Sunday, 31 March 2013

Tracing One's Identity

Baby Chihiro Otsuka with her Chinese passport in the documentary Trace
There was one more documentary I wanted to see during the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival today and it offered an interesting perspective on China and Japan.

Called Trace, it was originally just going to be a private family video about a baby girl born of a mainland Chinese mother and Japanese father and her tedious journey from Beijing back to her mother's home town of Qianlang to register for a hukou or residency permit and a passport.

For the parents, it was an interesting discussion about nationality and identity as China and Japan have always had uneasy relations throughout modern history.

However, after they started off on their two-week trip, tensions between the two countries flared up again over which country had control over the Diaoyu Islands as the Chinese call it, or what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands. But this time things seemed to have escalated, as there were reports of Japanese people being attacked on the streets, Japanese restaurants boycotted, Japanese cars destroyed and such.

And so the documentary really became a question of how Huang Ji's relatives would accept her husband, and also what kind of situation will their daughter Chichiro live in?

Entirely filmed with a hand-held camera, it is shaky at times, but not enough to make one nauseous. However, it was a good way to film the documentary without people knowing the real reason behind it. Both Huang and her husband Otsuka Ryuji take turns filming, but it's mostly Huang with the camera, showing what a loving father Otsuka is -- constantly bathing their daughter and changing her diapers.

We meet her relatives, from grandparents to aunts, uncles and cousins. They live out in rural areas and their lives are relatively simple. We also see the tedious bureaucracy that is China -- how you must photocopy all documents, take pictures and fill out endless forms.

Otsuka keeps the film light as he makes funny observations about China -- he isn't mean, but pokes fun -- and Huang is easy going which shows how the couple are well suited to each other.

And of course the baby is very cute -- there's lots of shots of her and overall she seems to have a very good temperament.

But two-thirds into the film, the Diaoyu Island tensions erupt and they film lots of signs and slogans denouncing the Japanese, instructing people not to buy Japanese products and that China should take back the Diaoyu Islands. Her relatives even warn her to be careful of their safety.

Otsuka seems unfazed by all the anger and even makes fun of one sign that directs people to not to buy Japanese pornography. "But then what will they masterbate to?" he deadpans while carrying Chichiro.

After the 72-minute movie, we were lucky to have Otsuka at the screening to answer some questions. We wondered how he felt about the anti-Japanese sentiment in China and if he worried about his safety.

Director Otsuka Ryuji (left) answering audience questions
He explained that he has lived in China since 2006 and he has seen this kind of tension happen many times throughout his years there and has gotten used to it. As he speaks fluent Putonghua, he feels this disarms mainland Chinese who he says are impressed by his language skills, to the point where he finds this patronizing.

But then he also noticed that when he and Huang were a couple before they got married, her friends would treat him and them nicely, but when they weren't there, they would hear comments later wondering why Huang was with a Japanese man.

As for his daughter's nationality, for now she is registered as a Chinese citizen, but by Japanese law, a child born of two different nationalities has until the age of 22 to decide. She is automatically recognized as Japanese because one of her parents is Japanese, but they have not done any official paper work.

He said they as parents are leaving it up to Chihiro to decide for herself, because who knows what the situation will be like in two decades' time between China and Japan? They are obviously giving her a huge decision to make, but it is one they believe she should decide on her own.

A funny question was one about the baby carrier they were using. It's like a light cradle that can be strapped around the neck and shoulder so the baby is lying flat in front of the user. And throughout the film they got many comments and questions asking where they got it from.

And Otsuka was so tired of the questions, that at one point in the film he says, "I got it on Taobao" to end the interrogations. But he admitted tonight that actually his mother had sent it to them from Japan.

One final question was how his parents felt about Huang. He said she had visited them once in Japan, and when they heard she was from the countryside, they had preconceptions of people from rural areas. And then he reassured them, saying she had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, and then they asked if she was on the same calibre as Zhang Ziyi, because they had seen many of Zhang Yimou's films and thought Huang would be like the peasant girl characters he used to portray.

However, when they finally met, Otsuka explains Huang is very warm and the nervous anticipation of his parents was eased.

Otsuka also apologized on behalf of his wife who could not come to the film festival because her travel permit had expired and they were so focused on getting their daughter's papers sorted that Huang forgot to get hers renewed.

We hope Huang and Otsuka continue this interesting theme they've latched onto -- the identity of their child and how she will see the world. Perhaps Trace Part II?


  1. This sounds like a very interesting documentary. You make me wish I had seen it too!

  2. It was interesting! And I hope they continue it as their daughter gets older! Sino-Japanese tensions are not going to go away, especially not in China!