The human migrant experience has a universality that spans continents and cultures, that connects the poor Guatemalan fleeing violence and the Indian hoping to escape opportunity.
Desperation, exploitation, the pull of assimilation battling the comfort and “safety” of hanging with your “own kind,” speaking your native language — you can find this is Little Haiti or Chinatown, barrios, meat processing plants or any restaurant you could name.
Even in Japan.
“Complicity,” the subtle, tense, touching and somewhat slow debut feature of writer-director Kei Chikaura, looks at this story through the eyes of a young Chinese immigrant as imagined by a Japanese filmmaker.
It’s about cultures clashing, the desire for assimilation and “succeeding” in a new country straining against the pull of the past, the legal and moral barriers, stresses and pitfalls faced when someone this young and poor uproots his life to try and make it somewhere new.
Parking a Chinese illegal immigrant in one of the most infamously insular and racist cultures on Earth is a situation rife with strife, around the story’s edges. But Chikaura makes the main focus of the story the heart-breaking and soul-crushing pressures facing Chen Liang (Yulai Lü), who left his ailing mother in the care of his grandmother and slipped into Japan to learn a new trade, “make a lot of money” and send for them back in Henan province.
The moment we meet him, we know how wrong this dream has gone. He’s caught up in a theft ring, stealing water heaters and the like from homes and businesses.
The cost smuggling in means he’s trapped, exploited by the very community one would expect to give him shelter and help. Watch “The Search for General Tso” or “Ghosts” documentaries to see how this can play out.
Chen Liang sees the trap he’s in, and in one last desperate act, he buys fake identification (and a new phone) to escape it. He will strike out on his own, scrape together a new life, escape his recent past and unsavory associations while still lying to his mother in their weekly chats about how well he is doing.
As Liu Pei, with a made-up past (he’s now from Beijing) and resume, he takes a job in a tiny noodle restaurant in suburban Ōishida. The gruff owner, Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji, a star since 1976’s “In the Realm of the Senses”) becomes a father figure to him as he introduces Liu to the world of soba noodles. His daughter (Kio Matsumoto) is the very picture of accommodating kindness.
And there’s this cute artist (Sayo Akasaka) his age whom he delivers noodle dishes to. She takes a shine to him — or rather the invented version of Liu.
But every time Liu Pei starts to immerse himself in mastering this corner of Japanese cuisine, every time he figures a “normal” life is within reach, his old life reaches out for him.
Why can’t he join in on this “job?” I lost my flat, why can’t I stay with you? Why can’t we all smoke in this restaurant?
Chikaura has Liu Pei see the boorish and even criminal behavior of his “gang” through Japanese eyes. Every Japanese person he meets — even the police — are unfailingly polite.
A key scene — Liu Pei screws up a delivery, having trouble finding his way (by delivery bicycle) in Ōishida. He must apologize to his mentor, the daughter insists. That becomes painful for everyone involved.
Liu Pei’s back-story, delivered in flashbacks, show us just what he was fleeing in China — unpleasant life responsibilities, a slim chance of success and “freedom” to live his own life. Not exactly slave labor or civil war.
Chikaura passes along little judgements of Liu Pei and Chinese immigrants in general like this.
The director passes up the chance to take a more conventional route, immersing us in the painstaking and oh-so-Japanese way of making buckwheat noodles and the dishes they’re used with, to focus on all the strings tugging poor Chen Liang/Liu Pei in different directions, trapped in this new name, new lie and illegal life he’s living.
Yulai Lü gives the character a poker-faced stoicism that fits his unwillingness to show weakness and emotion to his Japanese hosts.
Surprising turns here and there don’t wholly lift “Complicity” out of the realm of melodrama. But this intimate, personal and otherwise fresh take on the immigrant experience in a place that resists immigration like an island stuffed with Arizona sheriffs has rewards enough to keep us engaged in this kid’s story, start to finish.
MPAA Rating: unrated, smoking, profanity
Cast: Yulai Lü, Tatsuya Fuji, Sayo Akasaka, Kio Matsumoto
Credits: Written and directed by Kei Chikaura. A Film Movement Plus release.
Running time: 1:56