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)

Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Pang Ho-cheung, 2014)

“Love’s not a competition” the heroine of Pang Ho-cheung’s Mainland rom-com Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Sājiāo Nǚrén Zuìhǎo Mìng) snaps back, only according to almost everyone else that’s exactly what it is. Maintaining the slick, sophisticated atmosphere of his similarly themed Hong Kong comedies, Pang sheds his trademark salty humour but otherwise adopts the same mix of heartfelt silliness and acute social observation which have made his work so popular, neatly elevating the perhaps overly conventional narrative as two longterm best friends edge towards the realisation that they’ve been in love all along. 

Tomboyish Angie (Zhou Xun) has been carrying a torch for handsome Marco (Huang Xiaoming) since their uni days but owing to personal awkwardness and entrenched social codes feels she can’t make the first move and has been patiently waiting for Marco to get the message. He, however, keeps fobbing her off, claiming that he just wants to focus on his career etc even while she, ironically, keeps encouraging him to get a girlfriend. Angie gave up her dreams of becoming a sculptress to stay close to her man and the pair of them now work together in Shanghai as restaurant consultants, posing as regular guests to give restaurateurs the lowdown on where they’re going wrong with their customer service. Trouble brews when Marco drops the bombshell that he’s met someone, Hailey (Sonia Sui Tang), an extremely irritating airhead he bumped into on an airport transport shuttle during a business trip to Taipei which, to add insult to injury, Angie had actually sent him on. 

As expected, Angie is not happy about this development and turns to her friendship group who dub themselves the “Barbie Army” for help. The Barbie Army are firmly of the opinion that Hailey needs to go, not least so they can prove the superiority of Shanghai women over Taiwanese which they plan to do by showcasing their ability to flirt their way to success. Pang has great fun mocking entrenched societal gender codes, but does perhaps overdo it in the well developed cynicism of the Barbie Army who are all too happy to play along with society’s rules, roundly criticising Angie for her lifelong refusal to do so which is, they suggest, why Marco never got the memo. For his part, Marco reassures Hailey that he has no interest in Angie by referring to her as a “man” who “pees standing up”, later repeating the same logic to his guy friends who, unlike him, seem to be aware of Angie’s decade-long crush. 

With the aid the Barbie Army, Angie tries to play Hailey at her own game by perfecting the art of flirting, neatly flagging up that men are no better in her various dating app suitors who turn out to be either odd (makeup consultants for the recently deceased) or crass and chauvinistic (handsy middle-aged mansplainers). Unwilling to play the game, Angie walks out with a direct “I hate you”, only to be reminded by the Barbie Army that “I hate you” is a powerful tool if you learn to use it like a child. This is something the intensely annoying Hailey seems to have perfected to Marco’s satisfaction, a worrying confirmation that infantilisation is the key to “cute” and that what men want is a fawning fool who is helpless without them. 

Hailey is of course playing the game that Angie didn’t want to deign to play and largely doing it not out of love but of resentment. Marco out of earshot, she drops the cutesy voice and childish helplessness to tell Angie that she’s wasting her time, she can’t possibly win this battle of flirtations, though if Hailey was actually as secure as she made out perhaps she wouldn’t have needed to break cover and take on Angie in the first place. Nevertheless, Angie eventually comes to the conclusion that being a woman who flirts isn’t really for her, maybe she’s missed her chance and wasted too much time on a man who’s never going to notice. Meanwhile, Marco is having a series of parallel epiphanies in realising that women like Hailey are all about the game and she’ll soon enough by bored with him. His final declaration that he is in a way “gay” for Angie might be a little tone deaf not mention awkward in terms of its gender politics, but in its own way sweet as he comes to admit that he actually likes her for the “man” she is, acknowledging that the only reason he thought he wanted a “cute” girl was because he was afraid of real love. 

Completing the gender reversals, it’s Marco who has to change, Angie’s supposed tomboyishness given the seal of approval as she uses the spectre of romantic disappointment to become her true self, pursuing her abandoned dream of becoming a sculptress rather than being forced to conform to an idea of idealised femininity which is perhaps itself mocked in Hailey’s extreme affectation and the willing cynicism of the Barbie Army. Sweet and acutely observed, Women Who Flirt swaps Pang’s salty humour for biting cynicism but in the end comes down on the side of love as the hapless romantics flirt their way towards self-realisation. 


