A sense of dislocation plagues the drifting heroes of Keisuke Imamura’s elegantly lensed Yan (燕), a poetic meditation on the legacy of abandonment both cultural and familial. As much about the disintegration of a family as the complexities of identity, Imamura’s nuanced character drama finds its hero looking for himself in the shadow of his long lost brother and rediscovering perhaps a long absent sense of security in reconnecting with his childhood self while learning to let go of his fierce resentment towards the mother he assumed had forgotten him.
28-year-old Tsubame (Long Mizuma) is a workaholic architect with a successful, settled life in Tokyo. He is also, however, slightly disconnected and harbouring a great deal of anger towards his family, aside it seems from his cheerful step-mother. An awkward meeting with his father following a rare summons to the family home results in some distressing news. His company’s gone under and he’s deep in debt, which is why he wants Tsubame to go to Taiwan to deliver some important papers to his estranged older brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) whom he hasn’t seen in 23 years since he left with their mother (Yo Hitoto) so he can renounce his rights to an inheritance to avoid being liable for his father’s debts. Tsubame is reluctant, he didn’t even go to Taiwan for his mother’s funeral and has done his best to erase that side of his life from his memory, but after his step-mother guilt trips him by explaining that his father’s in poor health so it might be the last thing he’ll ever ask he finds himself on the next flight to Kaohsiung.
Despite his animosity towards his Taiwanese heritage, Tsubame seems to have maintained his Mandarin which is a definite help in the busy city but finds himself conflicted in being taken at first for a local and then recognised as not. Sitting down at a dumpling stand the proprietress and another customer guess that he is probably Japanese but on hearing that he was born in the area and his mother was from there immediately remind him that he is then also Taiwanese, something that appears to bother him. Flashing back to his childhood we witness both warm scenes of his mother conversing with her children in Mandarin while they mainly reply in Japanese, and a series of xenophobic micro-aggressions from neighbours who accuse her of trying to harm their children with new year dumplings containing lucky coins while Tsubame finds himself a victim of bullying by the local kids after mistakenly using his Chinese name, Yan, or making the usual kinds of language mistakes that all young children make but being made fun of over them as someone not quite Japanese. Like the heroines of What’s For Dinner, Mom? he also remembers a sense of embarrassment on being the only kid with a non-standard bento but sadly never managed to convert any of his classmates to Taiwanese food, internalising a sense of shame over his difference and becoming hyper Japanese in response. In a particularly painful moment, he berates his mother for her poor language skills and lack of cultural awareness, tearing up a drawing he’d made and crying out that he wished he could swap her for a “normal” Japanese mum like everyone else’s.
Why exactly she chose to leave only him behind, taking her older son with her, is never quite explained but perhaps a part of her felt that Tsubame preferred to stay in Japan. Ryushin meanwhile is carrying his own burden having left with his mother but resentful over her longing for the son she left behind. He appears to have felt dislocated himself as a boy raised Japan struggling to adapt to his new environment and is now a divorced father, it seems living with another man who left the Mainland for the comparatively liberal Taiwan to escape a conservative father and the pain of having to keep his true a identity a secret even from himself. Bonding with Tony (Ryushin Tei), his brother’s partner, Tsubame comes to a realisation that he has been doing something much the same in rejecting his Taiwanese heritage but struggles to accept that a person can be more than one thing and like the sparrow from which he takes his name could be equally at home in both Japan and Taiwan.
As Tony tells him, somewhat cynically, bitterness is also born of love which is after all what has brought Tsubame all the way to Kaohsiung. Tsubame’s mother had told him the Chinese proverb that a mother’s love is like a flowing river, but a child’s is the like breeze that rustles the leaves. The small Tsubame replied that he’d always love his mother but has spent the majority of his life in silent resentment, only latterly acknowledging it might have been true after all after coming to an understanding of his mother’s choices and realising that in her heart at least she had never abandoned him.
Original trailer (English subtitles)