By Laksiri Fernando –
Dr. Laksiri Fernando
This Chinese drama-film written and directed by Shunji Iwai (a Japanese), reminds me of Rukmani Devi sung song, Adarayai Karunawi (love and affection) in S. K. Ojha’s Sinhala film (1959), based on W. A. Silva’s Daiwayogaya (1936). There is a love-triangle or split-love, but quite ironic and hilarious in this case. Both the background and the message are also modern in ‘Last Letter’ unlike in Daiwayogaya (meaning Fate). The connection perhaps is the deep-seated beliefs in Asian cultures and societies about fate and irony. The film is produced by Peter Chan, particularly for a modern Chinese audience with humor and comedy.
The story unfolds in modern China, in 2018 to be exact, but going back to a generation of 30 years behind, and even beyond. The symbols of modern China in the film are Mumu, Saran and Chenchen. They are largely rational, easy going and fun loving youngsters, but I cannot say that is the case of all millennials in China. That is perhaps not the message of the Director either. Chenchen is also different to Mumu or Saran, grumpy and introvert.
Mumu’s mother, Zhinan has committed suicide and the ‘old generation’ hide the fact. They pretend that she died of terrible illness, but Mumu has nothing to hide or to be ashamed of mothers suicide. Why did she commit suicide? That is the story. The story is related mainly through the character of Zhinan’s sister Zhihua, quite a smart, discreet, carefree but a sensitive sole. She is rather a ‘cheater’ in her middle school days, or even now, but on the question of love. I am not saying this is an Asian character, even after seeing similar cheating in the Indian (Hindi) film ‘Lunch Box’ (2013)!
After her sister’s funeral, Zhihua decides to attend the school reunion of sister’s batch mates, meeting after 30 years. She apparently wants to tell them her loving sister has passed away. All mistake her for Zhinan, and invites her to speak as she was the acclaimed ‘goddess’ of the batch. Zhihua pretends, but uneasily. After the event, she meets Yin Chuan who always aspired her sister Zhinan and they exchange contacts on WeChat.
Zhihua is now married with a daughter named Saran. That cannot however be an obstacle for little cheating! It is justified because she actually loved Yin, although Yin instead loved her sister Zhinan. That was the love-triangle during the middle-school days. After she came home after the reunion party, there was a message from Yin: ‘I have always liked you,’ which is seen by Zhihua’s husband. There were lot of explaining to be done, but her mobile phone is smashed by the husband.
This does not stop Zhihua’s enjoyment or fun. She goes back to traditional messaging through letters, instead of modern technology. She also informs Yin that her husband is a computer expert and he can intercept their messages or hack. But she does not know that the letters are also intercepted by the new generation, Saran and Mumu. Saran does not know the replies sent by Yin are to her mother, because they are addressed to the deceased aunty, or Mumu’s mother, Zhinan.
There is a flashback to the middle-school love triangle. Zhihua approaches Yin, but no positive response. After realizing that Yin likes her elder sister Zhinan, she agrees to be the ‘go between.’ Instead of giving Yin’s letters to Zhinan, she writes back declining the love. The episodes are wonderfully hilarious.
Present day Zhihua, now again cheating, does not know that Yin and Zhinan had met at the same university later, and have had an intimate love affair for some years. That had been tragic and fateful, another man dragging her away. Yin has written a novel based on the story, and even had won a prize for that. It is not that he has now completely mistaken Zhihua for Zhinan, but allows the discreet to go on, enjoying himself of the irony as a writer. He is planning another book!
Living in Shanghai after graduation, Yin was unaware Zhinan’s marriage to a drunkard and a brute, Zhang Chao. He had left Zhinan with two kids now for some time. Yin feels guilty now. That is another story within the story. The main story unfolds in a remote Chinese town/city and those who want to know about culture, mannerisms and housing conditions in some parts of China this is a good film to watch, although everything may not be representative. I thought these are very much similar to Japan. Almost in every house there is a small space for the deceased, and in this case Zhinan’s ashes are placed in a ceramic pot. There are then joss sticks. Many also preserve important letters in shoe boxes.
Even in modern Chinese society, the old are well respected but the new generation do not have any hesitation to sneak into their affairs. Chenchen finds his ‘grandmother’ meeting with an old man secretly! But finally it reveals, it is perhaps to learn English from Professor Hu. Love for learning is appreciated in society.
Yin now investigates the secrets of the unknown story, meets the new generation of Mumu and Saran and also meets Chao, the husband who abandoned Zhinan. Chao is with a new woman, but the behavior is the same. Most heartrending is the story he unfolds to Yin – his disturbed childhood in poverty, unsuccessful education and career, and unmatched marriage to Zhinan. This shows that everything for the people in China is not hunky-dory today, not yet. There is poverty.
Fate or Daiwayogaya
This film is perhaps written and directed strongly believing in fate. Another motivation could be the irony of life, both happy and sad. Although the English title of the film refers to the ‘Last Letter’ the Chinese title is ‘Hello, Zhihua’ or ‘Ni hao Zhihua’ (你好 之华 ). Perhaps the English title is more appropriate as it has a message. It is similar to Adarayai Karunawai (love and affection).
I found the Sinhala lyrics of Rukmani Devi song thanks to sumel.com and an appropriate translation of the first verse might be:
“Love and affection, loyalty to husband, pains my heart. A stream of sorrow, turning into a river of anxiety, looks for the ocean of remorse.”
The verse is really like reading the mind of Zhihua at the end. The message in the actual last letter of Zhinan to Mumu (daughter) and Chenchen (son) however is more positive. It says something of the following: “Future of everyone brings limitless possibilities. Some achieve them and some don’t. We all are equal in our dreams and passion. Don’t repent too much.”
(This review is thanks to SBS World Movies, Australia)