Melancholic romance conducted in letters

Zhihua (played by Zhou Xun) gets mistaken for her dead sister in Last Letter.
Zhihua (played by Zhou Xun) gets mistaken for her dead sister in Last Letter.PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT



115 minutes/Opens today/3 stars

The story: When her sister Zhinan dies, Zhihua (Zhou Xun) goes to a middle school reunion with the intention of breaking the news to everyone. But she gets mistaken for her sister and chooses not to correct the error. Instead, she reconnects with their old mutual friend Yinchuan (Qin Hao), whom she had a crush on, and starts corresponding with him through letters.

Japanese film-maker Shunji Iwai, who had told stories through letters in the romance movie Love Letter (1995) and television mini-series Chang-ok's Letter (2017), spins yet another tale about the beauty of the written word here - this time set in Shanghai.

There is plenty of buzz over how this is Iwai's first film made in China - where he has a cult following among college film students - but there is nothing distinctly Chinese about the movie at all.

The director is, in fact, remaking Last Letter in Japan with a Japanese cast next year, so it should be interesting to see how he tweaks the story for his native audience.

The auteur is known for casting a sharp eye on contemporary Japanese culture in films such as youth drama All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001).

While he may not have managed to inject this movie with an authentic Chinese flavour, what he gets right, as expected, is the tone.

There is a constant sense of melancholy throughout, helped by the heavy-on-strings soundtrack - which he scored - as well as the muted colour palette of the suburban middle-class neighbourhoods.

If Love Letter had been a story about the innocence of young love, then this one is about loss and regret in one's adult years.

In the case of Zhihua, she feels sorry for herself for being the overlooked sister. For Yinchuan, it is all about what could have been and the things he never got to say to his childhood sweetheart.

It is only in their letters to each other that they can truly be honest and free.

One revelation after another keep things moving along - intercut with lengthy flashback scenes performed by talented teen actress Zhang Zifeng as a young Zhihua - but the story never fully engages, no thanks to the unnecessary sub-plots involving Zhihua's mother-in-law and Zhinan's estranged husband.

They distract from the central characters just as one is starting to feel absorbed in their story.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2018, with the headline 'Melancholic romance conducted in letters'. Print Edition | Subscribe