Japan has nearly 3 million foreign residents, about 2.3 percent of the population as of 2019, but in Japanese movies non-natives are seldom more than walk-ons. One reason, as any producer here will tell you: Japanese audiences relate better to Japanese characters.

Akio Fujimoto rejects this supposed box-office logic. His 2017 debut feature, “Passage of Life,” focused on a Myanmar family living a precarious existence in Tokyo. The heroines of his second film, “Along the Sea,” are three Vietnamese women working as technical trainees in northern Japan in the dead of winter.

Both films are based on true stories, with actors playing characters close to their lived experience. And both resemble observational documentaries, with no music and no narration.

Along the Sea (Umibe no Kanojo-tachi)
Run Time 88 min.
Language Vietnamese, Japanese
Opens Now Showing

But where “Passage of Life” was rambling in structure, mixing family drama with a boy’s adventure story, “Along the Sea” is a compact 88 minutes, with no narrative waste motion and an ending that lands like an out-of-nowhere punch. Though its story is simple, the film rejects the easy sympathy of the outsider for its protagonists’ situation. It instead radiates a deep, bred-in-bone knowledge, reflected in the tired-but-determined faces of its three women.

No one over-emotes or emotes much, period. But as the harsh reality of the central heroine’s dilemma sinks in, the film builds to an emotionally charged climax that feels earned, not imposed.

When we first meet the three workers — Phuong (Hoang Phuong), An (Huynh Tuyet Anh) and Nhu (Quynh Nhu) — they are making a nighttime escape from an abusive employer, who has kept their passports. Through a Vietnamese broker, they soon find new jobs at a fishing port where their boss is brusque and demanding, but pays and treats them better, even though their accommodations are little more than stalls with futons and space heaters.

Then Phuong, the trio’s natural leader, falls ill with what seems to be a stomach ailment. She tries to soldier on, but it soon becomes obvious that she needs medical help. Hearing of a clinic that might treat her without ID or a health insurance card, the women embark on a long, arduous journey on public transport, only to be turned away by a polite, smiling receptionist, who insists on the proper papers.

Then what was hinted becomes obvious: Phuong is pregnant and must soon make a decision: Have the baby and give up her dream of working in Japan, or find a means to abort it.

Vietnamese newcomer Hoang Phuong eloquently expresses her character’s physical pain and inner turmoil while keeping an outwardly stoic face. As Phuong wanders lost and alone in a strange town, with the camera of cinematographer Kentaro Kishi closely tracking her in a lengthy, powerful sequence, we sense her isolation and fear, to which the Japanese around her are blithely oblivious.

And yet the film doesn’t cast the locals she encounters as villains. Rather, their lives seem to be running smoothly on rails that for Phuong might as well be built on clouds. She can buy fake papers (at a steep price), but the baseline security and stability that comes from being a native in a nativist society eludes her. Given her situation, a more accurate English title for the film could be “Out to Sea, and Adrift.”

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