A naive exchange student finds a surrogate family while working at a Tokyo Chinese restaurant in Li Gen’s semi-autobiographical drama, Before Next Spring (如果有一天我将会离开你, rúguǒ yǒu yī tiān wǒ jiānghuì líkāi nǐ). Though it becomes obvious that almost everyone has come to Japan as a means of escape from personal troubles, the disparate collection of migrants eventually find solidarity with each other as they attempt to settle in to life in another culture while bonding with similarly troubled locals themselves excluded from mainstream society.
Li Xiaoli seems to have chosen to come to Japan to find some release from a difficult family situation caused by his father’s illness. His mother had to give up work to look after him so the family have little money but Xiaoli is determined to make the most of his year abroad. When a stint in a supermarket doesn’t work out, his classmate Chiu (Qiu Tian) gets him a job at a Chinese restaurant where her friend/colleague Zhao (Niu Chao) also works. Though Zhao immediately takes against him perhaps out of jealousy, Xiaoli is taken under the wing of the restaurant’s manager, Wei (Qi Xi), who has been in Tokyo for some time but has recently had her application for permanent residence turned down in part because she is not married and has no children meaning the authorities are not satisfied about her longterm ties to Japan.
Wei’s situation perhaps bears out the precarity of her life in Tokyo and the inability to fully feel at home experienced by many of the restaurant workers. Later it turns out that she is in need of an operation for uterine fibroids in part hoping to improve her chances of conceiving a child thought it’s unclear if her desire is solely to start a family or to give herself a better footing for getting her permanent resident card. Meanwhile the uncertainly undermines her relationship with chef Song (Song Ningfeng) who is undocumented and apparently in frequent contact with another woman who has her residence card already. The restaurant is frequently raided by police on the look out for anyone who might be working illegally, forcing Song to hide behind a fishtank in the basement like a criminal and giving rise to an atmosphere for persecution and anxiety. While the the pair are walking home one evening, they are hassled by a drunk man in the street who bumps into them and then demands they apologise. Song is visibility irritated by the humiliation of being forced to apologise to belligerent xenophobe and struggles to avoid losing his temper. Something similar occurs when a neighbour complains about the noise and then rings the police after hearing Song and Wei arguing, Xiaoli who was present at the time having to pose as Wei’s boyfriend flashing his legitimate student ID for the detectives.
Xiaoli also makes a friend of the middle-aged Chinese teacher at their school, played in an extended cameo from Sylvia Chang, who hints that in some ways the experience hasn’t changed since she arrived at the tail end of the Bubble era. She recounts working three jobs but being delighted on buying everything she ever could want during department store sales. Only now she’s as rootless and dejected as Xiaoli. Her husband has returned to China, and now she’s living alone trying to redefine her reasons for coming to and staying in Japan. Middle-aged Chef Wan (Chen Yongzhong), who also experiences a unpleasant incident of being accused of groping a woman on a train because he was holding his aching stomach on the way to a hospital appointment, is feeling something similar having dreamed of bringing his family to join him only to now wonder if there’s really any point after so many years apart.
The moody Zhao, meanwhile, is half-Japanese but has been all but abandoned by his parents and feels nothing for them other than resentment. Caught between two cultures, he insists on being called by the Japanese reading of his first name, Aoki, rather than the Chinese, Qingmu, and makes a point of talking to Xiaoli in Japanese rather than Mandarin despite being aware that his language skills are still undeveloped. He is in deep love with Xiaoli’s schoolfriend Chiu who works as a hostess in addition to her gig at the supermarket but is too diffident to say anything and though she seems to care for him she makes it clear she does not intend to wait.
The sense of loneliness each of them feel is echoed in the melancholy tale of an older couple who run a hairdresser’s and had no children of their own, finding themselves unanchored in their old age but discovering a place for themselves at the Chinese restaurant. The only Japanese worker, Watanabe who develops a maternal relationship with Zhao, finds something similar while working a second job at a supermarket raising her children and trying to care for her elderly mother. Told over the course of a year with Xiaoli’s departure date already set, Li Gen’s lowkey drama is content with a lack of resolution that suggests time in motion marked by a series of partings some of which may be more permanent than others but each in their own way meaningful.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)
Images: © Huace Film & TV (Tianjin) Co., Ltd.