A Vietnam-Japan co-production, Along the Sea follows three young Vietnamese women, in the dark of the night, in Japan, who leave with their belongings to go by train, by ferry, and then by car to eventually arrive at their new job location, a fish factory in an undisclosed small town on the northern tip of Honshu. This extended opening sequence, for which there is no exposition presented for the viewer in order orient herself to the situation, encapsulates the physical and psychical labour of migration: the waiting, the uncertainty, the hunger, the seemingly endless voyage, and also making oneself inconspicuous, if not altogether invisible, throughout it all. For the arrival in the host country is not always the end of a migration journey but in fact the beginning, especially if one is undocumented, as An (Huynh Tuyet Anh), Phuong (Hoang Phuong), and Nhu (Quynh Nhu) have become, following their departure from a company for which they came to Japan and work as technical trainees. Long hours for which they were hardly compensated, during which they could hardly find time to eat, and during which they were hounded to work harder, faster, and better, prompted such a departure after three months with the company; hence this opening sequence of stealing into the night, ultimately to meet up with a fellow Vietnamese who brokers jobs with Japanese employers.
Such migration experiences and perspectives, however, are not new to director-writer Akio Fujimoto. Fujimoto is one among what remains only a handful of contemporary Japanese filmmakers who have addressed and represented migrant communities in Japan. His first feature film, the Japan-Myanmar co-production Passage of Life (2017), deals with a Burmese family living in Japan without any proper documents and the financial as well as emotional struggles that the family experiences. Fujimoto worked with a mainly non-professional cast for Passage of Life and a mix of professional and non-professional actors for Along the Sea. In this way, a rather strong observational documentary quality pervades both films in depicting experiences and perspectives culled from encounters and interviews with actual migrants.
Indeed, the operative terms are “experiences” and “perspectives” in Fujimoto’s films. Along the Sea does not delve into the politics and policies of migration in Japan, or even cultural questions and/or struggles of assimilation. On this note, the film presents very little interaction between the Vietnamese women and Japanese, only when necessary regarding work or health. Instead, Fujimoto is more interested in capturing the emotional flux and complexities of everyday life of migrants. During roughly the first forty-five minutes, the camera stays quite close to the three young women, capturing the intimacy of their friendship as well as their individual viewpoints in tight close-ups or two shots, while working at the fish factory, playing in the snow, or having a meal in their temporary lodgings. In the process of capturing everyday life, of course, the film also registers how the basic fact of one’s undocumented status injects a whole different weight to that everyday.
The film eventually turns all of its focus on Phuong as an example of the different psychological and emotional tolls that being undocumented can have on someone. From the very beginning, Phuong strikes a contrasting note to An and Nhu due to her silence and sickly constitution. Much to her friends’ (and perhaps also the viewer’s) frustration, Phuong initially refuses to confide to her two friends about her condition – or at least what she thinks may be at the bottom of her feeling unwell, even insisting on continuing to work when clearly she is not fit to do so. Once she does disclose her suspicion of being pregnant, the film ceases to be just about migrant experiences but also about the difficult process that a woman (migrant or otherwise) must go through to arrive at a decision that will directly shape her future, in Japan or elsewhere. After this point, the camera becomes more of a sympathetic companion compared to An and Nhu, who are understandably sensitive about being caught without papers, losing a job newly started, and/or getting deported, depending on what Phuong decides to do. In her isolation and silence and its kind, non-judgmental vigilance, Phuong and the camera embark on their own separate journey and trace the host of emotions that one can only imagine are swirling in Phuong’s mind. Though this journey lasts but a day, time slows down, is stretched, or the sense of it disappears altogether, for both Phuong and the viewer, as the camera and pacing adhere more to accompanying Phuong wherever she ends up than to plot demands. In this regard, what is certainly a long, drawn-out walk through the falling snow between locations as Phuong gets lost is, at the same time, a striking visual and physical expression of such emotional flux and complexities about her condition, which divides her desires and goals for being – and most importantly remaining – in Japan.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.