First-time features by Japanese indie directors are typically rough around the edges — or rough, period. But some, such as Kei Chikaura’s “Complicity,” arrive in local theaters after screening at major festivals and trailing production credits that read like a who’s who of the film world. On viewing it, “rough” was not the first descriptive that sprang to mind. “Assured,” “accomplished” and “accessible” seemed like better fits.

Premiering at the 2018 Toronto film festival, this drama about a Chinese man (Lu Yulai) living on the wrong side of the law in Japan was also invited to Busan, Berlin and Tokyo Filmex, where it won the Audience Award. Co-produced by Chinese industry veteran Nai An, who has worked extensively with director Ye Lou (“Purple Butterfly,” “Spring Fever”), and shot by cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki, a frequent collaborator with Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows,” “Still Walking”), “Complicity” is an international co-production par excellence, while being a heartfelt paean to Japan-China understanding.

That is, it’s the feel-good polar opposite to a film like Takashi Miike’s “First Love,” in which drug-dealing Chinese gangsters fight a bloody turf war with their Japanese counterparts. And yet, unlike the many Japanese films that wax sentimental about relationships that bridge cultures or generations or both, “Complicity” portrays its young Chinese man’s apprenticeship under an elderly Japanese soba chef (Tatsuya Fuji) with welcome restraint and true-to-life complexity.

Complicity (Kompurishiti Yasashi Kyohan)
Run Time 116 mins.
Opens JAN. 17

The film’s hero is Chen Liang (Yulai), who tells his ailing mother in China that he is a technical trainee “assembling electronic units” when he is really adrift and in danger of falling into the criminal underworld. He acquires a fake identity as “Liu Wei” but the arrest of a fellow Chinese alerts him to his danger — and he finds a safer job at a soba shop in the countryside.

While he slowly and stumblingly learns the soba business from the shop’s gruff chef (Fuji) and his kind-hearted daughter (Kio Matsumoto), “Liu” answers his mother’s pleas to come home with lies and fends off offers from his sketchy associates to make big money in illegal work.

Then he find a reason to stay in Japan — and stay on the right side of the law — in Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka), a free-spirited artist who is studying Mandarin and plans to travel to China. She takes an interest in him as a man as well as a conversation practice partner — and his dark, hovering cloud of guilt and worry starts to disperse.

Meanwhile the chef comes to see Liu as not only an apprentice but also a surrogate son. His mood brightens as well — until he suspects that Liu is telling him less than the truth.

Interspersed with this story are flashbacks to Chen/Liu’s life in China, including an angry warning from his fierce-tempered grandmother that his “Japanese dream” is an illusion.

The various plot turns are not hard to guess, though the ending is not a foregone conclusion. And for all the formulaic elements — the outsider-learning-a-traditional-trade storyline has been done to death by now — the performances by Lu and Fuji are sharp, distinct and grounded in situational realities, not warmed-over cliches. Also, the current of feeling between them is strong enough that when the long-anticipated crisis arrives, their actions feel emotionally motivated, not externally dictated.

“Complicity” implies involvement in a crime. The film, though, is cause for celebration.

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