Movie Review: Last Letter (ラストレター)

There aren’t many directors who have had the opportunity, or perhaps it’s just the desire they haven’t had, to remake their own films. Alfred Hitchcock did it with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934 and 1956). The noted director nearly doubled the film’s running time, shifted one of the locations, tweaked a few other details and, of course, shot the remake in colour. The consensus is that while his first effort made for a darned good film, the second is even better. Cecil B. DeMille also did it with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923 and 1956). Like Hitchcock, DeMille wanted to take advantage of the technology that wasn’t available the first time around. (Both remakes were shot in VistaVision, which was introduced in 1954.) As with Hitchcock’s remake, the 1956 version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is a whopping 84 minutes longer than the original. I think everyone agrees, though, that the remake is the better film. (There are more examples than just these two.)

Multi-talented and acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai/岩井俊二 (LOVE LETTER) has also done it with his film, LAST LETTER. Unlike the examples given above, though, there isn’t much that’s different between this remake and the original other than the language, location and a couple of minor details. Iwai’s 2018 LAST LETTER was set in Shanghai using Chinese actors. This time, he’s back in his native Japan using Japanese actors including Takako Matsu/松たか子, who worked with him on his 1998 film, APRIL STORY, and SHIN GODZILLA and the EVANGELION franchise filmmaker and animator Hideaki Anno/庵野秀明, who directed Iwai in his own 2000 film, SHIKI-JITSU/式日. One has to wonder why a Japanese filmmaker would make a Chinese version of his film before doing one in his own language and culture, and my only guess is that he got Chinese funding for the project first. Whatever the reason, if you’ve seen the first LAST LETTER, there’s no reason to see this one. Even the dialogue is almost identical.

But if you haven’t, here’s what LAST LETTER is about. Yuri Kishibeno (Matsu) is a happily married, mother of two, librarian in Sendai. As the film opens, she’s attending the funeral of her older sister Misaki, in their quiet hometown located not far away from the big city. The same day, an invitation arrives for Misaki to attend her high school reunion (it would be the 28th anniversary of the class’ graduation unless we assume that the story is taking place in 2017), so Yuri decides to attend so that she can let everyone know that her sister has died. Strangely, everyone at the reunion mistakes Yuri for Misaki (who doesn’t even look like her!) and Yuri can’t bring herself to set them straight. When she leaves the event, former classmate Kyoshiro Otosaka (Masaharu Fukuyama/福山雅治) follows “Misaki” and tries to renew his friendship with her. It’s clear to Yuri that Kyoshiro was/is in love with her sister so she plays along hoping to learn more about Misaki, with whom she was estranged for many years. The two begin texting each other but after Yuri’s husband, Sojiro (Anno), finds out about it, Yuri resorts to old fashioned snail mail to continue her ruse. Kyoshiro, though, doesn’t know where “Misaki” lives so he sends his letters to her parents’ house where Misaki’s teenage daughter, Ayumi/young Misaki Tohno (Suzu Hirose/広瀬すず), finds them. Along with Yuri’s own teenage daughter, Soyoka/young Yuri Tohno (Nana Mori/森七菜), who has decided to spend the summer with her cousin and grandparents, Ayumi replies to Kyoshiro posing as Misaki as well. As Kyoshiro pours his heart out to his high school flame, the film flashes back to 1992 when a young Kyoshiro (27-year-old actor Ryunosuke Kamiki/神木隆之介) meets both Misaki and her younger sister, Yuri.

There are three movies here – a farce, a family comedy, and a tale of reminiscence and love lost – and Iwai alternates between the first two until he settles on the third. In the process, characters are introduced and get sidelined as the story shifts its focus to the events at the high school. What we’re left with is a typically soppy, Japanese puppy love romance featuring cherubic adult actors playing teenagers. The film’s third act really goes off the rails when Kyoshiro decides to pay a visit to Misaki’s ex-husband Ato (Etsushi Toyokawa/豊川悦司), whose life after graduation turned out to be even less successful than Kyoshiro’s.

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why Iwai made the exact same film twice. The story’s whole conceit is not just ridiculous, it’s cruel as well. Yet, Kyoshiro is such a doormat that he doesn’t seem to mind that he was made a fool of not just by Yuri but by Ayumi as well. (How did he not notice that Yuri and Ayumi have different handwriting?) Iwai, though, wants us to look past all that and shed a tear over what could have been. Sorry, Charlie, not me. This LETTER is going in the shredder.

LAST LETTER opens in Hong Kong today. This one’s only for people who are desperate to go back to the cinema and will see anything.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, September 4th, 8:30 am HK time!

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