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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Love Letter  


Love Letter

Reviewed by Christina Ng

Director: Iwai Shunji
Screenplay: Iwai Shunji
Cast: Nakayama Miho, Toyokawa Etsushi, Sakai Miki, Kashiwabara Takashi
Genre: Drama, romance
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Year Released: 1995
Runtime: 117 min

Lovers live in a mixed-up world of the past and the present, embroiled helplessly within the two, often without knowing when, why and how they were pulled deeper and deeper into the disturbing swirls.

The Japanese movie Love Letter (aka When I Close My Eyes) is a bittersweet tale of two girls, Hiroko and Itsuki (both played by Miho Nakayama), who have never met, but fates coincidentally intertwined by a man they both love and lost at different junctures of their life.

Opening scene: Hiroko Watanabe has just returned from her fiance’s funeral anniversary. Her fiance lost his life during a mountain expedition three years ago. The quiet Hiroko clung tightly onto memories of her fiance, whereas a boisterous lot of people present at the funeral were drinking profusely in a mood akin to any celebrative occasion, seemingly accepting their loss of three years ago. Time is a good healer, all tears can gradually drip dry with time, maybe leaving just a dried up imprint on the heart.

At her fiance’s house, she accidentally came across his high school magazine and found an address under his name. Thinking that the address belonged to the place that he once lived, she wrote a letter to the address —"How are you? I am fine."

Surprisingly, she received a letter in return and slowly came to realize that the address belonged to a girl who shared the same name, Itsuki, with her fiance!

This letter acted as a stimulus that kept the movie rolling on in a mysterious direction, unraveling bit by bit, bittersweet memories hidden away by the girls. The two girls, Itsuki and Hiroko, who happen to look exactly alike, later became pen pals. Hiroko wished to know more about her fiance’s life in high school while Itsuki, when sharing her memories of high school with Hiroko, unknowingly fell back into the past that she had shoved away in the haste of growing up.

Throughout the film, each girl traveled through her own time tunnel, bringing light to each other’s darkness that was left unattended.

Slowly, the movie begins a journey of deconstructing and reconstructing memories, identity recovered and fragmented, unraveling the past and linking it up with the present. You are brought back to the schooldays of the two "Itsuki and their ambiguous friendship, and then returned to the present Hiroko and her love for the gone Itsuki.

Even though the film travels to and fro between the past and present, confusion is minimal amidst all the twirls and detours, for everything flows readily into a sequence eventually. You realize that after all, they are all linked together, no matter how bizarre everything seems to be at first.

Miho Nakayama, the female lead, tugs softly at your heartstrings with her sensitive portrayal of the two girls who share the same name but are of totally different characters (one is introverted and shy, the other strong and passionate). She, none too extreme or exaggerated, handles the different mix of emotions delicately.

What comes as a sweet surprise is that the movie actually comes from a male director, Shunji Iwai. Also the scriptwriter, he shows great sensitivity to the emotional nuances of the female leads, depicting the characters with a touch that is both gentle and understanding.

Many other sub-themes are explored under the big umbrella theme of love. Other than the sweet innocent love that is shared by both female leads with the male lead, there is also unrequited love: the male Itsuki’s friend, Shigeru (Etsushi Toyokawa) towards Hiroko.

Family love, friendship love, a love for life are lightly touched upon and manifested with reminisce. Reminisce serves as one of the most prevalent linkages between disparate characters throughout the film, and also serves as a tool for uncovering the buried emotions of the characters.

Towards the end of the movie, the female Itsuki came down with a heavy fever on a snowy night. The night is freezing, the girl’s head is burning but the distance is depressing. Time is obviously scarce and the family decides that the best way is to get Itsuki speedily to hospital for her life will not wait. In the end, the anxious grandfather carried Itsuki on his back and ran all the way to the hospital in the heavy snow in order to save her.

This brought back memories of Itsuki’s father who died of pneumonia, the simple reason being Itsuki’s grandfather not being able to reach the hospital timely enough to save his son. History now repeats itself with Itsuki.

Little known to the grandfather, Itsuki’s mother had always resented Grandfather all these years for her husband’s death. It was now during this unwanted playback that Mother’s resentment was resolved and an understanding reached between the two. History, although painful, has a way of teaching the present a simple lesson of letting go.

The movie is a jigsaw puzzle of seemingly different events lost and found in the river of time, eventually pieced together with the higher hands of synchronicity. The characters travel along a journey of reminisce and the present, back and forth, leaving and returning and never having actually departed at all, coming back to where they have started off with a new found understanding.

All these are portrayed through unsettling notions of multiple identities, memory and parallel lives (Itsuki and Hiroko), which reminds you of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s "Double Life of Veronique".

The music weaves sentimentally around the movie, calling up from your memories Mahler, Ravel, Bach and Gashing. No theme song is written for the movie but light melancholic remedies composed by Remedios. Music that is lost in the space of time, healing any pain that you may be carrying throughout your journey, in the world of the movie with the characters, in your own world as well.

Quietly beautiful and endearing, Love Letter will create quite a stir in your heart and recover those untouched memories that were shuffled away, that you thought was lost forever. Redemption is found without purposefully seeking it; for everything, comes into light with time.