Award Winners Interview: Kei Chikaura

Kei Chikaura won the Brief Encounters Grand Prix Award in 2017 for his live action short, Signature. The film is a sympathetic look at the predicament of a young Chinese immigrant seeking employment. Encounters' Isabella Coombes talks to Kei about the themes of his emotionally affecting film.

Kei, thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulations on scooping the Brief Encounters Grand Prix award at Encounters 2017 Festival! How does it feel?

Signature_production-still_00005I am very happy to win the Grand Prix at such a prestigious film festival as Encounters. It was the first time in my life that I’d won a top prize. Furthermore, this short film was my last one before my first feature film, so it feels amazing to win the prize before venturing into the feature film. I will never forget this award, and that moment.

The film feels incredibly personal, why did you want to tell this story?

In 2015, I read an article about the Technical Intern Trainee Program in Japan, which is an initiative that aims to provide training to younger workers from Asian developing countries in Japanese industries. I read that these people dream of coming to Japan to get a good education and at the same time make some money, to later go back to their countries and use these skills.

After doing some research, I found that instead of providing a real education, some companies are using the program as an excuse to hire these workers at an extremely low-wage, basically exploiting people in need. As I am Japanese, I was very ashamed of this fact.

As a result, a lot of trainees abandon the companies that legally hired them but remain illegally in Japan. For instance, in 2015 more than 5,800 trainees a year escaped from the program.

As a filmmaker, (and not as a citizen in terms of politics), I was mainly interested in the gap that lays between expectations and reality. These young people come to Japan with an idea in mind and soon find out that the real world is entirely different. Life is precisely like that: a continuous encounter between dreams and reality. This is a universal topic that everyone can relate to, particularly in this era of global immigration we are living.

Signature_production-still_00015I need to say, in this short film, I focus on the moment when a young innocent man is about to get into the ‘reality’.

At this point, I totally sympathize with the main protagonist, because sometimes it is much more important for people (at least for me) to get what you need, than to consider the consequences carefully. In that sense, it is true that this is very personal. I am not Chinese, not as young as him, and not an immigrant worker, but this definitely is a story about myself.

There are some remarkably long takes in Signature that really capture the essence of anonymity in a busy city – did you face any challenges shooting in such a fast-paced environment?

What inspires me creatively about Japan is minimalism and chaos are co-existing so close to each other. I wanted to change the composition in one long shot, instead of switching from a long distance shot to a close one, and by modifying the camera direction. I needed a cinematic shot in-between of fiction drama and documentary.

To do so, I had to calculate and carefully plan each single movement of the camera and the actors. And one of the biggest challenges here was to allocate the extra actors at appropriate spots and to plan their movement for controlling the real crowd. That was like an extremely difficult puzzle. To solve this puzzle, I went to Shibuya for 5 days in a row, and stood there for almost 6 hours a day to observe people and to know the appropriate date & time for shooting.

Who or what are your greatest creative influences?

Henry Cartier Bresson, Michael Haneke, Rei Kawakubo, Shinsuke Ogawa and Hu Wei.

Finally, what’s next for you Kei? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

Signature_production-still_00008I am working on my first feature film, ‘Chen Liang’. I finished shooting at the end of September 2017, It’s now in post-production, and it will be completed in March.

Actually, Signature is the pilot short film of the feature film. I had the feature film in mind before conceiving this short film.

In 2016 I auditioned Yulai Lu, the leading actor for the feature film. That’s when I thought it would be better first to make a short film to get to know each other, and see how we work together. That’s when I wrote the script of Signature as a prequel to the feature. You will be able to see more of Chen Liangthe main character of Signature in my first feature.

Find the trailer for Kei Chikaura’s Signature below.