Directed by: Zhang Lu
Distributed by: Film Movement
Written by Michael Clawson
Brothers Li Dong and Li Chun (Zhang Liuyi and Xin Baiqing) are sitting in a Japanese restaurant in Beijing when they decide to visit Yanagawa, a tranquil Japanese village whose intricate network of waterways has earned it the nickname “the Venice of Japan.” The siblings plan the trip spontaneously, as they have just learned that Yanagawa is where A-chuan (Ni Ni), their long-lost childhood friend and crush, now lives and works as a singer in a café. Later, Dong and Chun discover that A-chuan moved to Yanagawa after years spent in London (her British accent emerges when she speaks in English). Such geographic particulars are essential to Zhang Lu’s lyrical, immaculately crafted drama, which subtly explores its character’s past and present stations in life through a prism of multicultural influence.
You might call “Yanagawa” a walk-and-talk, since that really is all that happens plot-wise outside of brief dramatic events in the film’s opening and closing stretches (the movie opens with Dong discovering that he has stage four cancer, something he chooses not to disclose to either his brother or A-chuan). Drift-and-talk doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that phrase better reflects how Zhang allows his film to unfold: as Dong, Chun, and A-chuan meander about the eponymous village on foot and by boat, turning over memories as they go, Zhang’s camera roams around and towards the characters with exquisite grace and control, lending the simplest of exchanges a remarkable sense of weight. The narrative can be befuddling, since Zhang links scenes together based on poetic flow rather than chronological cause-and-effect. But for the viewer that can submit to its languid, slippery form, “Yanagawa” holds an abundance of serenely beautiful rewards.
Dong’s cancer diagnosis casts a melancholic shadow over his and his brother’s time with A-chuan, but Zhang never lets the mood drift into excessive dreariness. Levity emerges with ease in otherwise hushed moments of intimacy, such as when Dong tries to tell a joke to some locals, only to forget the joke at the last second (one of the locals finds that hilarious). The bit playfully ties in with “Yanagawa’s” theme of memory: while some thoughts reside with us forever, others can escape in an instant.