Last Letter (你好,之华, Shunji Iwai, 2018)

“Anything we need to change?” asks a young woman looking for feedback on a speech, “Nothing. It’s fine” her mentor replies in an exchange which takes on a peculiar poignancy, hinting at a gentle accommodation with the ordinary tragedies of life which is perhaps itself the hallmark of director Shunji Iwai’s career. Adapting his own novel and calling back to his 1995 masterpiece Love Letter, Iwai makes his first foray into Sinophone cinema with the Peter Chan-produced Last Letter (你好,之华, Nǐhǎo Zhīhuā) taking his key concerns with him as a collection of lovelorn souls ponder the what ifs of romantic misconnections and the “limitless possibilities” of youth. 

In the present day, the now middle-aged Zhihua (Zhou Xun) attends the funeral of her elder sister, mother of two Zhinan, who sadly took her own life though the family have been telling people she died of an illness which is in a sense not exactly untrue. Zhinan left behind her only two things, a letter to her children daughter Mumu (Deng Enxi) and son Chen Chen (Hu Changling), and an invitation to the 30-year reunion for her middle school class. Attending the reunion with the intention of letting everyone know that her sister has passed away, Zhihua is mistaken for Zhinan and ends up going along with it, even reconnecting with a teenage crush, Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) now an unsuccessful novelist, for whom she became an unfaithful go-between charged with delivering his love letters to the sister she feared was always prettier and cleverer than she was. After her husband, Zhou (Du Jiang), destroys her phone in a jealous rage, Zhihua finds herself ironically mirroring her teenage years in continuing a one-sided correspondence with her first love in the guise of her sister.  

As in Love Letter the older protagonists find themselves trapped in a nostalgic past, Yin Chuan complaining that he’s stuck with memories of Zhinan, the subject of his first novel, leaving him with perpetual writer’s block. Like misdirected letters the past is filled with missed opportunities and painful misunderstandings, but then again there are no guarantees that it would have been different if only the message had made it home. Little Zhihua (Zhang Zifeng in a double role), chastened to have been discovered frustrating Yin Chuan’s teenage attempts at romancing her sister (doubled by Deng Enxi) by not delivering the letters, plucks up the courage to write one of her own but finds it rejected while as her adult self is perhaps engaging in a little self delusion little realising that Yin Chuan may have already seen through her ruse but is as intent on attempting to communicate with the past in the form of her departed sister as she is. 

Perhaps slightly unfulfilled if not exactly unhappy (husband’s unexpected act of violence aside), Zhihua ponders lost love while attempting to come to terms with her sister’s death, denied an explanation for her apparently abrupt decision to run off with a rough man with no family who turned out to be a violent drunk exorcising his class resentment by beating up an educated, middle-class woman. Mumu, meanwhile, afraid to read her mother’s last letter, engages in a little epistolatory deception of her own, accidentally causing confusion in also replying to Yin Chuan’s letters posing as her mother when he tries writing to her old address with fond memories of their youth. “Life is not something you can write on a whim” he’s reminded, and it’s true enough that, as echoed in the poignant graduation speech, some will achieve their dreams and others won’t. Those limitless possibilities of youth don’t last forever, life doesn’t obey the rules of narrative destiny and you don’t always get a happy ending or in fact an ending at all. 

Yet unlike Love Letter, the man and the letter eventually arrive at the correct destination if much later than intended. The message reaches those it is intended to and a kind of closure comes with it. Mirroring her teenage self, Zhihua finds herself a go-between once again, passing letters between her lonely mother-in-law and her former professor whom she’s been secretly meeting in a local park, while reflecting on her own role as perpetual bystander not quite destined for the position of protagonist. As she had her daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) struggles with a nascent crush preferring to stay with grandma and keen to avoid going back to school in order not to have to face him, while Mumu attempts to deal both with the loss of her mother and with her legacy as a figure of romantic tragedy. Little Chen Chen is sadly forgotten, putting a brave face on grief and largely left to get on with it on his own until forced to face his sense of rootlessness as an orphaned child wondering if the world still has a place for him to call home. Shot with Iwai’s customarily lush, wandering camera filled with a sense of painful melancholy, the lasting message is nevertheless one of accommodation with life’s disappointments that even in moments of despair and hopelessness lack of resolution can also spark possibility and the memory of those “wonderful choices” of youth need not foreground their absence so much as sustain.


