Review by Sean Boelman
Executive produced by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, Emma Kawada’s directorial debut My Small Land debuted at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival and is now playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival. And while Fantasia is primarily known for featuring genre cinema, this is one of the most extraordinary dramas you will see all year.
The film tells the story of a Kurdish refugee teen living in Japan with a life that is looking up when her family’s asylum status is revoked and her father is arrested for illegal employment. It’s a very powerful slice-of-life movie that benefits from using its intimate story to paint a much bigger picture.
Unlike a lot of films about immigration, this movie does not aim for the jugular. Instead, it quietly creeps under your skin by showing you how the protagonist’s world is slowly falling apart piece by piece. And the fact that she is experiencing this universal coming-of-age while having to deal with these very painful issues at the same time makes it subtly heartbreaking.
The issue of immigration is one that is often thought of from an Americentric standpoint, but Kawawada’s film serves as an important reminder of the fact that this is very much a global problem. It really puts into context the gravity of the situation when you are able to see these intimate stories about real people being affected around the world.
Wisely, Kawawada focuses primarily on the protagonist rather than her entire family unit. The result is a movie that feels much more personal. While her relationships with her father and siblings are an important part of her story, it is just that — her story, the story of an immigrant whose life is being torn apart by an unjust system.
Lina Arashi’s performance in the leading role is simply extraordinary. It’s her first credited screen role and yet she brings an enormous amount of restraint to her character. This role required her to have a very precise balance of maturity and innocence to make the character feel believable, and she absolutely pulls it off.
There is a very warm lighting throughout the film that seems to represent the motif of opportunity. It’s a movie that is shot very beautifully and naturally, and it lends itself to this particular story. The restraint that Kawawada shows in her feature debut is noteworthy and allows it to have an even greater impact.
My Small Land is an accomplished and promising debut from new director Emma Kawada. It tackles a very important global issue from a perspective that feels both meaningful and unique, allowing it to be a standout in terms of films about immigration.
My Small Land screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.