Women Who Flirt streams in the US Oct. 6 to 10 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Ann Hui, 2017)

our time will come posterFor Ann Hui, the personal has always been political, but in the war torn Hong Kong of the mid-1940s, it has never been more true. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu) was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai film festival though it was permitted a screening at a later date. At first glance it might be hard to see what might be objectionable in the story of the resistance movement against the Japanese, but given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to mainland China, there is an obvious subtext. Yet, at heart, Hui’s film is one of resilience and longing in which “see you after the victory” becomes a kind of talisman, both prayer and pleasantry, as the weary warriors prepare for a better future they themselves do not expect to see.

In 1942, school teacher “Miss Fong” Lan (Zhou Xun) lives with her mother (Deanie Ip), a landlady who rents out her upstairs room to none other than Lan’s favourite poet, Mao Dun (Guo Tao). Lan also has a boyfriend, Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), who proposes marriage to her and then announces his intention to leave town. Not really interested in marrying someone who is already leaving her, Lan ends things on a slightly sour note but her refusal is more than just practicality – she wants something more out of life than being an absent man’s wife. Mrs. Fong is an expert in finding out things she isn’t supposed to know (a true landlady skill) and so has figured out that her lodgers are looking to move on. Mao Dun is supposed to make contact with notorious rebel Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) who will guarantee passage out of Hong Kong for himself and his wife. Unfortunately, he is a little late and a Japanese spy turns up just at the wrong time. Luckily, Lau arrives and solves the problem but a sudden curfew means he can’t complete his mission – which is where Lan comes in. Lau entrusts the group of intellectuals to Lan, instructing her to guide them to a typhoon shelter where another contact will meet them.

This first brush with the business of rebellion provides the kind of excitement Lan has been looking for. Impressed with her handling of the mission, Lau returns and offers Lan a permanent place in his movement as part of a new urban cohort. Her life will be dangerous and difficult, but Lan does not need to think about it for very long. Her mother, ever vigilant, frets and worries, reminding her that this kind of work is “best left to men” but Lan is undeterred. Ironically enough, Lan has never felt more free than when resisting Japanese oppression with its nightly crawls accompanied by noisy drumming looking for the area’s vulnerable young girls. Mrs. Fong blows out the candles and moves away from the windows, but Lan can’t help leaning out for a closer look.

Hui keeps the acts of oppression largely off screen – the late night crawls are heard through the Fongs’ windows with Mrs. Fong’s worried but resigned reaction very much in focus. The schools have been closed and rationing is in full force, but most people are just trying to keep their heads down and survive. The local Japanese commander, Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase), is a figure of conflicted nobility who quotes Japanese poetry and has a rather world weary attitude to his difficult position but when he discovers he’s been betrayed by someone he regarded as a friend, the pain is personal, not political.

Yamaguchi tries and fails to generate an easy camaraderie with his colleague, but the atmosphere among the rebels is noticeably warm. Lan becomes a gifted soldier and strategist but she never loses her humanity – embracing wounded comrades and caring for the children who often carry their messages. When Lan discovers that someone close to her has been captured and is being held by the Japanese she enlists the help of Lau who is willing to do everything he can for her, but coming to the conclusion the mission is impossible Lan’s pain is palpable as she wrestles with the correct strategic decision of leaving her friends behind rather than compromise the entire operation. What exists between Lan and Lau is not exactly a “romance”, the times don’t quite permit it, but a deferred connection between two people with deep respect for each other and a knowledge that their mission is long and their lives short.

