REVIEW: Yan (2019)

Tsubame Hiyakawa (Long Mizuma) is summoned to his father’s home to satisfy his dying wish. Deep in debt, and terminally ill, his father needs him to deliver legal documents to Tsubame’s estranged brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) – who Tsubame has not seen since their mother took Ryushin away in Taiwan when they were children.

Japan and Taiwan have a very unusual relationship. The island was ceded to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, and governed as a colony until it was returned to China in 1945 (and subsequently declared itself an independent state when the Communists took over the mainland). During the 50 year Japanese occupation there was constant resistance to colonial rule, and the deaths of several thousand Taiwanese. At the same time the colonial government built up Taiwanese cities and forced Japanese to be taught in all schools; there are still elderly Taiwanese who speak Japanese as a first language. Today there are still strong cultural links between nations, and a strong bilateral tourism industry, but the relationship remains complex. Yan, from director Keisuke Imamura, unavoidably occurs in the context of this relationship. There is a family split in two: the mother remaining with one child in Taiwan, and the father returning with the other to Japan.

This is a beautifully shot and composed film; unsurprising given Imamura’s career as a cinematographer. Its Taiwanese setting specifically captures the southern port city of Kaohsiung through everything from the architecture to the specific quality of light compared to the more populous and popular capital Taipei. It also contrasts sharply with Japan, which underscores Tsubame’s own personal difficulties in returning to his childhood home. His past is explored via flashbacks throughout the film, which illuminate his present problems.

Tsubame is half-Japanese half-Taiwanese, and this has caused a profound inner conflict over his identity. In itself his mixed descent has stimulated racism and some personal difficulty, but given his parents’ split it has also created a complicated emotional response to his mother’s action and his own sense of self. Mizuma gives a strong performance in the role. It is accentuated by Imamura’s direction, which emphasises the Chinese-ness of Kaohsiung through use of language, editing, and sound. It is all delicately and carefully composed, capturing character brilliantly.

For a directorial debut, Yan is an accomplished and confident work. It converts its limited budget into an opportunity for intimacy. It exploits its setting well. It focuses smartly on a talented cast delivering rounded, interesting characters. It has a distinctive setting and tells a powerful story. It is discoveries like these that make exploring independent world cinema worthwhile.

Yan screened at the 2020 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

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