SGIFF 2021 Review: ‘Yanagawa’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
With one dying of cancer and the other trapped in a dead-end marriage, a pair of brothers search for their long-lost childhood sweetheart.
Director: Zhang Lu
Cast: Ni Ni, Zhang Luyi, Xin Baiqing, Ikematsu Sosuke
Language: Mandarin, Japanese, English
Runtime: 127 mins
Acclaimed director Zhang Lu returns to the idyllic countryside with Yanagawa 《柳川》. The melancholic, slow-burning drama features spectacular visuals and an enchanting script but falters with far too many vagaries and unmemorable — but still solid — performances.
At a Japanese restaurant nestled within the busy streets of Beijing, Li Dong (Zhang Luyi) convinces his older brother Li Chun (Xin Baiqing) to travel together to the Japanese city of Yanagawa to find and catch up with their childhood sweetheart Liu Chuan (Ni Ni).
Both brothers are near polar opposites in terms of personalities and even their accents. Li Chun is pushy, impulsive and loud, while his younger brother is soft-spoken and stumbles to express his well of emotions. Where their lives meet are in their dire predicaments. Li Chun regrets his married life while Li Dong, unbeknownst to everyone else, is diagnosed with end-stage cancer.
The trio’s first meeting together is particularly memorable. The brothers drop by a bar while Li Chun is on the last verses of her performance on stage. Amidst applause, she approaches their table and pulls up a chair — the two decades removed between them and the bad memories that torn them apart dissipates in one motion. There are plenty of these simple yet absolutely magical moments throughout the film.
Yanagawa also succeeds in transposing their shared memories without ever reaching for flashbacks. Dialogues are written in a way that leaves much to the imagination, with more than enough pauses for scenic imageries to do so. So often the visual focus is pulled away from the characters as they explore the empty streets of Yanagawa, creating a dreamlike atmosphere where their memories have seemingly been etched onto the winding canals and towering greenery.
Still, perhaps the film’s most spellbinding quality is how it brings across the weight of the characters’ past memories. In between catching up and wrestling with their dormant feelings for each other, their conversations ultimately only orbit around a handful of events in their past. Yet, as the film beautifully demonstrates, it’s far from how much they shared as much as how much those seemingly tiny and forgettable moments mean to them.
This poignancy is further fuelled by Li Dong’s determination to leave nothing behind after his death — and how he fails to do so with the new memories created from this last trip.
Instead of allowing these emotions the room to be fully immersive, Yanagawa blunts them with an overdose of arthouse vagaries from the periphery. There are well-meaning detours from the trio’s trip down memory lane, such as the relationships struck between the locals and the Chinese that bring out a heartening universality to their experiences.
However, there are also several narrative threads that go absolutely nowhere. Mentions of the city being Yoko Ono’s hometown, for example, are plenty but feel misplaced and hardly add much to the core narrative. Similarly with a side plot about a missing daughter.
Despite their solid chemistry together, the cast leaves much to be desired. The characters are fantastically written, where so much of their emotions are only visible between their words — but also after some considerable squinting at the performances. Yanagawa revels in being understated and melancholic. However, characters can still feel stiff and robbed of emotions.
Filled with conversations of nostalgia and mortality, Yanagawa has a heart-tugging premise that is, frankly, such a slow-moving pitch that anything short of a spectacular home run will be disappointing. This, especially with the pedigree of all involved. Yanagawa definitely swings for the fences and nails all its emotional beats — but despite its excellent writing and evocative cinematography, the film still can’t escape the feeling that it underdelivered.
Yanagawa will make its Southeast Asian premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival 2021. Get your tickets now at: https://sgiff.com/films/yanagawa/