A melancholy Chinese romance of love-unconfessed and much else left unsaid, writer-director Luyi Zhang’s “Yanagawa” takes its title from its Japanese setting. But that title, like the film’s “love triangle that might be a quadrangle,” is somewhat ironic.
The canal-laced seaside city described as “The Venice of Japan” didn’t dazzle the director of “The Quiet Dream.” He sees what we see — a quiet, working class water town that just happens to have sturdy, workboat-style gondolas poled by gondoliers through a water world more like Thailand than the Italian coast.
And memories of teenaged crushes don’t stand up to the film’s scrutiny as we hang out with two brothers who follow that girl who left them and Beijing behind twenty years before to this Rising Sun Venice.
We meet Li Dong (Luyi Zhang) just as he’s breaking Chinese custom and decorum, bumming a smoke off a lady outside of the Beijing U. hospital, over-sharing by admitting he’s just learned he has “Cancer, stage four” which chases her away in a flash.
That’s almost the last big “share” that Li Dong undertakes as the introvert in this quiet drama. He doesn’t tell his arrogant, boorish brother, Li Chun (Bai Qing Xin), even over drinks.
Married-and-over-it Li Chun is a bit of a bully, and a conversation hog. He wonders what’s up with his brother, who deflects by deciding that the house he inherited from their task-master dad should go to the Li Chun and his family.
They’re a family that is only comfortable leaving things unsaid and leaving out details of this “inheritance” and reasons for it. Any complaints they have about each other, the culture and the world are answered with their father’s pet expression — “Whatever happened to morality?”
Speaking of that, Li Dong says, we should go away for a few days, head over to Yanagawa to see the sights and see if they can locate the lovely Liu Chuan, whom the never-married Li Dong has been hunting down and pining for.
She’s a singer there. And whatever crush he and his brother shared over her 20 years before, he’s wondering if she might have been the only girl he ever loved.
To this end, Li Dong has learned Japanese. Li Chun sets the tone for their trip by marveling at this, and ridiculing it. His constant put-downs betray his insecurity. And matters only get worse when they go into the bar where Chuan sings breathy, wistful torch songs to the somewhat appreciative Japanese audience.
Perhaps the audience is there for the same reason as the brothers. Liu Chuan (Ni Ni) is a long-haired beauty in her late ’30s, never married and trilingual since she spent time in London and settled in Japan. She finishes a tune, walks up to their table and sits down as if they never parted.
A dynamic is re-established. Nerdy Dong is mostly silent, save for the odd shy remark about how things were (at least in his imagination) when they were younger. Chun dominates the conversation, openly comes-on and flirts, married-or-not, a cocky, self-assured vulgarian whom Liu Chuan either indulges in the most coarse way, or brushes off.
Chun flirts with xenophobia, mocking all things Japanese and any Japanese customs his brother or the woman he still calls “Chuan’er” abide by. The world knows a stereotypical Japanese tourist and the classic “ugly American” image abroad. Chun is a modern traveling stereotype himself, a brash Chinese blow-hard.
Dong just tries to stay in the conversation and not give away his morbid secret.
And if that’s not romantically complicated enough, the Japanese landlord who rents the siblings a room (Sôsuke Ikematsu) also has a crush on Chuan, but even he has trouble expressing that as they converse in his second language, her third — English.
Lu Zahng, few of whose films (“Chingqing” and “Scenery”) have played in North America, doesn’t deliver much in the way of big emotions or major revelations here.
“I really like you” (in subtitled Mandarin “Pekingese” or Japanese, or English) is about as open as these crazy repressed Asians get.
There’s a bit going on beneath the surface, and perhaps more going on with Liu Chuan than either of the three men pursuing her pick up on.
Is she sleeping around? Is she even interested in any of them?
That’s not altogether clear, nor is the fact that Chuan realizes she’s met the teen daughter of her youngest suitor, Nakayama (Ikematsu).
So much is left hanging, unsaid or unresolved, even in the finale.
But “Yangawa” still makes for a fascinating Asian variation of cultures and ideas of love and romance in collision, even if it’s no “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
Rating: unrated, adult situations
Cast: Ni Ni, Luyi Zhang, Bai Qing Xin and Sôsuke Ikematsu
Credits: Scripted and directed by Lu Zhang. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:52