Movie review: Shunji Iwai's Last Letter gets the mood right but not the Shanghai location
115 mins/Opens Nov 29/3 stars
The story: When her sister Zhinan dies, Zhihua (Zhou Xun) goes to a middle school reunion with the intention of breaking the news to everyone. When she gets mistaken for her sister, she chooses not to correct them. Instead, she reconnects with their old mutual friend Yinchuan (Qin Hao), whom she had a crush on, and starts a letter correspondence with him.
Japanese film-maker Shunji Iwai, who had also told stories through letters in the romance movie Love Letter (1995) and televisionmini-series Chang-ok’s Letter (2017), spins yet another tale about the beauty of the written word here – only that it is set in Shanghai, China.
There is plenty of buzz over how this is Iwai’s first film made in China – where he has a cult following among college film students – but there is nothing distinctly Chinese about the movie at all.
The director is, in fact, remaking Last Letter in Japan with a Japanese cast next year, so it should be interesting to see how he tweaks the story for his native audience. The auteur is known for casting a sharp eye on contemporary Japanese culture in films such as youth drama All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001).
While he may not have managed to inject this movie with authentic Chinese flavour, what he gets right, as expected, is the tone.
There is a constant sense of melancholy throughout, helped both by the heavy-on-strings soundtrack – which he scored – as well as the muted colour palette of the suburban middle-class neighbourhoods.
If Love Letter had been a story about the innocence of young love, then this one is about loss and regret in one’s adult years.
For Zhihua, she feels sadness and self-pity for having been the overlooked sister in the family. For Yinchuan, it is all about what could have been and the things he never got to say to his childhood sweetheart.
It is only through their letters to each other wherethey can truly be honest and free.
Constant new revelations keep things moving along – intercut with lengthy flashback scenes performed by talented teen actress Zhang Zifeng as a young Zhihua – but the story never fully engages, no thanks to the unnecessary sub-plots involving Zhihua’s mother-in-law and Zhinan’s estranged husband.
They perpetually distract from the central characters just as one is starting to feel absorbed in their story.
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