Chinese Malaysian director Lim Kah Wai describes himself as “a cinema drifter.” He has filmed far and wide, including two projects set in the Balkans, but has called Osaka his base for nearly two decades. And, as his latest feature “Come and Go” shows, he is intimately acquainted with the lives of Asian migrants and visitors in his adopted home.
This sprawling ensemble drama, which completes an Osaka trilogy that includes previous films “New World” (2011) and “Fly Me to Minami” (2013), features characters of nine different nationalities, from a Taiwanese tourist (Lee Kang-sheng) who frequents adult video stores to a Vietnamese print shop worker (Lien Binh Phat) who is desperate to return home to his ailing mother. Scripted by Lim and shot in 2019, it depicts a pre-pandemic world that now seems strangely distant.
“The situation has completely changed because no more travelers are coming to Japan,” Lim says in an interview in October at the Shibuya office of his distributor, Really Like Films. “Also, most of the students and technical trainees had to return to their own countries, probably from the beginning of 2020. And now they can’t enter Japan because the border is closed.” [The Japan government has since relaxed border restrictions, announcing on Nov. 5 that it would begin accepting foreign nationals coming to the country for business trips, study abroad or technical training.]
Despite the border restrictions, Lim notes that migrants have hardly vanished from Japan.
“I find it very interesting that now if you check into any hotel in Tokyo, you will find people from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh working as housekeepers and so on. You will find more foreign people working at the convenience stores,” he says. “I thought that with the pandemic, businesses would not rely on foreign workers anymore, but instead you can find more of them working jobs on the lower rungs.”
He predicts that, when Japan opens up again, “more people will come here and the world of ‘Come and Go’ will reappear.”
Many Asians who make the journey here, he continues, do so mainly because “Japan is a land for (making) money.” Lacking other motivations, Lim adds, workers “don’t feel at home in Japan” and don’t try to assimilate with the Japanese around them.
“Most of the time they just stay in the same community,” he says. “For example, the Vietnamese community or the Nepalese community. Since their purpose for being here is just to earn money, they don’t try to understand the social problems in Japan, they don’t know the politicians. They don’t care about it, and so they don’t know anything about it.”
One of Lim’s purposes in making “Come and Go” is to break down such barriers and create a mosaic that reflects the lives of everyone in his adopted home of Osaka, from native Japanese to just-off-the-plane tourists.
“I’m not trying to dig deep into their lives and problems,” he says. “I just want to present the whole situation of different people from different countries and different communities. If I had just focused on two or three communities, you wouldn’t see the whole picture.”
The sheer number of characters has baffled some reviewers, but Lim felt that his human mosaic would not be complete without Japanese involvement — from Kenji (Orson Mochizuki), a ponytailed biracial man who works on both sides of the law, to a detective (Seiji Chihara) determined to solve the mystery of an old woman’s lonely death.
“The main stage of this film is Japan,” the director explains. “All the difficulties and problems of the characters happen in Japan, so I needed to show Japanese characters, too. Maybe their difficulties and problems are different, but they also suffer. They also try to survive.”
Similarly, the film does not paint the characters in black and white — there are shades of gray to even the shiftiest ones. One example is the Okinawan president of a small, struggling adult video production company (the single-named Shogen), who is driven to desperate measures to stay afloat. These include plunking a newly recruited actress (Manami Usamaru) into the middle of a sex scene. He is not, however, totally callous and calculating, as shown in a scene of him plaintively singing an Okinawan folk tune, looking homesick and lonely.
“He’s complex, yes,” Lim says. “He had some dreams before. He wanted to become a proper film director, but he moved into adult films. So he has his difficulties and his problems.”
Since the characters’ stories are vignettes rather than fleshed-out dramas, it’s easy to imagine more films that pick up where “Come and Go” leaves off. Lim agrees: “I can spin off some of the stories. I can make a film with a slower pace and that is shorter, maybe 90 minutes or 120 minutes. … Maybe a film more interesting or simpler than this one.”
The director, however, is quick to note that shedding light on the lives of non-Japanese residents in Japan isn’t his main mission.
“But you never see foreign characters playing any important roles in Japanese films,” he says. “To me it’s very surprising because you see so many foreigners in Japan now. Not only tourists, but also the foreign students or the many foreign people working in Japan. Without them, the economy would come to a halt.”
He also mentions the film’s hāfu (a colloquial term meaning “half-Japanese”) character, Kenji, who is shown to be at home with the Japanese language and culture, but is still marginalized.
“Now you see hāfu everywhere, in films, on television, as fashion models,” Lim says. “Also, even in schools, you see a lot of them — they really exist in Japanese society. But why are no Japanese films talking about (their experiences)? I thought that was really strange, so I wanted to make a film about them.”
While other films have delved into the experiences of mixed-race people in Japan, including Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi’s documentary “Hafu” (2013) and Bilal Kawazoe’s short feature “Whole” (2021), they are few and far between.
Lim himself is performing a kind of cultural balancing act as an outsider whose films provide inside looks at Japanese society.
“I never think of myself as a Malaysian filmmaker in Japan,” he says. “I also never think of myself as a Japanese filmmaker. I just call myself a ‘cinema drifter,’ making films all over the world.”
“Come and Go” will be screened at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya in Tokyo from Nov. 19. It will open at select cinemas nationwide from December and January. For more information, visit reallylikefilms.com/comeandgo.
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