Paper letters seem old fashioned these days, but they have their advantages, like being hack-proof (but they do leave a literal paper trail). They certainly played a significant role in the lives of Yuan Zhihua and her recently deceased sister Zhinan. In fact, letters from the past might even provide some closure to her family in Shunji Iwai’s first Chinese language film, Last Letter (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Yuan Zhinan struggled with poor health, abuse, and depression throughout her life, so her sister and parents were not shocked by her suicide, but they still passed it off as the tragic result of an unspecified illness. Rather conveniently, it happened during the school break leading up to Chinese New Year, so Zhihua’s preteen daughter will temporarily move in with Zhinan’s teen daughter Mumu, while her little brother stays with her aunt and uncle.
As fate dictates, notice of a middle school reunion comes soon after the funeral. Zhihua attends with the intention of informing her former classmates of Zhinan’s death, but she panics when everyone mistakes her for her sister. Yin Chuan is especially eager to renew their acquaintance, making things incredibly awkward for her. He was her high school crush, while he carried a torch for her more popular sister. She even offered to deliver his love notes, but that did not go according to plan. However, Zhihua cannot resist sending him hard copy letters, sans return address, to prevent her tech savvy husband from discovering her correspondence.
You can think of Last Letters as a cross between Beaches and Cyrano de Bergerac, produced in Mandarin. Fortunately, it is a remarkably effective tear-jerker, since Iwai is apparently already at work on a Japanese language version. He and the first-class cast are not shy when it comes to manipulating our emotions and yanking on our heart strings. However, this film works so surprisingly well, because the characters are always quicker to figure out each deception than the would-be deceivers realize. Granted, these people are damaged, but they are not stupid.
It is a little odd to see the radiant Zhou Xun playing Zhihua, the ugly duckling sister, but she is terrific and deeply moving in the part. Qin Hao also brings a rumpled, sad sack dignity to the film as the older, disillusioned Yin. However, Zhang Zifeng is absolutely devastating two-times over as young Zhihua and her daughter Saran. She also develops a wonderful rapport with Enxi Deng, primarily in her scenes as Mumu, but also in flashbacks as young Zhinan—rather significantly, the adult Zhinan is never seen on-screen, as if she only exists for Zhihua and Yin as her high school ideal.
Arguably, Chinese cinema has a comparative advantage when it comes to tearjerkers and Iwai is no stranger to the genre himself, making this a shrewd choice for his first Mainland project. Last Letter will totally choke you up, but in a way that is ultimately rejuvenating. It is the kind of film that makes you feel good about people. Of course, the ridiculously attractive cast does not hurt in any way. Highly recommended for fans of sentimental romance and family dramas, Last Letter opens tomorrow (11/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.