My Identity (Japan, 2019) (JAPAN CUTS 2020)

The complicated links between Japan and Taiwan – a Japanese territory from 1895 to 1945 – seem a popular subject matter for contemporary Japanese cinema. In recent times the issues of anti-Taiwanese racism, the migrant experience, and shared cultural experience have driven a number of dramas in both countries, including Koji Hagiuda’s Riding the Breeze (2014), Jay Chern’s Omotenashi (2018), and Keisuke Imamura’s Yan (2019).

Sae Suzuki’s My Identity is a short feature produced by the Tokyo University of the Arts – presumably as Suzuki’s graduate project. It tackles not only the experience of Taiwanese immigrants in Japan, but also issues of identity and self-identification in general.

Rei (Hinata Arakawa) is a Taiwanese-Japanese teen Rei struggling badly to fit in. At school she is mocked and bullied for not being Japanese enough. At home, her mother beats her for not knowing sufficient Mandarin to understand her. When Rei runs away from home, it is directly into the arms of unsuspecting officer worker Aoi (Kaho Seto), herself a victim of workplace bullying and an abusive and obsessed manager. When tragedy strikes both Rei and Aoi, they run away together to hide in an abandoned inn.

Through Rei the film explores her fractured and uncertain identity, her inability to fit in anywhere in her existing life, and her difficulties in communicating her desires to others. Through Aoi, who smoothly fits into Rei’s life as a de facto older sister, the film examines defining oneself in a white collar workplace, as well as disguising one’s identity when the two women are forced to flee Aoi’s apartment.

When the women arrive in Saitama and hide inside an abandoned inn, they do not expect passersby to start asking for rooms for the night or meals made for them. Rei and Aoi’s unexpected predicament – having to masquerade and work as innkeepers to evade suspicion – delivers an unexpected seam of light comedy, however it exists as a thin patina only. The difficult choices facing both women are never far from the surface, and ultimately drive out any significant amounts of humour. There is an entire full-length feature to be generated out of their absurd situation, which makes it interesting that Suzuki uses it only as a convenient side-plot.

In their new-found hometown there is also a massive Taoist temple, maintained by a Japanese volunteer with a personal interest in Taiwanese culture. For Aoi he introduces the potential for romance – and an escape from the obsessive co-worker that has stalked her. For Rei he is a threat to her new-found peace with Aoi, and to her perceived future away from bullies and physical abuse. The temple, as a Taiwanese construct in Japan, also acts as a dominating symbol overshadowing the film’s action: representing Rei, and providing a familiar haven in a hostile environment. It is a real temple as well, known as Seintenkyu, and is indeed the largest temple of its kind in the country.

My Identity is a modestly-framed character-based drama with measured pace and a low-key sense of drama. The characters of Rei and Aoi contrast well – one withdrawn and silent, the other more outgoing and confident – and the roles are played in a finely naturalistic fashion by newcomers Arakawa and Seto. It explores its themes of identity and communication in a solid manner. At only 61 minutes in length it will likely find it a challenge to develop a wide audience, but as a small festival work it represents a promising and entertaining debut; it is worth keeping Sae Suzuki’s name in mind to see how her directorial career develops from here.

My Identity is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.