The Japanese film producer / writer / director Kei Chakaura tackles the topics of immigration, integration, sense of family and food in his feature debut “Complicity”. The film premiered last year in the Discovery competition of Toronto, was shown in Busan and won the audience award at Tokyo FILMeX before its European premiere at the Culinary Cinema sidebar of this year’s Berlinale.

Immigrating to Japan sounds like a better idea than it actually is. The economy is basically stagnating for a very long period of time and the immigration and integration policies are quite strict. Most of the people from the neighbouring countries interested in living and working there stand no chance to obtain a visa so, if they want to, they have to explore some illegal options like using a fake identity.

Complicity is screening at Berlin Film Festival

One of those people is a Chinese citizen Cheng-liang (Lu Yulai) whose idea was to make some money there and to go back to his homeland, re-open his late father’s car repair shop and be there for his ailing mother and ageing grandmother. As we see in flashbacks Chakaura throws abundantly over the course of the film, the life is hard for them in China and they had to borrow a lot of money for the sake of financing his move to Japan. On the positive side, he is determined to pay it all back with his earnings once he gets the job.

We first see him together with some of his friends and compatriots stealing some electronic equipment in order to purchase a fake ID. Unlike them who are interested only in quick cash and staying under the radar of ever-vigilant immigration police, he prefers honest work. He gets his chance with his fake identity in the form of assistant cook job at a provincial restaurant specialized in traditional soba noodles, working under an old chef Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji from “In the Realm of Senses” fame) and his waitress daughter. This is not what he originally had in mind, but the conditions are good, the people there are treating him like a family member and he is willing to work hard and learn, even though he still has to be vigilant and stay out of trouble. To do that, he has to become someone else, someone named Liu…

The thematic complexity of the film is contrasted by simple, almost minimal style of Chakaura’s filmmaking. Filming in usually somewhat longer, yet measured, takes and relying on hand-held, but still not shaky camerawork by Yukata Yamazaki (whose recent credits include Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After the Storm” and Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water”), Chakaura insists on beautiful naturalism. The pacing is deliberately moderate, which suits the build-up of the characters and their relationships and also draws the viewers towards the long process of making soba, which requires skill, passion and patience.

The chemistry between all the cast members is exquisite and the discreet, toned-down acting style suits the film well. Lu and Fuji, who both worked with Chakaura on his shorts in the past, are especially compelling, doing exactly what the director wants them to and infusing the film with the sense of genuine warmth.

The general tone, the style and the acting even justify some moments of sentimentality Chakaura occasionally goes for, blending them smoothly with seriousness of the topic and good measure in approach. “Complicity” might not be a spectacular film, but it is a good and well-measured one, with a potential side effect of getting hungry for a bowl of soba and some genuine humane emotion.

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