Complicity (Japan/China/France, 2018) [NYAFF 2019]

Kei Chikaura’s debut feature film tackles the immigrant life and experience through Chen Liang (Yulai Lu), a young Chinese man from Henan province who makes his way to Japan in the hopes of earning enough money to return to his native country and reopen his father’s car shop back home — where his aging mother and grandmother struggle remain. While the subject of Asian immigrants in Japan are not necessarily uncommon in Japanese documentary film, it still remains a peripheral one in feature film, barring a handful of productions from the late 1980s and early 1990s and/or those made by zainichi filmmakers, e.g. Yoichi Sai’s Blood and Bones (2004). Having previously worked together with actor Lu on a short film concerning a similar subject, Signature (2017), Chikaura here provides a differently toned and focused contribution on a subject that has more often been presented with melodramatic flights of suffering and victimhood. Chikaura does nod to some of the tropes associated with immigrant narratives, but almost in a cheeky manner that prompts certain spectator expectations, only to discard them, coming up with an impressively assured and thoughtfully subdued work that in the long run is less directly about immigrants and more about empathy and friendship.

Making understated its primary tone, most notable about Complicity is its quietness in presenting Chen’s experiences. Throughout the film are potentially shady, even dangerous, money-earning situations or schemes into which Chen can fall as he lives a life of not only an illegal immigrant in Japan but also one who pays to take on the identity of an actual legal resident named Liu Wei. The film, in fact, begins with a sequence set at night and Chen and a fellow Chinese friend in the middle of a “job”: trying to steal a piece of machinery or equipment and then paying a Japanese man an exorbitant amount of money for a fake ID of the real Liu Wei. Yet once Chen decides to take on Liu’s identity after a bit of waffling, and irrevocably puts himself in an even more precarious situation by answering a job placement at a soba restaurant intended for and as Liu, the film dispenses with that noir world to focus on other matters, particularly the master-apprentice relationship that develops into a father-son bond between Chen and his boss, the gruff and elderly but hardworking soba master chef Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji). Occasionally, the film reverts back to that noir world, such as when Chen meets up with the same friend along with yakuza-like Japanese colleagues or when another friend pops up at the soba restaurant asking for some help. Here and there, the film dangles these strings of predictability or tropes with which to tease the spectator and provoke narrative expectations, only to throw them out of the window because it has no real need for them regarding the story that it wants to tell. If anything, the film is arguably about friendship, above all else, and it just so happens that the main character is an illegal immigrant. (In comparison, Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope [2017]) is much more overtly politicised, though just as understated — and much cheekier by far — as Complicity.) Even the film’s most boisterous moment is reserved not for Chen but for Hiroshi’s two adult children (a daughter who works tirelessly at the restaurant and an estranged son) who disagree over what to do with the restaurant and their father.

Even Chen’s encounter with a customer, Hazuki (Akasaka Sayo) — a young artist learning Mandarin and planning to study in Beijing — does not (d)evolve into a cliché romance that ends either tragically or redemptively due to his situation. As with the opening sequences that cue a treacherous world for the immigrant, so the scene in which Chen meets Hazuki for the first time when he delivers food to her place (especially with the camera resting on his reaction of instantly being enamoured or, at the very least, intrigued) cues the proverbial romance borne from loneliness and insecurity (legal and financial). Yet, again, the film drops these cues, only to just leave them on the floor and forget them.

In a similar vein, the film plays with chronology by occasionally flashing back to Chen’s life in China with his mother and grandmother. Though these flashbacks are meant to invoke “family” and “home,” such that homesickness, sacrifice, and crippling hardship come to mind (with the goal of milking them for the sake of drama), they actually connote  more like something from which to escape…

…and maybe find a new father figure that has been lacking in Chen’s life. As the film centers on Chen and Hiroshi, the performances of actors Lu and Fuji are crucial to the film’s emotions. Lu is a solid performer as Chen, but admittedly lacks a certain charisma. If anything, it is his situation that holds the attention, not the character itself, if that makes any sense. In contrast, Fuji has a pulsating quality to his presence before the camera, an absolute intensity that pulls everything and everyone towards him.

Complicity is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on June 29.