Yan (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2020]
Japan and Taiwan have the sort of close ties that embody all aspects of the hurt and joy of human relations. From language to politics, Japan’s time as colonial ruler to the post-war economics of industry and tourism, the exchange of people and ideas has been constant. It proves fertile ground for Keisuke Imamura’s feature-length directorial debut Yan, which uses both cultures for a story of one Japanese man’s self-discovery as he finds out more about his mother, his birthplace and, ultimately, himself.
28-year-old Tsubame Hayakawa (Long Mizuma) has seemingly achieved everything. He has his dream job at an architectural firm, a girlfriend and lives comfortably in Tokyo. Yet on the inside, he has a history of self-doubt, which is revealed when he is asked by his father to hand-deliver a document to his older brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) in Taiwan. Tsubame is reluctant. It has been 23 years since they last saw each other after their mother, Toshie (Hitoto Yo) disappeared with Ryushin one night and left Tsubame behind. He has never forgiven them for leaving him but his father’s request is a final one as the old man faces the end of his life and wants to protect both his sons from debts he has accrued. Tsubame reluctantly accepts this task and heads to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to search for Ryushin. This not only entails a physical journey back to the place he was born but also as a psychological one as Tsubame confronts painful memories of prejudice and abandonment he experienced.
Noriko Washizu’s screenplay centres on Tsubame’s growth from facing the past to making peace with being a dual-heritage person as well as his mother’s complicated actions. It extends from his coping with immediate situations such as being a perpetual outsider and the culture shock he feels as he searches his birthplace for his brother to discovering aspects of his mother who he has felt resentment towards for making his life difficult. Washizu’s use of intermittent flashbacks to color in the present-tense narrative is schematic but skilfully draws out the duality of Tsubame being half-Taiwanese and half-Japanese, starting with his name (which means swallow, a bird that migrates from Japan to Taiwan) to the cultural traditions that Toshie introduces him to in a Japanese setting, the love she had for him and the prejudice they experienced which he unwittingly deepened with a naïve desire to be fully Japanese. These provide impetus to his character arc and his gradual understanding of himself and who his mother was that culminates in an emotionally powerful climax where he reckons with the past.
Cinematographer-turned-director Imamura, who shot the colorful manga-extravaganza adaptation Teiichi – Battle of Supreme High (2017) and low-key political thriller The Journalist (2019), takes a sensuous approach to this emotional journey. Initially fussy with various techniques, it soon becomes smooth with flowing camera movement and editing combined with an accentuated soundscape to put us in the same head-space as the characters. This is most prominently done with Tsubame as wanders around Kaohsiung. We feel his alienation in sequences where there is a cacophony of sounds and the Chinese language flying around, the stream of faces and details of places and close-ups on his sweat-covered face as he is plunged into a maelstrom of confusion and wrestles with being an outsider. These moments parallel the alienation from his childhood, as shown in the calmer, icier flashbacks, where he was ostracized for having Taiwanese roots. Sometimes, the adult Tsubame even enters these sequences as he dredges up memories to show the connection.
What helps this familiar story along his how genuine it all feels. This comes down to the fact that a lot of the cast have mixed roots, starting with lead actor Long who was born in China, to pop singer Yo who is herself half-Taiwanese. Their own experiences have been tied into the making of the film, as are their language abilities as they flit in and out of Japanese and Chinese. Alongside Japanese actor Yamanaka and a cast of locals, they create a sense of authenticity in a script that already has the nuances of both cultures and the clashes that emerge when prejudice alienates people from one another. Always beautiful to watch and full of interesting parallels, the intricacies of cross-cultural and cross border relationships are laid bear in an engaging story of learning to love oneself.
Yan was shown at the Oaska Asian Film Festival on March 8 and 11.