Passage of Life (2017): Written and directed by Akio Fujimoto. Starring: Kaung Myat Thu, Khin Myat Thu, Issace, Htet Myat Naing, and Yuki Kitagawa. Running Time: 98 minutes.
As justified as much of the attention has been in recent years on the plight of refugees in, entering, or trying/hoping to enter Europe, it has often overshadowed or crowded out attention to other, equally important refugee and migrant situations in other parts of the world. A prime example of this is those fleeing the military government of Burma, especially members of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Although the characters of this particular story are Buddhist and not Rohingya, Passage of Life is nonetheless essential in how it uses the experience of a Burmese family struggling to build a new life in Japan to remind us that the suffering of the lost and destitute is a truly global crisis of the human heart.
The film starts off being about the parents, and their struggles to come to grips with their precarious legal status in Japan, which, despite their longtime residence and their kids’ presence in the school system, could be uprooted at any time. By the end, it shifts focus to being a story about the children and how, in certain ways, they suffer even more deeply than the parents do, despite the fact that they are too young to fully understand what is happening around them. They only know that something is wrong- they sense it, instinctively- and they are troubled by this. They carry most of the family’s pathos in their very bearing, containing both the hope of a better tomorrow and the desperate worry that only the same old struggle awaits them.
The film utilizes simple, stark, camerawork that gives the story a quasi-documentary feel. Indeed, the story is told with such minimalistic nuance, and the interactions between the family members (some of whom are actually related to each other) are so effortlessly natural, that I had to repeatedly remind myself that this was NOT, in fact, real found footage. The primary question that occupies the mind of the parents is if it is worth them staying together in Japan. The mother misses her country terribly and never seems at ease when not with her relatives. The father doesn’t even consider this a possibility. Eventually, either the unstoppable force or the immovable object must yield, and they do decide to part. Whether or not they ever will, can, or even want to find their way back together is left open by the end. One of the best shots in the movie is of the father, at the moment where the full weight of his plight comes down on his shoulders; he tries to keep the brave face he’s managed to hold all these years, and, finally, finds that he can’t.
That sounds like it should be the film’s climax, but it’s not even at the halfway part. It is when we are in Burma that the film moves its focus to the children, as their confusion and anger over the loss of the only home they remember starts to eat at them.
How is it that we continuously find ways to inflict this pain on children? We are born innocent and without bias or prejudice, but the world inevitably hammers it into us until it sets, and we are hardened. With each new generation, we glimpse a vision of this chain being broken, but it has still never happened. And the worst part is that none of the pain or separation the family feels is in any way justified or necessary. It never needed to happen.
Above all else, the movie struggles with the question of what home really is. Can a “home” be movable? Flexible? Should it be flexible? Its real power, in the end, comes from understanding that even when a home or concept of it has been chosen, by choosing and, in part, closing off others there are still painful compromises and sacrifices that this ultimately requires, and it never is, never will be, easy.
This is masterfully encapsulated in the movie’s final scene, a wrenching moment, the audio of which continues to play for some time over the scrolling of the end credits. Debut films don’t get much better than this. Akio Fujimoto has given the world one of the year’s best, and most essential films, in a time where the cries of humanity need to be heard more than ever.