Love, fear and revulsion are some of the feelings movies are particularly adept at conjuring, but grief is much more elusive because it's so private. How do you evoke the inner life of a solitary mourner mutely contemplating the world from behind an emotional shroud?
Love Letter, the feature film debut of the Japanese director Shunji Iwai offers an intriguing narrative platform from which to experience the sadness of its bereft central character, Hiroko Watanabe (Miho Nakayama).
The film begins at a memorial service two years after the death of her fiance in a mountaineering accident. After the ceremony, Hiroko, who lives in Kobe, discovers her lover's high-school yearbook while sorting through his belongings. Finding what she assumes is his old address in the back, she impulsively writes him a letter and mails it, as though she were sending a note to heaven, without expecting an answer.
In a stunning coincidence the letter is delivered to a young woman, Itsuki Fujii, who not only has the same name as her dead lover but was in his high school class in Otaru, a town in northern Japan. A correspondence that begins tentatively intensifies when Itsuki, at Hiroko's request, begins raking her mind for memories of the classmate with whom she was continually confused because they shared the same name.
As old memories are awakened, the movie flashes back to scenes of the pranks played by classmates on the two Itsukis, who developed a secret bond even while professing to resent each other for having the same name and being tormented for it. When they worked side by side in the school library, the male Itsuki (Takashi Kashiwabara) played a hide-and-seek game involving library cards and hidden books that a younger generation of students working in the same library has discovered and elevated into a kind of school myth.
Directed by: Love Letter
Starring: Miho Nakayama (Hiroko Watanabe/Itsuki Fujii), Etsushi Toyokawa (Shigeru Akiba), Takashi Kashiwabara (male Itsuki Fujii)
Running time: 116 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today (chinese, no english)
Adding metaphorical richness to the movie, which at moments recalls Krzysztof Kieslowski's Double Life of Veronique, is the fact that Nakayama plays both Hiroko and the grown-up Itsuki, who turn out to have a twinlike physical resemblance, although their personalities are very
Itsuki, moreover, has also suffered a loss. Not long ago, her father died of pneumonia on the way to the hospital. And Itsuki, who when first glimpsed is suffering from a bad cold, has nightmares that she too will be suddenly stricken. Eventually Hiroko and her fiance's best friend, Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa), who is in love with her and wants to marry her, travel to Otaru. Akiba hopes that Hiroko, by meeting her correspondent, can shake off the ghosts of the past and begin loving him.
Love Letter swirls with unsettling notions of multiple identity, memory and parallel lives. But they never quite mesh into a fully realized concept of the characters' lives and how they intersect. With a running time of nearly two hours, the film sometimes meanders so fitfully that it loses its narrative drive.
Nor does it find visual images compelling enough to give its scenario a metaphorical underlining. For those you would have to turn to another Japanese film, Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1996 work, Maborosi. In that extraordinarily atmospheric and emotionally wrenching movie, every particle of light and air is charged with sadness.