'No. 7 Cherry Lane' ('Ji yuan tai qi hao'): Film Review

No. 7 Cherry Lane still 1 - Venice Film Festival - H 2019
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A superbly imaginative work of adult animation.

Prince of Hong Kong cinema Yonfan returns to directing after a 10-year absence with his first animated film, a spellbinding love letter to Hong Kong and the movies.

The revolutionary force of love breaks down all of society’s barriers in Yonfan’s No. 7 Cherry Lane (Ji yuan tai qi hao), a mesmerizing work of adult animation from Asia. Its three-way romance, in which a handsome college boy falls for both a mother and her daughter, is set during the 1967 pro-China, anti-British student uprising, a mirror image of today's protests against China. But the real revolution for these characters passes through the film’s erotic charge working on their subconscious in dreams, fantasies and movies.

The pic, which bowed to instant acclaim in Venice competition, is also a stirring love letter to the cinema and its liberating effect on the audience’s deepest fears and constricting beliefs. Here, taking a woman to the movies — carefully chosen films starring the passionate French icon Simone Signoret — is an act of seduction and liberation. Although the hyper-refined Yonfan has chosen to recreate scenes from French films to illustrate his point that older women can be sexually fascinating, there is a glimpse of a movie marquee advertising The Graduate that works well, too. One wonders whether younger audiences will get these references or appreciate the indubitable fact that Yonfan is on the side of Mrs. Robinson.

The camera pans over a minutely rendered 2D view of Hong Kong’s chaotic streets and slums, as the shadow of a mammoth jet darkens the rooftops and casts its symbolic shadow of modernity over a charming but doomed world. “Prosperity amid simplicity” reigns, the narrator informs us with a good dose of nostalgia illustrated in Yonfan’s production design with Zhang Gang and Hsieh Wen-Ming.

The opening scene is a classic of male voyeurism. The god-like young bodies of Fan Ziming (voiced by Alex Lam) and his friend Stephen, both Hong Kong University undergrads, are exercising in a leisurely game of tennis as they hit an imaginary ball between courts with sensuous swings, while lesser mortals like the comically awkward boy Bookworm gape in awe and desire. Eros is even more explicitly invoked in the following shower scene, where the audience is invited to share in the pleasure of “sneaking a peek” at their perfect bodies as they slowly soap themselves.

Shifting the focus to Ziming, the camera follows him through the magical, remembered world of Hong Kong of the '60s, filled with flowering red cotton trees and winding streets overlooking the harbor. When he reaches No. 7 Cherry Lane, where he is to begin tutoring a girl in English, he rings the wrong bell and is introduced into a sorceror’s world — the cat-ridden apartment of former opera diva Mrs. May (Kelly Yao of Immortal Story.) Her aging, made-up face and proud bearing can’t disguise her physical attraction to the dazzling young man.

Redirected to another floor, he meets the charming Mrs. Yu (Sylvia Chang), a beautiful and cultured 40-year-old who left Taiwan during the country’s White Terror regime. As he will later learn, she embraced revolutionary ideals as a young woman, only to become a luxury goods exporter after her divorce. But her core non-conformism is an important part of her personality. While they wait for her daughter Meiling to appear, they plunge into a discussion of books — Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on his part and the Chinese classic Dreams of the Red Chamber on hers, of which Mrs. Yu recalls the chapter describing how a Taoist nun, Miaoyu (Teresa Cheung), finds sexual liberation in the arms of her abductor.

This precipitates a thrilling erotic dream sequence, one of the film’s peak moments of imagination. As the unconscious Miaoyu flies through the air in the arms of her roughneck kidnapper, she opens her eyes and finds she enjoys flying through the night. On the forest floor, as he approaches to possess her, she is surrounded by dozens of snakes that intertwine around her naked body. She pulls off his face and finds Ziming underneath. He pulls off her face and finds Mrs. Yu.

Meiling (Zhao Wei), her stunning 18-year-old daughter, arrives at the party late, but she knows who she is and what she’s entitled to: the future. In a short wig and an ever-changing collection of modern Western dresses (she models), she is a lovely sight. (Her mother, in contrast, wears a traditional electric blue cheongsam that accentuates her figure.)  Ziming gives the girl Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to read for their English lessons. They make a good-looking couple and soon they are going out together.

If one had to bet on who the boy was really interested in, the clues are in his movie outings with Mrs. Yu. He first takes her to see Room at the Top, where Signoret passionately smokes her way into the heart of the younger Laurence Harvey in a sexually charged scene that makes Mrs. Yu blush behind her sunglasses. On other movie dates, the actress reappears as an older woman who fascinates a handsome younger man in a Belle Epoque role and then as a countess who dazzles a young doctor in Ship of Fools.

The film’s final scene, in which Ziming is finally forced to choose between mother and daughter, is a brilliant tour-de-force of fantasy, timing and sensuality. The pic’s approach to eroticism is outrageously kinky, but always allusive and never offensive. Here Mrs. Yu waits with her Zen-like calm for Ziming and Meiling to come home. They are very late, and even the audience has reason to worry. For the first time, she smokes a cigarette very, very slowly and stretches out on the divan. Ziming comes in the door shadowed by Bookworm — an impossibility that tips us off this is a fantasy. He stretches out on the chair in front of her. And very slowly, Mrs. May’s cats come to lick and scratch his muscular chest.   

The anti-British rioting that occasionally breaks into the story with furious placards and confrontations with the police seems like something distant to the central love triangle, especially when Mrs. Yu remarks that it isn’t a real revolution — she has lived through one. The connection to the current protests and strikes against Beijing is certainly meant to be made, but emotionally it doesn’t connect. The most that can be said is that politics are an integral part of Yonfan’s portrait of his city.

No. 7 Cherry Lane has a pleasing Old World look that draws the viewer into the action — the result of a labor-intensive animation technique in which animators rendered caricatures in 3D before hand-drawing them in 2D. This uniquely effective style is beautifully complemented by an intimate musical selection sweeping the viewer from mood to mood.

Production company: Far Sun Film
Cast: Sylvia Chao, Zhao Wei, Alex Lam, Yao Wei, Tian Zhuangzhuang
Director-screenwriter: Yonfan
Producer: Monica Chao
Executive producers: Wade Yao, Joyce Yang, Wang Chuan
Co-producers: Albert Lee, Norman Wang, Alain Vannier
Animation master: Zhang Gang
Production designers: Yonfan, Zhang Gang, Hsieh Wen-Ming
Editor: Wang Haixia
Music: Yu Yat-yiu, Yonfan, Chapavich Temnitikul, Phasura Chanvitikul
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Far Sun Film

125 minutes