‘Yanagawa’ Review: Her Spell

Two brothers reconnect over a lost love in this drama from the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Lu.

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By Beandrea July

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In the first scene of “Yanagawa,” a free-spirited Beijing bachelor, Lidong (Zhang Luyi), bums a cigarette from a stranger and blurts out that he has stage four cancer. But the actor delivers this devastating news so blithely that it’s not clear whether he really means it. It’s the first in what becomes a series of confusing moments in this art house drama from the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Lu (“Desert Dream”). Lidong convinces his cocky, unhappily married brother, Lichun (Xin Baiqing), to reconnect for a trip to Yanagawa, Japan. What ensues is a meandering rehash of Lidong and Lichun’s mutual romantic obsession with a long-lost childhood friend, Chuan (Ni Ni), who has grown into a beautiful, mysterious singer living in Yanagawa.

If you’re looking for character arcs, surprises or narrative coherence, you’re likely to be disappointed by “Yanagawa.” But this is a Haiku of a movie, so better to fix your eyes on the characters walking into and out of the edges of the frame, the precise blocking and the prolonged continuous shots where each cut blends seamlessly into the next — not to mention the picturesque immersion into the film’s eponymous town.

The camera, driven by the resounding technical control of Zhang and the cinematographer Park Jung-hun, is all-knowing and all-important. It effectively assumes the omniscient voice of a silent narrator. You’ve probably never watched with more interest as someone walks down a long hallway with their back to the camera, a visual refrain that happens repeatedly in “Yanagawa” yet feels inventive each time. The beats of the plot, then, become tangential to the overall impact of the film: It’s a quiet, elemental nourishment of the senses.

Not rated. In Chinese and Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. Watch on Film Movement Plus.

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