Two films are trying to coexist within the story told in Complicity, Kei Chikaura’s first feature film, and the one in the foreground is perhaps not the most deserving. A China-Japan co-production, this modest film entertains a kinship with those of Koreeda and Kawase (it won the audience prize at the 2018 edition of Tokyo FilmEx) begins with the misfortunes of a young Chinese man, Cheng Liang (played by Lu Yulai), who has come to Japan as a clandestine worker. The opening minutes show him surrounded by older men, sharing the same room, waiting for the next scam. They wait with their smartphones in hand, anxious and on the lookout. Once he’s handed a fake id card, he lands in the Yamagata region as a soba apprentice. His goal consists of earning enough to return to his hometown, a thousand kilometers from Beijing, in order to take over his deceased father’s garage. Or at least this is his mother’s dream who keeps calling to check on his progress.
Once in Yamagata, he meets the soba chef, Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji) and the film settles into a tale of filiation by proxy, dear to so many contemporary Japanese films celebrated overseas. Yukata Yamazaki, a cinematographer who has worked with Koreeda and Kawase, is the DP on Complicity. Cheng has lodging, he’s fed, he earns a modest salary that is still much higher than what he would earn back home, in an area that can barely imagine the current luxury of parts of Beijing and Shanghai. Before teaching him how to make soba, Hiroshi has him wait tables and deliver noodles on a bicycle. It’s in the course of one such delivery that he meets a young woman painter who is learning Chinese in order to go study in Beijing. She flirtingly suggests he open a soba restaurant in Beijing. Hiroshi, who has become at ease with letting Cheng calling him Otosan (father), happens to be born in Beijing, and why not bring him along as well? All these characters begin to dream about being in China.
His mother’s calls become more frequent. Proud and worried, she informs him of his grand-mother’s ill health. Here the second film starts to emerge through a series of flashbacks shot in China, in which we encounter Cheng, his mother and grandmother in a family space whose dimensions recall those audiences might have seen in Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks. The grandmother has already guessed that he will disappoint them, yet gives him the money for the journey, buys him a handsome jacket, and cries a few tears as he gets on the bus. She appears to stand for a Chinese version of Koreeda’s stalwart pillar, actress Kirin Kiki who passed away in 2018. The filmmaker assembles a discrete montage of those sequences in China, which he deftly inserts in his story, intimating how dear they are to his lead character who knows he is being tracked and soon to be found by the law. Hiroshi helps him flee by giving him his bicycle… Not knowing where to go, he stops near a shore, his phone rings. This time it’s not his mother but the painter who has settled in Beijing. He tells her his real name. The one we would have rather believed in.
While China has become the world’s second largest economy and the No. 1 source of overseas visitors for Japan, the film Complicity runs in the opposite direction and tells a story about a much less glamorous community, the Chinese illegal workers sojourning in Japan: usually young, less educated, and the main earners in their families. Before arriving in the neighboring country, which is known for a higher income level and better social welfare, many of them have the dream of finding a foothold and bringing over the family or returning to their homes flushed with earnings, after working hard and alone while pinching pennies for years. Some lucky ones make it. Others like the protagonist in the film arrive at the wrong place or wrong time, or get misled by fraudulent agencies, or simply make helpless irrational choices. This is one reality of domestic migration when the cost of living increases sharply in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen while the income level goes unchanged for low-end workers, only about one fourth of that in Japan. In the flashbacks, the film honestly points the camera at the China that is still lost and poor, which hasn’t become a minority. It’s an image of China that the authorities want to file in the past, which continues to this day and for the foreseeable future in many parts of this vast territory.
Nonetheless, the general tone of the film is very soft core when dealing with social reality. Opening with a group of illegal workers, it quickly moves away from this social condition issue to the human kindness found at the individual level. The film rests itself on the eternal theme of human nature over nationality, an easier topic to address than the current global and Japanese immigration inequalities. Although facing visa problem, the case of the protagonist, who is well fed and sheltered by a Soba making family, can’t compare with the severe living condition and fundamental hopelessness of hundreds and thousands of immigrants who work in Japan with legitimate documents as what are called “technical intern trainees”. This is the case not only for the Chinese, but also the Vietnamese, the Filipinos, etc. The cultural connection between China and Japan makes it less difficult: for instance, the protagonist is able to communicate with the Japanese family in written characters; noodles serve a symbolic function both in China and in Japan. If the protagonist is already muted and trapped in the film, where does that leave the Southeast Asian immigrants who have even less means to communicate and stand for themselves?
In its treatment of the subject matter, the film is also very nostalgic. The theme song by the 1980s cultural icon in Greater China, Teresa Teng, who was also popular at the time in Japan, first came out in Japan as Toki no Nagare ni Mi o Makase (“Give yourself to the flow of Time”, 1986) then in the Chinese world as Wo Zhi Zaihu Ni ( “I Only Care About You”, 1987). It was a time when Japan enjoyed its postwar prosperity and mainland China just opened up itself to the world after putting behind decades of trauma over the Cold War Communist myths. China was fast becoming a considerable follower of Japanese popular culture. For the first time after the epic narratives of the World War II, ordinary people from both countries encountered each other in their daily lives, realizing the other was as kind and honest as themselves, just like what’s depicted in Complicity. But this was before China became the world’s factory and Japan’s economic rival, before the Chinese people started to travel around the world and flaunting their wealth. The notion of the craftsmanship, the setting in the countryside, and the natural visual aesthetics of the film inferring a modest budget, all hark back to a pre-Internet and pre-globalization time when people were simpler and nicer.