With an ageing population and an economy trapped in a long period of stagnation, Japan has found itself in an awkward moment of possible crisis as it begins to realise it will need to embrace immigration or face a serious labour shortage. Like many nations, unfortunately, much of Japan remains uncomfortable with the idea of overseas labour especially when it comes to “low skilled” work in construction, manufacturing, and casual jobs such those in restaurants and convenience stores. Given government intransigence and pressing need, workers from other areas of Asia are often employed illegally and subject to exploitation by gangs or unscrupulous employers.
The hero of Kei Chikaura’s Complicty (コンプリシテ), Chen Liang (Lu Yulai), finds himself in just this position as he leaves his sickly mother and feisty grandma alone in rural China in the hope of making enough money in Japan to come home and restart the family business. What he discovers, however, is that he’s essentially been trafficked as cheap labour and is already in hock for an ID card he was conned into paying three times the going rate for on the pretext it was “safer”. Now living under the name Liu Wei, Chen Liang is disturbed to receive calls on his new phone intended for his namesake but is tempted when Liu Wei receives a job offer from an employment agency. Passing himself off as his cover identity, Chen Liang takes the job only latterly realising it’s the rather incongruous position of a trainee chef in a family-owned soba restaurant.
Against expectation, ageing soba chef Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji) and his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto) are warm and welcoming people who are actually a little bit excited that someone from China wants to learn about soba. Taken in almost as a member of the family, Chen Liang begins to feel conflicted – he is after all lying to them, at least about his name and circumstances, and his presence in their home might cause them trouble if he is ever found out. Meanwhile, he also strikes up a friendship with an artist who is learning Mandarin but has to lie to her too, pretending they may one day meet up in Beijing when in reality he has never even been there.
His burgeoning romance with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka) is what precipitates his downfall as she, unaware he is undocumented, reports his stolen wallet to the police. The lies do not stop there – Chen Liang is also lying to his worried mother back at home who thinks he’s working in an office, while she is simultaneously lying to him in pretending everything’s fine in order to facilitate his “happy” life in Japan where he is supposed to make lots of money and come back a wealthy man. In order to make his dream succeed, Chen Liang must become Liu Wei at the exclusion of all else, forsaking his life as Chen Liang and living carefully as if he has nothing to fear.
Chen Liang is onto a good thing and has fared much better than some of his friends who either got themselves picked up by the police for doing the gang’s dirty work or found themselves out in the cold with no feasible way to get back “home”. Hiroshi’s son, with whom he seems to have some kind of bad family history, looks down on Chen Liang unable to understand why his father employed someone from China when the business is on the rocks. His attitude seems to be one shared by many (though not the universally supportive customers in Hiroshi’s soba shop) who see only difference rather than commonality. Despite the language barrier, Hiroshi and Chen Liang are often able to communicate through written characters, while another poignant moment of bonding sees Chen Liang sing the Mandarin lyrics over the top of Hazuki’s cheerful refrain of a popular Japanese song by Teresa Teng beloved all across Asia. Hiroshi himself was born in Beijing at the end of the war – a painful reminder of the complicated history between the two nations, but also one of how much they are interconnected and how little place of birth has to do with cultural identity.
Emphasising how much they have in common rather than the various ways in which Chen Liang differs from the world around him, Chikaura paints a much more sympathetic portrait of a migrant worker than the one usually found in the media. Filling the void left behind by Hiroshi’s own resentful son, Chen Liang becomes a valued and trusted member of the family who are in a sense “harbouring” him but to protect rather than exploit. Pushed to go to Japan despite his misgivings and drifting into the soba shop job through accidental opportunism, Chen Liang had in a sense abandoned his identity in avoiding making concrete decisions. Being Liu Wei was also a way to hide from his insecurities and fears for the future, but only through the unconditional love he received under false pretences is he finally able to reclaim his name, fugitive but free at last. A powerful plea for empathy and cross cultural connection, Complicity is a beautifully drawn character study in which kindness and compassion eventually open new paths for a conflicted young man trying to find his place in an often hostile world.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Teresa Teng’s – Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase
Mandarin version – I Only Care About You