Saturday, November 10, 2018

Last Letter '18

Boy, can checking up on what's coming out in a given week supply you with interesting surprises. I was kind of ready to pass on this week's Chinese opening - it sure looked like the kind of sentimental thing I often pass up - until I noticed the name on it, recalled being pretty fond of some of his Japanese stuff (although I suspect I haven't seen as much as I feel like I've seen), and said, fine, first priority this weekend.

And it was crowded, even more than the big Chinese movies usually are. I suspect part of that is that Boston Common hasn't had a lot of new Chinese material since Chinese Memorial Day a month or so ago, with Project Gutenberg doing a good job of hanging around for those who hadn't seen it already. Folks were ready for something to show up, and this came with a pretty good reputation not just for Iwai but for co-stars Zhou Xun and Zhang Zifeng being nominated for the Golden Horse Awards.

Still, there were clearly some there for Iwai; a fellow asked if I was a fan as we were filing out, and I honestly said that I don't know if I could count myself as a fan, but I like what he's done that I've seen (which may just be The Case of Hana and Alice and A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, though I seem to recall watching the first Hana and Alice at some point). He was definitely a fan, and was thrilled to be able to able to see one of Iwai's films on the big screen, saying it was such a big mood that way. He's definitely looking forward to the Japanese version next year, and we talked about how this felt more like a Japanese film than a Chinese one, despite apparently being an entirely Chinese production. Almost like a remake of the one he hasn't finished yet (a "pre-make"?).

It is another reminder of how weird and distorted foreign film distribution has always been and has become in the last few years, though. There was a time, not so long ago, when Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou was able to get some art-house play here, DVDs were made, it was more or less a given that Hana & Alice would make it here as his next film… Now, it's kind of a crapshoot. Maybe those of us who are stupidly dedicated will get to see things because we travel to film festivals; maybe a movie from an internationally acclaimed director will show up on a streaming service that we're subscribed to a few months after we've stopped anticipating it. We get a pretty steady stream of movies in theaters from China because some people have built a pipeline direct from there to expatriates - it is worth noting that the website for this movie's American distributor, China Lion Film, is primarily in Chinese; although you no longer have to select English, foreign film fans are a decidedly secondary concern to them in that they will take our money if we show up but won't seek us out - but Japanese film has all but dried up despite Japan once being a big pop culture influence. There should be a spot for the new Iwai film not just at AMC Boston Common, which happens to be near Chinatown, but at Landmark Kendall Square, but they often feel like they're programming a steady stream of artist docs and old-lady indies (sometimes, as with Tea with the Dames, both at once).

It's also kind of nice to see that this fellow was legitimately affected by seeing the film on the big screen. Love Letter is not obviously a film that must be seen big and loud, but there's power in it being enveloping - it's worth noting that we were in the front section rather than the stadium seating area - that is tough to describe to people who have mostly given up on or de-prioritized the theatrical experience for whatever reasons. It does make a difference for these movies to go to the edge of your vision, although I'll be darned if I can figure out a way to show it other than anecdotally.

To get to the point, though - Last Letter is very good. It's in theaters, even if it's not necessarily the theaters where this kind of movie used to be found, and I hope my friends who liked Iwai's previous films are able to find it.

Ni Hao, Zhi Hua (Last Letter '18)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2018 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

It is entirely possible that by this time next year, we'll be looking at this Last Letter as one half of a phenomenon fairly unique in film history, as director Shunji Iwai is already shooting a remake of this Mandarin-language movie in his native Japan - it usually goes in the other order, and seldom in such rapid succession. Those strange circumstances make this film an oddity, but nevertheless still in line with Iwai's previous films, an earnest and emotional work that's also quite sweet and funny.

It opens with a funeral for Yuan Zhinan, who died on 7 January 2018 at the age of 45, leaving behind two children, Mumu and Chenchen, a sister, and her parents. Son Chenchen isn't ready to go back home after the funeral, so his aunt Yuan Zhihua (Zhou Xun) and uncle Zhou Wentao (Du Jiang) take him in for the rest of winter break; their daughter Saran (Wendy Zhang Zifeng) offers to stay with Mumu (Deng Enxi) at their grandparents. Zhihua also goes to Zhinan's 30-year middle-school reunion to share the bad news, but is mistaken for her sister and, flustered, leaves without clearing it up, not even to Yin Chuan (Qin Hao), who rushes out to talk to "Zhihan" before returning to Shanghai. They exchange phone numbers, and while Zhihua is in the shower, Chuan sends a text - "I have loved you for 30 years" - that Wentao naturally sees first.

He smashes her phone in a fit of pique, which leads to Zhihua writing letters to Yin Chuan under Zhinan's name to vent, and there is something sneakily clever about how things play out after that: Much of the film has the sort of plot that seems like it would have been right at home in a movie from 30 years ago but supposedly wouldn't work now because of mobile phones, even though the whole thing is kicked off by a mobile phone-based misunderstanding, even highlighting it with a replacement phone joke that is cute on its own but gets better without veering into the dismissive "kids these days" territory that it could have done. It's a small thing, but it's a path to Iwai indulging a broad love of written communication that spans generations, and isn't necessarily about writing as everyday artistry. He loves the elderly learning to write in a new language, even if it has no practical purpose. He loves that these missives can be sealed in an envelope and sit there until someone is ready. He loves that they can be sent out into the world generally, whether in a book or tied to a bird's leg, in the vague hope that the right person will see them. He loves that they can be misdirected or intercepted. Written words are little bits of information and emotion but also physical things that require human facilitation and active engagement, and while Iwai has no nostalgic disdain for the ethereal messages that buzz for the recipient's attention, he builds this story on pen and paper and then includes more besides.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: