海辺の彼女たち 「Umibe no Kanojotachi」
Release Date: May 01st, 2021
Duration: 88 mins.
Director: Akio Fujimoto
Writer: Akio Fujimoto (Script),
Starring: Hoang Phuong, Anh Huynh Tuyet, Nhu Quynh
Along the Sea is the second feature from writer-director Akio Fujimoto. A co-production between Japan and Vietnam, it is similar to his debut Passage of Life (2017) in that it charts the tensions of being outsiders in a foreign land in a near-documentary style. The script is based on stories drawn from real-life interviews, the camera observes a mix of professional and non-professional actors, and melodrama and artifice are kept to a minimum.
However, Along the Sea has a much more cohesive and concise dramatic structure as it takes place entirely in Japan and over a few weeks. Furthermore, as close to social realist as it may be, there are moments of poetic beauty captured by Kentaro Kishi, Fujimoto’s go-to director of photography. As breath-taking as some of these moments are, they never obscure the people at the heart of the narrative.
We are given a glimpse of the tensions of being an outsider through the story of An (Huynh Tuyet Anh), Phuong (Hoang Phuong), and Nhu (Quynh Nhu), three young Vietnamese women who are in Japan on a technical internship programme.
When we meet them in the pre-credits sequence, they are in the process of becoming illegal residents after escaping from an exploitative workplace in the dead of night, sans their confiscated travel documents. By trains, ferry, and on foot, the three struggle with heavy luggage and what feels like an even heavier sense of tension as shown by the way they cling to each other amidst crowds of Japanese people and in how they look anxious as they listen to station announcements. Their journey is tersely told through close-ups and snatches of locations and action. No time for tourism shots, all of the focus is on their exhausted and tense faces as they plunge into the unknown to forge on to their next stop.
That next stop is Hokkaido where a broker has found them illegal work and accommodation at a snowbound fish factory located by the sea. The tension is let out of the narrative slightly as they meet other migrants who listen sympathetically to their experiences and we get a taste of reality for exploited workers: 15 hour workdays, no holidays, pay withheld, bullying bosses.
Their new environment promises something better than what they have known and the film reflects this by delivering landscape shots that capture the natural rugged beauty of the place where swirling snow tumbles from granite grey skies that frame rugged white mountains and the roaring waves of an iron-coloured sea.
The three may endure hard graft and simple lodgings in sub-zero temperatures, but a contrasting feeling of warmth is built up from the intimate camerawork that remains focussed on the women and shows how supportive they are of each other. The use of ambient lighting from lamps and stoves, the sight of steam rising from food, and the way all three can smile and actually hold each other and play imbues the film with a sense of comfort. After so many moments of tension we are also let into the personal lives and the stakes at play for them, especially as An and Nhu talk about their folks and siblings back home, their delayed dreams for themselves, and let loose a few tears.
Their peace of mind falters as Phuong’s health fluctuates. A bit of a loner, a problem with her stomach that has been in the background of the film suddenly prompts the narrative to zero in on her. Audiences will be able to guess just what her predicament is but the tension mounts again in the second half of the film as the scale of problems endured by those without documentation are shown.
Already having been exploited before, the three inhabit an increasingly marginalised position that leaves them exposed to deportation and even life-threatening situations. After getting to know them, we empathise as they endure another round of uncertainty where even the smallest actions and interactions with others becomes fraught with tension as the environment becomes hostile. That close camerawork shows the intimate sense of connection between the three becoming frayed as Phuong finds herself alone more often but there is a sense of sympathy as it sticks close to Phuong and tracks her as a lone person in the snow as she travels around the city, balancing money problems and her own health as she has to face an ambiguous future.
Along the Sea may end on an ambiguous note but by showing us the humanity of these three women, we can better understand the people given the label of migrant. It is sure to resonate with many viewers who will recognise a common humanity and something of their own lives and be able to sympathise with the character’s troubles – and praise has to be given to the three leads whose restrained performances are riveting to watch.
With a clarity of focus, the film captures the most intimate feelings of a set of characters who feel well-drawn enough to be real and yet be emblematic of the migrant experience.