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We hear a lot about deportation in the first world. Ross Tuttle's Resident Aliens, playing at this year's Vancouver Asian Film Festival, follows the story to the endpoint, where said deportees struggle to negotiate a country that they are seeing for the first time in their adult lives.
Referred to legally as "returnees," the film follows three Cambodian-Americans (none of them had US citizenship, and were each deported to Cambodia after serving sentences for small crimes). China puts her situation very well when she says "It makes me angry being the only female returnee...because I am the only female returnee."
Her boyfriend Looney is morose and nearly incapable of changing his lifestyle according to his new surroundings. He continues to eat at fast food franchises even while complaining about prices, and calls the whole country a garbage can.
The ray of hope in the film is KK, a returnee who sets up breakdancing classes that keep street kids away from drugs and gangs. KK's biggest ambition is to take his kids to national fame. Even as he does this, he finds himself depressed from being torn away from his parents and child in the US.
"They sent us to a world we'd never been to," he reflects at the beginning of the film.
Tuttle follows the stories through from start to finish. We get slimpses of the retunees' past lives in the US, with interviews with their families. We also see them at various levels of emotional removal from the US, from Looney's unsustainable living habits to China who is actively trying "not to hold onto the States," as she states.
The director tries hard to get to every area of the returnees' attempted integration into Cambodia. From drug recovery to coping in the Cambodian job market, the film explores a lot. We even get to see a representative from the Returnee Integration Support Program, who ironically states the issues with the process.
Tuttle's only real issue might be in pushing the returnees' boundaries a bit too far when trying to get a sense of how they feel. When he pushes China about her charges in the US, she finally says with exasperation "Only the stupid government people know."
All in all, Resident Aliens is a much-needed look at life after deportation. It does not does not in any way promise a happy ending, but underlines a faint flicker of hope in the direst situation, and really pulls empathy for a group of people caught in the immigration red tape.