Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Shunji Iwai’s Letters from Shanghai

"Last Letter," the new film by the Japanese director best-known for "All About Lily Chou-Chou," is his first made in China.
Sean Gilman

Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.

The sneakiest major release of the year is surely the latest from Japanese director Shunji Iwai, whose new movie opens this Friday at a dozen multiplexes around North America courtesy of the distributor China Lion Film. Last Letter is Iwai’s first film made in China, and stars Zhou Xun, who starred in one of last year’s best films, Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come, which was also distributed here by China Lion. That he would be working in a new country is no surprise: Iwai is one of the more eclectic filmmakers of his generation. Having started in TV and video in the early 90s before moving into film, he’s since made documentaries and music videos, science fiction films and anime, epics of modern alienation and ravishingly romantic odes to the wonders of youth and love. His last film, Chang-ok’s Letter, was an hour-long domestic melodrama shot in Korea starring Doona Bae that was actually a four-part advertisement for Nescafé.1 With that film and his 1995 feature debut Love Letter, Last Letter forms the third part of a kind of trilogy by contemporary film’s master of epistolary cinema.2

The Chinese version of Last Letter is set in and around Shanghai. Zhou Xun plays a housewife whose sister has suddenly died, leaving behind two middle school-aged children, a boy and a girl. Zhou and her husband take in the boy over the coming winter break, while the girl, along with Zhou’s older daughter, stay with their grandparents. Zhou attends her sister’s middle school reunion with the intention of relating the bad news to her old classmates, but is instead mistaken for the dead girl by everyone, including a shaggy-haired writer who seems to have unresolved past issues with the sister. Through a complicated series of semi-comic misadventures, he comes to exchange letters with Zhou, who is still pretending to be her sister. The two young girls also pretend to be the dead woman in correspondence with him, while, tangentially, Zhou discovers her mother-in-law is carrying on a letter-based relationship with an elderly English professor. The first half of the film is generally light and charming, weaving these tangled relationships together, internally rhyming between generations.

At the midpoint though, the various deceptions are revealed and Zhou, the writer, and the two girls begin to delve into what really happened to the sister character. Iwai cuts between the present and the past, to the middle school years of Zhou and her sister and the writer (Zhou had had a crush on him, but he only had eyes for her more glamorous older sister). The young Zhou and her sister are played by the same actresses who play Zhou’s daughter and niece, repeating a device Iwai utilized in his first feature, Love Letter [1995], where the two lead characters, who correspond via letter about a middle school romance with a now-deceased boy, are played by the same actress. Doublings of this type recur throughout Iwai’s work, either literally (with actresses playing dual roles) or metaphorically: rhyming past and present, dramatically splitting the narrative into two potential halves (as in his 1993 TV movie Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?), or mirroring his two main characters (as in Hana & Alice [2004] and All About Lily Chou-chou [2001]). But Love Letter and now Last Letter are the most sophisticated in their braiding of disparate narrative strands into a single whole.

In Love Letter, it’s in service to what is essentially a romantic comedy tinged with a sense of loss: A screwball haunted by premature death. Last Letter takes the opposite tack: it’s a film about coping with death wherein its heroes are somewhat healed by stories of young love. This is the subject Iwai obsessively returns to the ways we use stories, specifically the written word, to cope with tragedy. Those stories can come in the form of letters, one person telling another person about a third person, but not necessarily. In All About Lily Chou-Chou and The Bride for Rip van Winkle (2016), the written word on the Internet (on message boards and social media) provides a solace for victims of middle-school bullying and adult social isolation, respectively. In April Story (1998), a single word that gets stuck in her head (“Musashino”) leads the protagonist to her college, a novel, a bookstore, and, ultimately, the boy she loves. In Love Letter, the simple writing a person’s name becomes an act worthy of a romantic swoon, while in Last Letter the writer names his novel after his, now lost, girlfriend, which her daughter reads to discover what her mother was truly like before years of abuse and depression washed the shine of youth away from her. With every story, we learn a little bit about each other while acknowledging, and coming to accept, the great truth that we can never really know another person. 

This obsession with the written is not to say that Iwai lacks a visual style, far from it in fact. Eschewing the minimalist approach of many of his contemporaries, Iwai films in an eclectic mix of fluid, composed long shots and slightly unstable hand-held camera work. He has a weakness for lushly colored landscapes and romantic skies: cherry blossoms fall like snow in April Story while snow falls like cherry blossoms in Love Letter; young men stand in bright green fields of rice in All About Lily Chou-chou and April Story, looking ever so lost and handsome (respectively). The ending of Hana & Alice probably best captures Iwai’s dual love of the word and the image: Hana, who has used words to manipulate a boy into being her boyfriend, finds herself in an empty auditorium as she tries to tell a story, with only her best friend remaining to listen; while Alice, who has struggled mightily to express herself with words during modeling auditions, gets a chance to dance ballet for a photographer and is captivating. Chang-ok’s Letter, being shot on a commercial budget and being concerned with the restrictions of life as a wife and mother, is mostly confined to interior spaces, which Iwai fills with warm light but which are nonetheless constricted, lacking the openness and exhilaration of his natural worlds. His style is a refreshing mix of mainstream filmmaking with arthouse rigor, and it gives his films the momentum of a great pop song or album, hewing close to the emotions of his main characters rather than keeping the academic distance so many of his contemporaries strive for in the name of seriousness.

Last Letter presents a synthesis of Chang-ok’s warm but isolating interiors with the more open aesthetic of Love Letter. The various domestic spaces feel in turns restrictive and warm, a trap for Zhou and her sister and their children, but also a space for memory and continuity, a home for words and for family.That these spaces are Japanese, Korean and now Chinese seems important, a reflection of the growing interconnections of these three East Asian economic and cultural powerhouses, where the fashionable youth of all three nations as a matter of course listen to Korean pop music, read Japanese manga, and watch Hong Kong action films. To my admittedly myopic American eye, there doesn’t appear to be anything uniquely Chinese about Last Letter. Iwai’s films always aim for something broader than that kind of cultural specificity. And besides, there are very few mainstream Mainland Chinese films that strive to capture any kind of local flavor regardless of where they are set and who made them (independent productions like those of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan provide notable exceptions to this general rule). He may be working in a new country, but Last Letter in many ways feels like a culmination of a story Iwai has been telling for over 20 years, begun with the bright myopia of young adulthood, and now with newly discovered generations piled on, young love tempered by the disappointments, and occasional hopes, of middle age and beyond.


1. It used to be available on YouTube and Nescafé’s website, but has been taken down. I tried to track it down to watch again before writing this, but with no luck. Hopefully some enterprising soul, or distributor, will rescue it from internet oblivion.

2. One that will soon become a quartet as his next film is a remake of Last Letter, but set in Japan and starring Takaku Matsu (star of Iwai’s April Story) and Hideaki Anno (director of Shin Godzilla and Neon Genesis: Evangelion) and due to be released in 2019.

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