Lovers of unrequited love, rejoice. There is enough handwritten romantic communication exchanged in Shunji Iwai’s deceptively uncomplicated romance Last Letter to fill a small post office branch. And no junk mail!
Given that he has over 30 shorts, features, documentaries, and TV movies under his belt, I am ashamed to admit that this is the first time the name Shunji Iwai had crossed my radar. But my ignorance becomes a touch more understandable when one considers how few, if any, of the Japanese director’s films have lapped up on American shores. Last Letter is the director’s Chinese-language debut. (Word is he’s already set about planning a Japanese remake.)
We open on Zhinan’s funeral and find her two children, Mumu (Deng Enxi) and Chenchen (Hu Changlin), being placed in the care of her sister Zhihua (Zhou Xun). We later learn that Zhinan was the product of domestic violence, the type that could have played a contributing factor in her suicide. It might also account for Mumu’s reluctance to instantly open the letter she found in her mother’s drawer. Addressed to Mumu and her brother, this is the first of several “last letters” that will pass before the gaze of our red-letter cast of strong female protagonists.
Zhihua finds her sister’s invitation to her school reunion and chooses to go in her place, ostensibly to inform her classmates of Zhinan’s passing. Members of the reunion committee are quick to confuse Zhihua with her sister. (I’m all for mistaken identity, but these girls bear about as much resemblance to each other as Maddox and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.) After she is singled out as “The girl who stole all of the boy’s hearts,” and asked to address the crowd, Zhihua freezes and makes an early exit, never summoning the voice needed to speak of Zhinan’s death.
It’s right around the time that Yin Chuan (Hao Qin), a reasonably comfortable screenwriter who spent many an hour in middle school crushing on Zhinan, begins to buy into Zhihua’s masquerade that I started worrying the narrative might be on the verge of skidding off the rails. Don’t forget, this was my first encounter with Iwai’s films — far too early in the process to assign trust. But this is a very complex film, and each time I hit rewind to double-check the questions that arose concerning plot logic, the director’s version held water.
Yin instantly caught onto Zhihua’s game, but was slow to reveal his hand. The writer in him wanted to see how far she intended to push things. To avoid leaving a cyber footprint that her husband could easily track, Zhihua chooses snail mail to carry on the impersonation. The idea of doing it the old fashioned way came from her grandmother-in-law. In her youth, Zhihua ran messages for Yin and Zhinan. Now it’s her turn to play go-between for granny and an old college professor. To add further weight to this already burgeoning mailbag, some of Yin’s letters fall in the hands of Mumu and Zhihua’s daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng), who in turn strike up a correspondence of their own.
Names mentioned in passing grow into major players, only to vanish the moment they outlive their usefulness. Iwai illustrates the importance of secondary characters, the necessity of assigning each member of his supporting cast more than one unique bit of business to carry them through the story. Take Chenchen for example. Early on, we’re presented with a stereotypical little brother, addicted to video games and constantly picking on his sister for talking too much. How many times has a kid like this plagued movies, no matter what their country of origin? Without giving too much away — for a seemingly simple story such as this, it’s rather amazing to find how much there is much to disclose — Chenchen is asked to step out from the background to briefly have a say in shaping the course of the narrative.
It was my wish to laud both director of photography and composer, but the credits weren’t subtitled, nor did IMBD or Wikipedia have a complete cast and crew list. To the cinematographer whose warm, naturally lit colors, added the the film’s overall calm, and to the composer whose score embraced the action, I say thanks.
For all its talk of love, Last Letter is a romantic drama void of romance. At no point in the film, not even in the flashbacks, is there any display of romantic attachment on the parts of the characters. Kleenex came into play only when necessary, and then never in the name of maudlinness. Widows can wait. Make Last Letter this week’s top cinematic priority. It opens this Friday exclusively at the AMC La Jolla.