted as a comment on Japanese families. “It wasn’t my intention to make a social commentary on families or the problems we have with immigrants in Japanese society,” answered Chikaura. “I just wanted to tell the story of a soba craftsman who welcomes a Chinese man into his house, and forms a pseudo-family with him. But it was also my hope that this story about a ‘father’ and a ‘son’ would symbolize amiable relations between Japan and China.”

Asked how it felt to see the film opening at long last, Fuji joked, “Like a defendant about to be put on trial.” As for Lu, “It was such a joy making this film. I feel like I had encounters similar to my character’s, meeting strangers [who become friends]. You never know what kind of encounters you’ll have, either in making a film or in life. I hope to work with Mr. Chikaura and Mr. Fuji again.”

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With the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

While the image of an intercultural Japan, with people of diverse nationalities and ethnic backgrounds working together, may remain illusory, honest depictions of immigrants and their stories on screens large and small would help make that vision a reality. Kei Chikaura’s compassionate portrayal of a young man doing his best to atone for a bad conscience and bad choices marks a positive — and poignant — step.

Complicity is already available on DVD with English subtitles via Amazon, and it is currently going through the process necessary to obtain China’s “dragon seal,” which will allow it to be shown in Chinese theaters.

Complicity poster2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures
©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Selected Media Exposure

PASSAGE OF LIFE


PASSAGE OF LIFE (Boku no Kaerubasho)


September 20, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Akio Fujimoto, producer Kazutaka Watanabe and star Khin Myat Thu


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From left, producer Kazutaka Watanabe, director Akio Fujimoto and star Thin Myat Thu. ©Koichi Mori

The line between fiction and reality is blurred in Akio Fujimoto’s debut feature, Passage of Life. A poignant family drama with an undercurrent of political urgency, the Japan-Myanmar coproduction won both the Spirit of Asia Award and the Best Asian Future Film Award at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival — the first time a Japanese director had been so honored.

It went on to screen around the world to critical accolades, winning awards in the Netherlands and Thailand (where it qualified as a Burmese film). Just last month, it also received a Special Recognition honor from Japan’s Education Ministry, meaning that it is recommended for school viewings. As the awards season looms, there is every expectation that Passage of Life will be on many year-end lists.

The domestic accolades are especially important, since there are surprisingly few contemporary Japanese fiction films that incorporate pressing social issues into their storylines, and fewer still that treat non-Japanese characters (who barely seem to exist on screen here) with understanding or real compassion. 

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©Mance Thompson

At the Q&A session that followed the FC’s sneak preview, producer Kazutaka Watanabe explained the film’s genesis, way back in 2013: “The idea [to depict Burmese immigrants] came from Yuki Kitagawa, who appears in the film as the Japanese man who’s helping the family, and who also became the film’s co-producer. We had no money, and I didn’t have any experience as a producer yet, but we decided to go ahead with the project. Most of the information about Myanmar online is about the military government and Aung San Suu Kyi, not about the daily lives of Burmese. We wanted to tell a story that Japanese audiences could empathize with, that could also be full of discoveries. So we put out a monthlong open call for writer-directors online, and had about 40 responses. Mr. Fujimoto was the only one who wrote an entire script in that month, and he was also one of the most passionate. We were really impressed that despite his limited knowledge of Myanmar, he was able to create a believable world.”

Fujimoto conducted his initial research in Takadanobaba, which has one of Tokyo’s largest Burmese populations, and decided to portray one of the hard-luck stories he’d heard. He didn’t realize that his script would have to be vetted with the Myanmar government, nor that a representative would be on set during the shoot there. But despite the censorship, the film’s family can be seen as a metaphor for every family that has and is still facing an uncertain future. 

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Kaung contemplates life in Myanmar.  ©E.x.N K.K

Passage of Life drops us without preamble into the lives of Issace (Issace) and Khin (Khin Myat Thu), who immigrated to Japan from Myanmar without visas, along with their two sons, Kaung (Kaung Myat Thu) and Htet (Htet Myat Naing). They were following in the footsteps of many others, who began coming here in the wake of the 8888 Uprising (1988 pro-democracy demonstrations) in Myanmar. (There is briefly-seen newsreel footage of brutal military clampdowns on protestors.)

Issace and Khin find illegal work in Tokyo and create a happy life with their boys — although Kaung, now 7, and Htet, 4, believe they are Japanese and have the attitudes to go with it (“Idiot!” yells Htet, nearly hitting his mother in one fit of pique).

After several years of residency, Issace learns it is possible to file an application for political refugee status, and during his interview with Immigration, explains they left their country because “it was no longer safe.” But the request is denied, as happens all too frequently here, and no clear explanation is given. Issace tried to reassure Khin, who is struggling with an unnamed illness, but she pleads with him to return to Myanmar before their re-application is rejected again. “Things have changed back home since we came,” she says hopefully. “No way,” he responds. “Things can’t be that different. There’s no way we could back.”

