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Last Letter (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"Grief and laughter mixed just right."
5 stars

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.

It's not just a love story with the written word, though; it's a smartly tangled group of human dramas and comedies. Zhihua's letters to Yin Chuan look like they could become a love story before they take a turn into farce as his initial attempt to write back comes to Mumu and Saran, but also eventually leads into flashbacks to the three of them in middle school and a story of overlapping crushes that feels more current than nostalgic. It eventually leads back to Zhinan's life and death, and how that reflects and brings out emotions that people struggle to talk about. It's all tangled and yet also distinct, and Iwai finds room for small, almost trivial side-stories that are nevertheless important to the people involved.

It's a story that requires a flexible cast, albeit one that's noir necessarily redefining itself too completely from scene to scene. Zhou Xun, for instance, has to give Zhihua a Caplan combination of petty frustration and mischief without ever letting the audience lose track of how she's just lost her sister - and then deepen that when the film teases out that Zhinan is a difficult topic. She's never off point or any less than all the things Zhihua needs to be, even if one thing or another is in the foreground. Qin Hao is a good complement; Yin Chuan is introduced as a sort of tapped-out shell of a once-promising writer (there's a fresh character, said nobody) but he's got a basic kindness to him and Qin is able to show that the man is smarter than he first appears with humility when the time comes, and plays well against Hu Ge in a standout scene late in the movie that challenges some of the writer's craft while fleshing out a side character who could easily be left a vague bogeyman.

Special attention should go to the younger actresses; Deng Enxi and Zhang Zifeng play not just Mumu and Saran (respectively) but their mothers in flashback, and both handle the tricky task of giving their characters distinct personalities while also showing the apple not falling far from the tree. That's especially true for Zhang - Iwai will occasionally let a moment or two of her scenes pass before clarifying the time period - but she does a very nice job of reflecting Zhou while finding the key differences in these two girls who are basically kind and almost bold. Deng doesn't have an adult counterpart, but she gets to put a bit more into young Zhinan than initially seems to be there and makes Mumu a bit nervous about being her mother's daughter amid the potentially-overwhelming loss.

Iwai has always been good at making movies about kids that age, and there's no doubt from the credits that this is a Shunji Iwai film: He's credited as writer, director, editor, and with the music as well. This winds up making for an incredibly cohesive movie, with great attention paid to detail from start (where the funeral feels precise and dignified and also like a bit of commodity) to finish (where the precise cutting in the conversation between Yin Chuan and Zhinan's ex has the latter addressing the camera at crucial moments). It's impressive how many things introduced casually have weight later, and how natural the comedy is despite the heavy material that's not far under it. There's also a huge reservoir of sympathy and understanding underneath that, making for a film that is melancholy but hopeful.

Iwai's recent career has been odd enough that this trip to China isn't that out of the ordinary - the last ten years have included an American horror movie, an animated prequel to a live-action movie, a film that also had a TV series version, and a Korean web series that he made for a chocolate company. It's kind of odd that he had to go to China for his work to show up in American theaters (it seems likely the forthcoming Japanese version won't), and then more in Chinatown-adjacent multiplexes that usually get Chinese action flicks and romantic comedies. But don't look a gift horse in the mouth - it's a great little movie even if it is popping up in an unexpected place.

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originally posted: 11/11/18 12:49:37
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Directed by
  Shunji Iwai

Written by
  Shunji Iwai

  Xun Zhou
  Hao Qin
  Zifeng Zhang
  Jiang Du

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