Saturday, January 18, 2020

The costs of deception come clear in Kei Chikaura's quiet drama, COMPLICITY

Can a movie succeed properly when its hero and main character is very nearly passive enough for cipher status? This is a challenge, all right, but it turns out that if the character is played by an actor with enough grace, beauty, and subtle charisma, that might seal the deal.

In COMPLICITY, written, directed and co-produced by Japanese filmmaker, Kei Chikaura (pictured below), we get just such a not-quite hero, a young Chinese man who has come to Japan to live and work illegally so that he might earn more money than he is able to in his homeland to send this to his mother and grandmother back in China.

Mr. Chikaura has a fluid filming style, along with a good sense of storytelling. He keeps things mostly in the present, using flashbacks sparingly to show us how our hero, Chen Liang, has bought both a fake ID and a cell phone on the black market and is now living under the identity of a fellow named Liu Wei.

The young actor Chikaura has cast as Chen/Liu, Yulai Lu (shown below), offers remarkable presence in this role. He is as quiet as the movie itself proves to be, but within that quietude, his beautiful, subtly emotive face and graceful, adept body are so very watchable that Mr. Lu pulls us in and hold us throughout.

Considering how utterly passive the filmmaker has made his main character, Lu's performance seems even more of an accomplishment. Chen/Liu falls so easily into whatever is asked of him that when he very occasionally decides not to do something, we breathe one hell of a sigh of relief.

From the movie's initial scene, which finds Chen and a partner burglarizing water heaters, to those further on as he adopts his new identity and goes to work for a soba chef (Tatsuya Fuji, above), meets and falls in puppy love with an older and much more sophisticated art student (Sayo Akasaka, below), you'll so often want to goose this guy into action that you may finally have to sit on your thumb.

The reason for this passivity, however, is a necessary one. Chen must keep his "Liu" identity going and his illegality a secret, and this constant deception soon becomes a kind of betrayal of all those decent people who are helping him and growing close to him. The toll this takes is major, and it is also the motor that drives the movie ever onward.

While I enjoyed the lovely look of the film, its generally unhurried pace, and its finely detailed, realistic performances, the biggest problem for Complicity is one of sheer believability. While Japan may not have the glut of illegals as has the USA (although, percentage-of-population-wise, it very well may), Chinese illegals are certainly not a rarity here. So why, when Chen/Liu acts so very oddly, sometimes downright suspiciously, does nobody around him ever question his legal status?

Granted, the soba restaurant's locale may not be Tokyo, but neither is it the Nippon equivalent of Podunk. Eventually the actions (or non-actions and non-questions) of some major characters begin to defy credibility. Or maybe all this can be chalked up to cultural differences.

In any case, the film's finale proves more than a little moving, simultaneously making funny, charming, pointed use of one of Japan's recent movie blockbusters. "What's in a name?" indeed!

From Film Movement, in Japanese and Chinese with English subtitles and running 116 minutes, Complicity hits home video this coming Tuesday, January 21 -- on DVD and digital, for purchase and/or rental.

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