Hui bookends the film with a black and white framing sequence in which she also features interviewing survivors of the resistance movement including an elderly version of the young boy, Ben, who is still driving a taxi to get by even at his advanced age. Ben is a symbol of hidden everyday heroes from the pharmacists who treated wounded soldiers, and the old ladies who cooked and provided shelter, to the resistance fighters who risked their lives in more overt ways, who then went back to living ordinary lives “after the victory”. The film’s final images seem to imply that Hong Kong’s time has come, that perhaps the eras of being passed, mute, from one master to another may be nearing an end but the time is not yet at hand, all that remains is to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001)

BeijingBicycleThere are nine million bicycles in Beijing (going by the obviously very accurate source of a chart topping song) but there are 11.5 million inhabitants so that’s at least two million people who do not own a bike. Still, if you’re in the unlucky position of having your bike stolen by one of the aforementioned two million, your chances of finding it again are slim. Luckily for the protagonist of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车, Shí Qī Suì de Dānchē), he manages to track his down through sheer perseverance though even once he gets hold of it again his troubles are far from over.

A young guy from the country, Guei has lucked out with a good job at a bicycle courier company. Each of the new employees is given a new, high-tech bicycle which they will eventually own after working off the cost through a 20/80 salary split and once the bike is theirs they’ll be on an even better 50/50 pay rate. This is a dream job for Guei and he’s pretty good at it – he’s nearly paid for the bike in under a month. However, after being messed about by a hotel reception desk which keeps him hanging around longer than usual, he emerges to find his bike no longer waiting for him.

The vehicle turns up in the hands of another boy of a similar age but very different background. Jian is a lower middle-class boy at a posh school where most of his classmates are considerably better off than he is and it seems to get to him. Jian’s father has been promising to buy him a bicycle for years but something always comes up and now it’s that his little sister got into a better school so they need the money for her fees. Resentfully, Jian gets himself a bike to hang out with his posh friends through other means and generally continues to be a little shit about it.

Quite obviously inspired by De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Theives, Beijing Bicycle doesn’t quite have that movie’s harsh sentimentalism but goes about as far as Wang could take a similar message and still get around China’s frighteningly tight censorship regulations. Guei does everything right – well, almost everything, he gets so upset about losing his bike that he forgets to deliver his final package which is what gets him fired from the delivery firm (they didn’t really mind about the bicycle anyway). He offers to find the bike and bring it back and is promised a second chance if he can actually beat the odds and track it down but his boss doesn’t seriously expect to see him again. Guei needs the bike to live, he can’t work without it and this was about the best job he’s likely to get in the bustling metropolis of Beijing without qualifications or family connections.

On the other hand, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathise with Jian and his petty squabbles with his very reasonable father and attempts to blend in with the equally awful group of thuggish rich boys from school. Of course, it’s all about a girl really – somehow he thinks she’d care about him having a bicycle (she wouldn’t) and luckily said girl is too sensible to hang out with someone who’d beat up some poor kid and take away his only way of supporting himself just because he could. Yes, he’s a young man and he’s angry so he’s doing stupid teenage boy stuff but he’s ruining lives in the process and desperately needs someone to explain to him about the world not being fair.

Guei eventually steals back his bike, only for Jian’s mates to beat him up and take it again. Guei doesn’t give up though and eventually the two end up sharing the bike even though Jian only uses it for swanning around and trying to impress a girl who isn’t interested in him. Needless to say it all ends quite badly. Jian gets Guei into even more trouble that he didn’t ask for and both boys end up losing out both ways. As in De Sica’s film, society turns us all into bicycle thieves whether we wanted to be or not. The boys are both chasing an unattainable dream but they’re doing it from very different places and though both are arguably at a disadvantage boys like Guei will always lose out to cowardly thugs with muscle like Jian.

Nicely filmed in a modern indie, neo-realist inspired style Beijing Bicycle does suffer a little with its lengthy running time especially as the tussle over the bicycle itself turns into a repetitious saga in which you just want someone to give Guei back his bicycle and have done with it. Nevertheless, having said that it actually does quite a lot with an economical script though Zhou Xun’s virtual walk on of a cameo as the glamorous neighbour feels a little underdeveloped even if it pays off in the second half of the film. A sadly realistic tale of a very unlucky boy who just wants to get on and works hard to get there only to come up against cowards and thugs with money Beijing Bicycle does what it can do to highlight the unfairness inherent in the post-communist world.


Beijing Bicycle was previously released by Tartan in the UK and is currently available to stream via Amazon. In the US it’s currently available on DVD through Sony Pictures Classic.

Watched via Mubi.