Lovers on Borders (Japan/Portugal, 2018)

Lovers on Borders is an international co-production between Japan and Portugal based on an original script by screenwriter Shigeru Murakoshi and director Atsushi Funahashi. It tells the story of a relationship between two lost souls that defies many lines of separation. Life and death, geographical distance, language, race, religion, social class, hatred, and ultimately time are traversed in a love story that takes nearly 300 years to reach fruition.

The film starts in Japan in 2021, a year after the Tokyo Olympic Games have successfully been held but failed to revitalise the economy. It’s also ten years after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the effects of which continue to haunt the nation. Feeling this depression is the Japanese-Brazilian community in Hamamtsu whose main source of employment is an ailing factory. When the owners decide, through a combination of cold capitalism and xenophobia, that the best way to save the business is to cut the number of already overworked foreign staff, they send hapless executive Shuji Kase (Tasuku Emoto) to the shop floor to wield the axe. One of the victims is talented guitarist Koshiro (Yuta Nakano) whose unemployment jeopardises his legal status and future plans. He commits suicide, leaving behind his devoted wife, a Portuguese woman named Marina (Ana Moreira). She loved to sing fado songs with accompaniment from Koshiro but is now left swearing vengeance on Shuji.

Intertwined and inter-cut into this narrative is a period drama, replete with historic locations and convincing costumes, but with a set-up that mirrors the present-tense narrative and whose conclusion offers a sense of foreboding. It takes us to Portugal after the Great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 where we find another country brought to its knees by a natural disaster. Aristocrat Gaspar de Carvalho (Antonio Duraes) returns from Asia to oversee reconstruction of his family’s estate. With him are slaves including two Japanese, a mute man named Soji (Tasuku Emoto) and his friend Shiro (Yuta Nakano). They find themselves in a perilous situation as they are subject to racism and being worked to death by their cruel master.

However, at the point of despair, seeds of hope are planted when Soji meets and falls in love with Mariana (Ana Moreira), a peasant who lost her parents in the disaster and now works on Gaspar’s estate. Through physical gestures alone, these two people from vastly different countries and social circumstances understand how each other feel. However, the aristocrat’s hatred of the Japanese tears the lovers apart before their romance can truly blossom and so Mariana enacts a shocking vengeance on Gaspar.

With so many echoes across timelines, tension is built, not so much from characters traversing traditional borders, but from the hope that people can break repetition which will lead to tragedy. Foreshadowing plays a big part of the film as Marina sets her sights on avenging her husband in a similar fashion to Mariana, even though she and Shuji are effectively reincarnations of fated lovers. The looming shadow of a self-fulfilling prophecy cuts between time periods while raw human emotions are examined as Marina grapples with the idea that she might just be able to love the man partially responsible for her beloved husband’s death. This leaves the audience on tenterhooks as to how things will end.

As Mariana/Marina, Moreira is the axis around which the film revolves. She has a certain flinty attractiveness and slight gauntness that makes her appear credible as someone sucked into a whirlpool of loss. She plays this sense of loss with a dead-eyed conviction. It is something felt more acutely in the eerie sequences where Marina can see Koshiro’s form and feel his presence. It helps that she belts out the song, “Fado Menor”, which contains lyrics of everlasting love, with vigour that stirs the soul. Nakano, speaking fluent (at least to this non-native speaker) Portuguese, is cemented convincingly as the perfect motivator for vengeance. In the romantic flashbacks, he shows the first gleam of love, as experienced through fado and the intimacy of life in Japan, which helps Moreira sell the idea that her character is undergoing the awful bleakness of being left behind. Playing Shuji/Soji, Emoto uses his boyish good looks to emphatically show earnest integrity love. Unfortunately, there is a lack of intensity and physicality in the chemistry he shares with Moreira as their behaviour is too well mannered to convince as timeless lovers linked by an eternal bond. More scenes between the two in the past to show a building of affection would have helped. 

What the film does best is show how love can blossom in the harshest of circumstances and sometimes even from situations marked by hatred. Whether it’s the violence of capitalism, colonialism or racism, seeing love transcend these borders in a well-executed and ambitious story is fascinating. Ultimately, the film offers hope for the future, which is indeed much needed right now.