Thursday, January 04, 2018

Namiya: Jackie Chan and a Little Magical Realism

In the early 1990s, they still wrote letters in this provincial Chinese town, but when they might be delivered was anybody’s guess. This was especially true of Papa Namiya’s mail chute. One fateful night and one night only, it will serve as a time portal, connecting correspondents three decades apart. Perhaps it is made of the same stuff as the mail box in Il Mare. Regardless, people seem to receive their letters exactly when they need them in Han Jie’s Namiya (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Kindly old Papa Namiya was so full of helpful advice, he institutionalized his position as the local “Agony Uncle.” Advice seekers dropped off their notes and letters through the mail slot at the front of his corner store and he left his replies for the more private cases in the milk delivery box in back. Seeking his counsel became a local ritual until old age and a crisis of confidence forced him to retire. However, several years later, he had his faithful nephew announce his special one-night return, but even Papa Namiya does not know how special it will be.

Back in the present day, Ah Jie, Tong Tong, and Xiabo, three grossly disadvantaged orphans take refuge in the mothballed Namiya store, after a bit of mischief crosses the line into criminality. Much to their surprise, time nearly stands still for them in the store, but that allows them to start responding to letters meant for Papa Namiya. In flashbacks, we see how life unfolds for the musician they sort of encourage to follow his dreams. We also watch the results of the advice Papa N. offered to a young Michel Jackson fan disillusioned by the King of Pop’s molestation accusations and his own father’s mounting debt and chaos, as well as the fate of a desperate bar hostess, who starts to follow Jie’s prescient investment strategies. Eventually, all four strands will mostly come together, thanks to Old Papa’s subtle guidance.

Namiya is based on a novel of magical realism written by Japanese mystery master Keigo Hagashino that was also recently adapted for film in his native land. It very definitely stands comparison to the Korean film Il Mare (ill-advisedly remade as the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Lake House), but it is exponentially more hopeful. Frankly, the basic premise never makes much sense and it is easy to get confused by all the flashbacks and call-backs, but viewers will still leave Namiya feeling strangely great about life in general.

Namiya also holds the distinction of being the first strictly dramatic, no fighting and no martial arts performance from Jackie Chan (with the possible exception of a few jokey cameos) as old Papa Namiya. He is heavily made-up, but still instantly recognizable. Basically, he acts like what his body should feel like after all the beatings he took—and he is terrific. It is some of his best work, up there with The Foreigner, but that old charisma from his glory years still twinkles through.

Dilraba Dilmurat is the strongest by far of the punky orphans, but Hao Lei outshines everyone as the naïve but resilient bar hostess. However, the rock-solid Chan is both the glue that holds it together and the X-factor that makes it all click so well. Namiya the film isn’t shy about its melodramatic inclinations and neither are many of its cast-members, but it pays off in a big way, earning its sniffles and sighs. Refreshing and invigorating, Namiya is a super way to start the New Year. Highly recommended for fans of light fantasy, Namiya opens tomorrow (1/5) in New York, at the AMC 34th Street.