Movie Review: Last Letter (2018)
“Last Letter” (Chinese title: “你好 之华” or “Hello, Zhihua”) is a quiet, contemplative, post-longing movie that nevertheless relies upon one gigantic suspension of disbelief. Maybe two.
The movie begins in stoic sadness, with the funeral of Zhilan, a suicide, whose distraught teenaged daughter, Mumu (Deng Enxi), asks to take her mother’s ashes home. Aunt Zhihua (Zhou Xun, our star), nods. But where’s home? Since the father is out of the picture, Mumu and her younger brother, Chenchen (Hu Changlin), now live at Grandma’s. Except Chenchen wants to go to the city with his aunt and uncle, where the wi-fi is better. So a temporary swap is made: Zhihua’s daughter, Saran (Zhang Zifeng of “Aftershock” and “Detective Chinatown”), keeps Mumu company at Grandma’s, while Chenchen goes where the wi-fi is better. As they’re out the door, in the mailbox, Mumu finds an invitation for her mother to attend her 30th high school reunion. Zhihua smiles and promises to take care of it.
That’s the seeming nothing comment that will propel the rest of the movie.
At the reunion, everyone mistakes Zhihua for her sister, and she doesn’t correct them. Later, she’ll tell her husband there wasn’t time. He: “It’s just one sentence.” Initially we think Zhihua is just too polite, but there’s more at work.
She leaves the reunion early but is followed out by Yin Chuan (Qin Hao), a struggling novelist scraping by in Shanghai. He talks to her, asks her out for tea, she begs off saying she’s got a long busride home. There, both Chenchen and her husband, Wentou (Du Jiang), are sitting in the living room looking at their cell phones. (I like that bit.) She goes to shower, her phone remains behind, and she soon receives a text from Yin Chuan proclaiming his love. Wentou sees it and he’s not happy. Even after Zhihua explains about the mistaken identity, he’s not happy. He winds up breaking her cell phone in anger.
In the days that follow, he continues to take it out on her in a passive-aggressive manner. He presents her with a new cell: a string phone with an Apple logo on the cups. (Chenchen, with all the tech in the world at his fingertips, is genuinely amazed at how it works—another good bit.) Wentou also brings home two big dogs; then he lets his mother stay with them. Zhihua feels like she’s being tortured. She says so much in letters she writes to Yin Chuan. Physical letters. She no longer has a phone, she’s worried about Wentou snooping on her computer, so she resorts to this pre-internet way of communication. It’s charming and fits the movie’s pace, which is leisurely and contemplative.
But there’s more to Zhihua's letter-writing than merely avoiding a digital footprint; there’s a backstory.
Back in middle school, the young Zhihua (also played by Zhang Zifeng of “Aftershock,” etc.) had a crush on Yin Chuan, who had a crush on her older sister, Zhilan (also played by Deng Enxi). Classic love triangle. Yin Chuan even writes letters to Zhilan but Zhihua doesn’t pass them on. She’s trying to win him for herself. Eventually she does pass them on, even as she declares her love for Yin Chuan; but it's not reciprocated. In not correcting the mistaken impression at the high school reunion, she was, in effect, doing what she always wanted to do: replace her more beautiful older sister.
But there’s backstory even Zhihua doesn’t know. Yin Chuan wound up helping Zhilan with her commencement speech (she was class valedictorian), and at university they became friends and possibly lovers. He lost her to—or she left him for—Zhang Chao (Hu Ge), with whom she started a family. But he was a bad drunk, a bad husband, a bad man. He beat her. Eventually he left. Meanwhile Yin Chuan wrote a novel about and named after the love of his life: “Zhilan.” He didn’t have her but he had that. And eventually she had that. We find out that later in life she clung to it, and to the old letters he wrote her, and the love he had for her. Mumu is the one who tells the adult Yin Chuan all of this. She also tells him her mother would’ve been better off with him.
All of which provides a kind of closure for Yin Chuan (who feels he’ll be able to write again), for Zhihua (who still has a muted crush on Yin Chuan), not to mention Mumu (whose mother, after all, chose death over her). Meanwhile, the wi-fi-loving Chenchen is not as shallow as we think. He winds up involved in desperate acts of escape: for a pet bird and for himself.
The last letter of the (English) title is the letter Zhilan wrote to her children, which we see in a drawer in the first act, and which is read in the third—to not much effect. On purpose? Maybe that’s the idea. There are no answers.
As for the suspensions of disbelief I mentioned in the lede?
The lesser is one of casting. You know the “Public Enemy” casting story? Initially Edward Woods was going to play the lead (Tom Powers), but they decided the second-billed James Cagney (as Matt) had more pizzazz, so they had them switch roles. But the childhood scenes had already been filmed, so the kid who’s a dead ringer for Cagney (Frankie Darro) grows up to be Edward Woods, while the tall slim boy (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) grows up to be the short, squat, pugnacious Cagney. So wrong.
We get a bit of that here. Zhang Zifeng, who plays both the younger Zhihua and Zhihua’s daughter, is fine but she’s no great beauty. She's the first face in the poster above. But the movie would have us believe she becomes Zhou Xun, one of the most beautiful women in the world. (The third face in the poster.) Indeed, when I first saw Mumu (second-to-last face in the poster), I assumed she was playing Zhou Xun’s daughter since they looked alike. Instead, she’s the niece, as well as a younger version of the older sister. All of which at least makes the mistaken identity at the high school reunion more plausible; but it's still so wrong it takes us out of the picture.
What else takes us out of the picture? This long-standing problem: The movie industry attracts beautiful people who then often want to play ordinary people living ordinary lives. It's the “Michelle Pfeiffer can't get a date” syndrome. Here, too. In “Last Letter,” we have to believe that Zhou Xun—again, one of the most beautiful women in the world—plays second fiddle to her more beautiful older sister. 真的吗？
After the reveals, a few questions remain. Yin Chuan claims he knew it was Zhihua at the reunion. If so, why the text message proclaiming his love? Was he teasing her? Testing her? And if Zhihua went to the reunion to see Yin Chuan, why turn down his offer of tea and conversation?
Another puzzle: “Last Letter” is Japanese writer-director Shunji Iwai’s first Chinese-language film, but he’s already filming a Japanese version, also called “Last Letter,” which will be out next year. I’ve never seen that before. Is it simply a remake? An improvement? Are the two versions a comment on the cultural differences between China and Japan? Or did he just want to take it home?
I might have to see it. I like the feeling this one left with me. I felt opened slightly, wiser slightly. I carried the movie’s delicate humanity with me as I left the theater.