Passage of Life (Japan/Myanmar, 2017) [OAFF 2018]

Immigration is a thorny issue the world over and Japan is not immune to it since its tough stance and refusal to take large numbers of refugees draws criticism from nations with more open policies. Whether this criticism is fair or not is put to the side in Passage of Life, as drama trumps politics.

One of two films at the Osaka Asian Film Festival looking at the immigrant experience of people who are of Burmese extraction and living in Japan, the other being Kyi Phyu Shin’s My Country, My Home (2018), it is shot with remarkable confidence considering it is the feature debut from Osaka-born director Akio Fujimoto, who uses a documentary film style to show the uncertainties of life as an immigrant feeling the pull of two different cultures.

Passage of Life shows the lives of a Burmese family in two parts. The first half of the film quickly establishes the circumstances of a family that immigrated to Japan with no visa. The family consists of Khin (Khin Myat Thu), her husband Issace and their two boys, 7-year-old Kaung (Kaung Myat Thu) and his younger brother Htet (Htet Myat Naing). The boys were born in Myanmar but raised in Japan and they are happy. In scenes straight from normality, they play with Japanese friends in shotengai and their neighbourhood, clearly unconcerned about their heritage. Their parents are more worried because without the proper paperwork a secure life is impossible and we understand their plight. There can be no legitimate employment for Issace and Khin who make do with illegal jobs at a restaurant and laundrette respectively and government workers make life difficult with house calls and formal checks. All hope lies with obtaining political refugee status, which they have been refused in the past.

This uncertainty is captured by a documentary like style on handheld digital cameras with long sequences of normality and tension uninterrupted by intrusive editing. There are many shots of the family preparing for school, commuting by train to work, visiting members of their community that have a feeling of intimacy, especially as the boys play and fight quite often and the parents quarrel. Perhaps it is a result of filming in small spaces like the apartment the family uses, but there is the sense of being trapped which grows when we see Issace dealing with polite but cold bureaucrats who urge them to leave the country and also the shame they feel having to accept donations from friends. The stress is too much for Khin whose face is a grim mask of unhappiness throughout most of proceedings and it is little surprise when she is hospitalised with depression. This leads to a firm break in the narrative as the conflict between Issace over staying or going crescendoes and Khin decides to take the kids back to Burma.

Whether this is an act of selfishness or a necessary measure is debatable but what is certain is that the film does well in depicting what problems arise from being paperless citizens and the psychological toll it takes on people who lose their humanity and live with constant uncertainty. Which isn’t to say the film is political. Indeed, it grows greater in impact as it switches its focus to depict the inner struggles of Kaung who has to deal with a great change in his environment.

While Htet is young and able to adapt quickly, the slightly older Kaung already has a sense of identity as a Japanese child. The films wants the audience to identify with him and succeeds in making us do so. He speaks Japanese and seems to act Japanese. His clothes are markedly better than those of others and he cannot speak to the locals who take to mocking him and so the problems of taking a kid out of their environment is felt with every scene in Burma where Kaung regards the more chaotic world with horror and bewilderment. He has an open and expressive face and an energy that fluctuates between loveable and rebellious and so when he says he hates something, boy does he mean it and he hates Burma. He lists his complaints and his concerns grow as he mulls over his lack of connection with his father. These kids are untrained actors but both of boys are Khin’s real-life sons, which explains why the scenes where they argue hold power. Then the boys make connections with their mother country and that tight camera work feels freer and more expansive as they roam the streets and get to know people. The place may be dirty and dangerous, noisy and crowded (contrasts shown simply and cleanly on screen) but it holds possibilities, the lights and colours of the city looking exciting. The change in behaviour is remarkable but believable. The tug of their Japanese identity and messy transnational politics remain but there’s the suggestion of moving forward as well as the greater sense of international relations between Japan and Burma. This makes the film worth watching but it’s the human drama at the centre, which defines everything.

Fujimoto worked with non-professional actors and their efforts ensured the film won the Spirit of Asia Award, given by the Japan Foundation Asia Center as well as winning the Asian Future competition at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. These accolades are well deserved, even if the politics of Burma and immigration are not directly confronted. This is the story of a family and they are just as important as any weighty issues and they open a window on Japan’s connection with Burma and Asia as a whole.

Passage of Life was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 13 and 16.