Last Letter streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Whistleblower (吹哨人, Xue Xiaolu, 2019)

Whistleblower poster 2One of the many ironies of an intensely authoritarian system which prizes the self-criticism as a means of enforcing discipline is that whistleblowing, as opposed to “informing” on individuals, is not only frowned upon but actively dangerous. It is, after all, suggesting the Party may have made errors in judgement which have gone on to become systemic. It’s not surprising that the Party would not like to have them pointed out. Nevertheless, in these new times in which anti-corruption has become a minor buzzword, whistleblowing has been re-designated as a public service, though perhaps in not so much different a way as “informing” was in the old days and probably it very much depends on who and what one wishes to blow the whistle.

This the earnest hero of Xue Xiaolu’s The Whistleblower (吹哨人, Chuīshàorén) finds out to his cost when he is unwittingly alerted to a possible conspiracy and entrenched corruption among his co-workers. Mainland-born Mark (Lei Jiayin) works for a top Australian energy company keen to do business with China, though as they keep reminding him he is one of only two Chinese members of personnel, the other being the mysterious Peter (Wang Ce) whose unexpected absence is the reason Mark has been sent on a swanky but possibly illegal jolly to a resort to charm a delegation from a Chinese coal company. Two things immediately go wrong for him – the wife of the company’s (absent) CEO turns out to be his long lost first love Siliang (Tang Wei) who broke up with him because she wanted someone richer, and Peter turns up to the party in a dishevelled state to shout at him about something that happened in uni, which later turns out to be a coded clue to “check the gate”.

Needless to say, Siliang who seems to be in the middle of trying to break up with her husband, and Mark, who is married with a young son, “reconnect” before she dutifully runs off to a catch a plane which later crashes killing everyone on board. Peter is then found dead of an apparent insulin overdose, but even if he’s suspicious Mark doesn’t think much of it until he realises Siliang is still alive and on the run from her corrupt CEO husband who is apparently trying to have her killed because she knows too much about his dodgy dealings.

The Whistleblower tries to have it both ways in insisting that Siliang is simultaneously a greedy, ruthless, criminal mastermind, and such useless lady of the manor sort that she doesn’t know you can’t put metal in the microwave and is a terrible getaway driver because she’s always had chauffeurs. We’re told that she broke up with Mark because of his lack of materialism, marrying a top CEO for wealth and status and helping him conduct bad faith business by managing his bribes, but may now be conflicted – not only because her husband is trying to kill her, but because she’s realised her mistake and is attracted to Mark’s untarnished innocence. Her taste for corruption was, however, a moralistic one in that she would apparently never have condoned bribery if she knew that the technology really was unsafe and posed a threat to ordinary Chinese people.

It might be telling in one sense that this battle is being fought in Africa meaning that whatever problems there are with this innovative pipeline system are uncomfortably being worked out among less powerful people far away from either the Australian energy giant or the complicit Chinese coal company looking for new paths forward. The central implication, however, is that this kind of corruption is an element of Western imperialism rather than homegrown. The villains are the bigwigs at the Australian conglomerate, one of whom speaks fluent Mandarin but is apparently not much of a friend of China. Mark tries to expose them, turning against a company which is always keen to remind him that he is a foreigner (Australian PR pending), only to find himself at the centre of a smear campaign which seems like it would play much better on the Mainland, chased by thugs, and targeted for elimination.

The message that Mark gets, looking on with hope at a bright red sign reading “rebuild your life”, is come home – don’t do business with corrupt foreigners, help make China great again. A series of textual explanations appended to the film’s conclusion attempt to explain the word “whistleblower” to an audience that might not be familiar with it, pointing out that most developed nations have instituted legislation to protect those who attempt to expose illicit business practices but that China is lagging a little behind though it too apparently introduced legal protections in 2016 as part of its intensive drive to reduce corruption among petty officials. Mark has done the “right” thing, and he’s paid a price for it, but, the film says, his is the example to be followed in standing up to oppressive global corporate corruption which will eventually imperil the ordinary men and women of China if consumerist zeal wins out over national integrity.


The Whistleblower opens in selected UK cinemas on 6th December courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to compete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents’ love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)