Following the untimely death of her sister, a Shanghai librarian takes her place at a school reunion and eventually winds up in a game of mistaken identity and musical letters in Last Letter, the latest effort from Japanese director Shunji Iwai. With the rare exception, Iwai has built a career based on sentimentality and lyrical romanticism, and in his latest meditative weepie (two hankies at most), he cleaves closely to his signature formula. The difference here is the milieu: Last Letter is Iwai’s first Chinese-language production. Anchored by stars Zhou Xun (Painted Skin), Qin Hao (Legend of the Demon Cat) and a breakout turn by young Zhang Zifeng, Last Letter — not to be confused with Iwai’s similar 1998 romance Love Letter — isn’t the slog 2016’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle was, but its leisurely pace and often confounding character behaviors muddle the more compelling story about regret, loss and healing in modern China.
Iwai’s brand of reflective emotionalism should go over well in Asia-Pacific, and the presence of Zhou and Qin will assure it a respectable amount of attention in China; a Japanese version is also on the way, just in case. Overseas, Last Letter will work for art house distributors the same way his other films have, and specialty festivals are a given.
An emotional ode to grief, memory and the postal service.
The film begins with Zhihua (Zhou) at her sister Zhinan’s funeral, along with her daughter Saran (Zhang), and niece and nephew Mumu (Deng Enxi and Hu Changlin). When she gets back home to Shanghai, Zhihua reads a notice about Zhinan’s middle school reunion, and decides to attend in order to inform everyone of her death, which was actually a suicide. At the reunion, “Zhinan” is called to the stage, and naturally Zhihua takes her place and mumbles her way through a speech, never revealing the truth. This is Last Letter’s first irritating misstep. Seeing as the pic isn’t a wacky comedy, the importance of the middle school (middle school!) reunion and Zhihua’s ridiculous decision to lie stretch credulity — and it gets worse from there.
Suspending disbelief enough to let that plot contrivance go, Zhihua is approached on the street on her way home by Yin Chuan (Qin), an author who wrote a book (which he constantly tells people) about Zhinan, the love of his middle school life and a girl/woman he’s never quite gotten over. Zhihua mumbles her way out of that encounter, too (“A book? Remind me?”), but later begins corresponding with him by letter. At the same time, Mumu and Saran stumble upon Yin’s book and also start a pen pal campaign with him as a way to process their own grief. All four come to learn a great deal more about Zhinan’s life before finding closure.
Last Letter walks a fine line between bittersweet and saccharine, and too often topples onto the wrong side of that divide. The events that start the ball rolling unfold in flashback, where the beautiful Zhinan (played as a teen by Deng) and awkward Zhihua (Zhang) both become enamored of Yin (Bian Tianyang in youth), creating a triangle complicated by the requisite misunderstandings, insecurities and blown chances. It’s all very gauzy and unabashedly romantic, and sadly a string-heavy score (by Iwai and ikire) that hammers home the tragic points undermines the more graceful moments. Likewise, many of Iwai’s long, meandering takes wear out their welcome; Zhihua and her controlling, abusive husband’s (Du Jiang) late-night chase of Chenchen as he deals with the concept of death loses its impact for its length. B-plots pivoting on Zhihua’s mother-in-law’s autumn romance are underwritten, as are more peripheral characters, specifically Hu Ge in a cameo as Zhinan’s alcoholic ex-husband. He’s an archetype.
But Iwai’s strong cast manages to prevent Last Letter from abject failure, and Chigi Kambe’s naturalistic cinematography is the perfect complement to the equally natural performances. Qin mostly transcends his emo dialogue and busted wig, but Zhou’s understated contemplativeness is less pitiable than empathetic. Zhang copped a Golden Horse Award nomination for her work (as did Zhou), a nearly perfect distillation of teenaged uncertainty and poor decisions in the past and youthful resistance in the present.
Production company: Rockwell Eyes
Cast: Zhou Xun, Qin Hao, Du Jiang, Zhang Zifeng, Deng Enxi, Ryan Bian, Wu Yanshu, Tan Zhuo, Hu Ge
Director-screenwriter: Iwai Shunji
Producer: Qin Hong
Executive producer: Qin Hong, Peter Chan, Iwai Shunji, Fan Luyuan, Aiken Zou, Sam Lee
Director of photography: Chigi Kambe
Production designer: Ben Luk, Zhao Yu
Costume designer: Chiyoe Hakamata
Editor: Iwai Shunji, Daijirou Karasawa
Music: Iwai Shunji, ikire
World sales: We Distribution