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Kaung gets lost enroute to the airport.  ©E.x.N

Then one night, Immigration shows up at the door and warns Issace to stop working. Khin says, “We can’t be safe, not even in our own home… coming here was a big mistake. I want a normal life.”

After a hospitalization and with options fast dwindling, Khin makes the choice to takes the boys to Yangon, where they will grapple with their loss of friends and Japanese identity — as well as their distance from Issace, who has stayed in Japan to continue working so he can send them money. But Skype calls are not the same as being there, and one day, Kaung packs his rucksack, grabs a toy gun and heads for the airport.

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©FCCJ

Despite the film’s impressive social-issue immediacy, the initial Q&A questions focused on the extraordinary performances of the two small boys. Noting that it was the one thing he had been asked everywhere he traveled with the film, Fujimoto said, “No matter what nationalities the audiences were, everyone seemed to empathize with Kaung and this family. That made me really happy.”

He continued, “The most difficult part was that this was not an actual family, so the challenge was how to make them as real as possible. Since the father is not the boys’ real father, we had to figure out how to build a loving relationship between them. Khin-san [Khin Myat Thu] is their real mother, but the father is a Myanmar-based [stranger]. It was very difficult for the boys to call him ‘Papa’ at first.”

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 Fujimoto laughs as Myat Thu recalls mock-fighting with her son. ©Koichi Mori

Myat Thu, who has lived in Japan for 18 years, and whose sons were raised here, signed on to portray the mother when her elder boy, Kaung, decided he wanted to be in the film. She recalled, “The most challenging part of the process for me was the scene in which Kaung and I had to have a fight. That never happens in real life, so we had to find a way to fight realistically, and that was difficult.”

To capture a high degree of authenticity from the children, Fujimoto decided to shoot lengthy takes without interruption, and then spent 2 years editing down the resulting tens of hours of footage. He was asked why he had adopted the film’s documentary-like shooting style. The director answered, “It’s difficult to lock down the camera when you’re shooting children, unless you direct them to move in a restricted way. We wanted to have them move freely, and to have the camera move freely along with them.”

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Mom and the two boys explore the forests outside Yangon.  ©E.x.N K.K

Fujimoto also said he had accepted a certain degree of improvisation from the children, as long as the meaning of the original dialogue did not change. “We were extremely lucky, because although the younger boy, Htet, couldn’t read the script, he didn’t veer too far from it. But there was a certain scene in which he cries profusely, and that wasn’t included in the original script. It was supposed to be a very heartwarming scene, but when I explained what was happening [in the story] before the camera rolled, he just burst into tears.

“The original plan had been to tell the story of the older brother, Kaung, and [his coming of age]. We shot in sequence, and I was quite happy with how things were going. But thanks to [Htet’s outburst], it created a sudden juxtaposition with the younger boy’s own growth, or coming of age.”

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 Watanabe and Fujimoto.  ©Koichi Mori

Asked what he thought the film’s main message is, producer Kazutaka Watanabe replied, “What I found most impressive is that we had a Japanese director who was able to empathize with Burmese children. I feel that’s a rarity here — most creators don’t seem to feel empathy for people from Southeast Asian, or any foreigner, for that matter. Of course immigrants coexist with us in Japan, you see them working in convenience stores and family restaurants. But there’s no empathy. If we manage to get the audience to empathize with characters like this, we can expose them to something different. Of the film’s many messages, I think that’s the most important.”

Another journalist asked the director why Passage of Life was vague about the reasons that Isaace’s application for refugee status had been rejected. “It was intentional not to include too much exposition, or to give the background for why they had come to Japan in the first place,” responded Fujimoto. “This was a point I thought a lot about, but I ultimately decided to pare down those details. I could have given some explanation of why the system in Japan is so complicated and so strict. But what I really wanted to do was to show to daily lives of these people from their viewpoint.”

He added, “I think it’s probably very difficult even for professionals working in the immigration field to explain the reasons for a rejection, and it’s also difficult to prove that you’re a refugee. It would make me very happy if the film instigates discussion among immigrants in Japan.”

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©Mance Thompson

There are an estimated 10,000 Burmese currently here on legal visas, although watchdog groups suggest there are many more undocumented immigrants (from many nations) than the government’s official count.

Last year, Japan granted refugee status to only 20 people, out of nearly 20,000 applicants (a sharp increase over the previous year’s applications). The year before, it approved just 28. The Justice Ministry started a stricter screening system in January this year to eliminate applicants believed to be purely job-seekers, and reported in late August that applications had plunged 35% in the first half of 2018 (22 applicants were approved).

But Japan has not officially adopted an immigration policy, and as security is beefed up ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government is cracking down on those working illegally while awaiting the outcome of their refugee applications, putting them in detention centers and creating the sense that every visa overstayer is a criminal.

In a perfect world, every Japanese would watch Passage to Life and help, somehow, to implement correctives.

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©E.x.N K.K

 

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