LAST LETTER (2018) review

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23 years after Love Letter, Shunji Iwai makes his Chinese-language debut, produced by Peter Chan, with Last Letter, a variation on the same themes of ill-fated romance, missed opportunities and epistolary bonding and healing – and he’s actually already at work on a Japanese remake. Zhihua (Zhou Xun) just lost her sister Zhinan, and is taking care of her niece Mumu (Deng Enxi) and nephew Chenchen. When she attends a high school reunion instead of her sister, to announce her death to her former classmates, she doesn’t find the right moment to do so, and is at a loss when Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) reconnects with her: she used to be in love with him, but he was in love with Zhinan, and now he is mistaking her for her sister. Yet rather than clarifying the situation, she starts sending him letters, thus reviving countless memories of the past, while her own daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) and Mumu get in on the correspondence, by a twist of fate. Soon there are revelations, some arriving too late.

There’s something rare and endearing about a film that’s hopelessly romantic, yet not deluded for one second about the countless, often unavoidable misfires and ill-timings of love. In Last Letter almost every character has – or has had – his or her love interest, yet we do not witness one single straightforward romance. All are ill-timed, or one-sided, or plagued by fateful misunderstandings, or diluted by the complacent grind of time. The letters which most of the characters write at one point or another in the film, appear -beyond Iwai’s obvious point that they have all the poetry that cellphone communication lacks – as a way to mend such star-crossed fates,  unrequitals, or mournings, like stitches across an emotional wound. Indeed, the supremely uplifting bottomline of it, is that love wounds might be like physical ones: destined to mend, leaving a scar but not precluding a certain form of happiness. Iwai doesn’t shy away from platitudes, but platitudes can be forgiven when stated with bittersweet charm. Less forgivable is the soundtrack, composed by the director himself, which hammers the viewer over the head with lachrymal cello solos.

Iwai favors a unvarnished cinematography, filming actors who are not afforded the least glamour: the camera follows them – quite literally, in long takes that trail behind them as they move from room to room or across streets – almost probing in its close-ups. It takes a short while to get accustomed to this style, but the excellence of the cast certainly warrants it: at the center, Zhou Xun gives a naturalistic, vanity-free performance which deserves the Golden Horse Award it’s been nominated for. Qin Hao struggles with a bad wig and his own tendency to emotionally preen, but by the end of the film, he masters the moments of gut-wrenching emotion, while Hu Ge is superb in an extended cameo of all-too-mundane darkness. Critically, the teenage actresses, Zhang Zifeng and Deng Enxi, both saddled with dual roles, do not pale in comparison with their established elders.

Long Story Short: Hopelessly romantic yet never deluded or saccharine, Last Letter is carried by an excellent ensemble cast, and even its occasional platitudes can be forgiven thanks to the bittersweet charm of Shunji Iwai’s script. ***

 

 

 

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