Review of No. 7 Cherry Lane (2019)

Moving picture, 125 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Seen with an introduction by and Q&A with the director at GIFF 2020. The English-language subtitles were poor.

A tutor has affairs with his pupil and her mother in a uchronian mostly-1967 Hong Kong.

I’m not a particular fan of Wong Kar-wai. This made me think of his In the Mood for Love (2000), which bored me. The two films are so similar that it may amount to one of the many intertextual references in the script: Exile in 1960s Hong Kong, gentle forbidden love, a nosy older lady interfering and then moving to North America etc. It seems like director Yonfan wanted a similar atmosphere in No. 7 Cherry Lane: nostalgia, wistfulness, the suppressed eroticism of forbidden love, and a lot of cigarette smoke. The main difference lies in the medium.

At one point, a Maoist demonstration is somehow met with a massive, fiery explosion on a narrow street. The visual style then gets experimental, including a “regression” to the production’s traditional storyboards. From these, the production team made 3D maquettes, whereupon 2D animators (200 of them, according to Yonfan) drew over the rendered maquettes to achieve a cel-shaded look.

At GIFF, Yonfan explained that this process gave him total control over the characters’ movements, that it was more environmentally friendly than live action and that he hadn’t used it before because he did not like animation. Centralized creative control is a good reason to go with animation when the director cares about every little detail. Environmental friendliness is a plausible hypothesis. I don’t object to live-action directors suddenly taking up animation either, but the last statement was ominous.

Aesthetically, the film is what I would expect from a director who doesn’t like animation. The first shot has a class of martial artists doing mocap kung fu, the same model and pattern of movement copy-pasted throughout the class, and this is not an isolated occurrence. The next few scenes have children looking like bad machinima, their feet failing to track the ground and their direction of movement way out of alignment with their own facing. At one point, even the main characters stop moving entirely and simply slide across the scenes as single frames, like the paper cutouts in the no-budget phase of His and Her Circumstances (1998). Even when the animation looks normal by the standards of the film, it’s deliberately sluggish, with frequent lapses into the uncanny valley.

The voice work is similarly slow and stilted, as if the actors were rarely in the same room. Like Tsurumaki Kazuya doing FLCL (2000), Yonfan cast a director buddy as a cat, and the results are worse. It’s as if the transition to animation made the director forget the basics of filmmaking and rely on the genre and the disembodied narrator to carry the audience along.

I hate to see such lapses in a seven-year production of more than two hours’ running time. Something broke down on more than one level of the organization. Ultimately, Yonfan’s central control was not good enough, defeating part of his own purpose. He would have been better off leaving the details to skilled actors and animators.

The failures I have noted thus far are unrelated to the film’s eclecticism. Yonfan described it as “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall”, a shark-fin stew that contains many other ingredients. Some of the exterior backgrounds are done in a textured naïvist style that looks quite good. The interiors are generally more realistic, with the exception of an old movie theatre that is important to the plot but has very little detail. The character designs are much more internally consistent in style, and I think they’re OK. I like the saturation-level cultural references too, but a similar sort of saturated eclecticism is routinely done far better in the Japanese animation industry, e.g. March Comes in Like a Lion (2016).

Despite the substandard animation, Yonfan achieves a peculiar pansexual eroticism, given free reign in a couple of dream sequences. The sluggish movements do not set a meditative mood, but perhaps they contribute to the crucial sense of restraint. Tutor Fan Ziming is a paradox: Apparently an extroverted, welcoming alpha male in his prime, with a great love of Proust and an unexplored darker side, he is barely characterized yet able to function both as a vessel of audience identification and as a bad-boy love interest, cast in dream sequences as a rapey kidnapper and a deviant who has his nipples licked by cats.

That Maoist demonstration is another story. At GIFF, Yonfan stated that he did not want to make a documentary, as his motivation for why the Hong Kong of 1967 contains some modern shops and the demonstration uses modern R&B music while breaking the fourth wall with storyboards. He took eclecticism into strongly alienating, incongruous territory, rather than face reality. The Yu family are political refugees from the Taiwanese White Terror, but there is no mention whatsoever of the issues of politics, in either case. No 7. Cherry Lane has no relevance to the protests that had been going on for months before the film opened at international festivals, and resulted in the highly significant national security law of June 2020. Despite even the fact that Fan and the younger Yu share their first kiss at the Cenotaph, the film is all about private feelings, with the city of the time as a dead backdrop. I’ve seen lots of Japanese films, including animation, that touch on the 1960s student revolt from different perspectives, but nothing this bland.

Yonfan claimed that the 2019–2020 anti-PRC protest movement had vowed to obstruct screenings in Hong Kong itself. According to him, again based on the GIFF Q&A, this was because the leaderless movement overreacted to a speech he made regretting that he felt less free to move about the city than he did in 1967. This implies a centrist obliviousness to the stakes, reflected in the film. Historical fidelity and/or social relevance would have helped. As a more narrow drama divorced from such things, it’s not good enough as a whole, despite some good points. Compare “The Garden of Words” (2013), a similarly personal story that is well made in a style that is well chosen.

moving picture animation fiction