There’s barely a false note in “Passage of Life,” an outstanding social realist drama about a Burmese refugee family facing an uncertain future in Tokyo. Exceptionally well performed by a non-professional cast, and directed with remarkable maturity by 26-year-old (at the time of filming) Akio Fujimoto, “Passage” deservedly won the Asian Future competition at the Tokyo Film Festival and also received the fest’s prestigious Spirit of Asia prize. Fujimoto’s poignant and deeply moving film will connect with viewers everywhere and looks certain to enjoy a lengthy festival run at the very least. Local release details have yet to be announced.
Although it presents a wholeheartedly human story and makes no overt political commentary, the film is bound to provoke discussion in Japan, which is one of the largest donors to the UNHCR but accepts a very small number of refugees and asylum-seekers compared with other developed nations. Interestingly, the film’s production credits include text that reads “Endorsed by Foreign Ministry of Japan.”
Filmed in 2014 and shown as a world premiere in Tokyo after two years in the editing room, “Passage” quickly establishes a concise and sympathetic picture of Khin (Khin Myat Thu) and husband Issace (Issace). Feeling for their safety, the couple fled Myanmar several years ago and have managed to set up a modest but happy home with 7-year-old Kaung (Kaung Myat Thu) and his 5-year-old brother Htet (Htet Myat Naing) — both of whom are the real-life sons of Khin. Born in Myanmar but raised and educated in Japan, the boys speak little of their native language. “They’re just like Japanese kids,” Khin says.
Though managing to get by on Issace’s illegal employment as a kitchen hand and Khin’s off-the-books earnings in a laundry, the couple face probing questions from immigration officials regarding their means of support and have no prospect of leading a settled and secure life in Japan unless they can obtain political refugee status. Having failed with a previous application, and with a second bid looking highly unlikely to succeed, Khin falls into a deep depression and is hospitalized.
In powerful scenes that capture exactly what it must be like to live with constant fear and anxiety, Khin lashes out at Issace before deciding she’s had enough and will take their sons back to Myanmar. Issace is much more fearful of returning home than his wife is, although the point is not explained in as much detail as it ought to have been. For this reason, he remains in Tokyo and promises to send whatever money he can to his family.
Thus far told primarily through the eyes of adults played so well by Khin and Issace, “Passage” shifts the focus to Kaung once he arrives in Myanmar with his mother and brother. Untrained child actor Kaung is simply amazing in expressing not just the sadness of a boy who’s been separated from his father, but the utter bewilderment of a child who considers himself to be Japanese and cannot relate to anyone or anything in Myanmar. “Everything here is filthy” he tells Issace during an emotional internet phone call. Many viewers (including those attuned to the problems of so-called Dreamers in the U.S.) may shed a tear as the boy’s alienation intensifies to the point where he runs away and heads toward Yangon airport in the hope of returning to the place he calls home.
In the best tradition of social realist cinema, Fujimoto employs simple and direct storytelling methods. Long takes, unfussy camerawork, unobtrusive editing and exemplary direction of an untrained cast give the impression that “Passage” is more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary than a scripted drama. Wasei Kato’s lovely score of haunting acoustic guitar and gentle electronica is used sparingly and effectively. All other technical aspects are solid on a modest budget.