Asian Movie Review – Last Shadow at First Light

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Last Shadow at First Light is a sensitive, lyrical examination of grief and recovery. One that rewards if you are patient.


Last Shadow at First Light Review: 5 thumbs-up and 2 thumbs-down
Snappy Movie Review | Last Shadow at First Light

Last Shadow at First Light Synopsis

Ami (Mihaya Shirata) is a student living in Singapore with her father (Peter Yu) and bedridden grandmother. Over ten years ago, Ami’s Japanese mother, Satomi (Mariko Tsutsui), disappeared after returning to Japan to help with Tohoku Earthquake 2011 relief efforts, a vanishing that left Ami deeply scarred. Ami eventually convinces her father to let her visit Japan in hopes of uncovering what happened to Satomi.

Snappy Review

A multi-national production that’s also the feature-length debut of Singaporean director Nicole Midori Woodford, Last Shadow at First Light was largely shot in Japan; specifically, Rikuzentakata, a city on the Sanriku Coast that was decimated by the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. If the name of the city sounds somewhat familiar, it’s likely because you’ve read about the city’s Miracle Pine Tree, one of the starkest and most inspirational reminders of the catastrophe.

Slow-moving and ponderous, and decisively arthouse in approach, this is not a movie to watch when you’re feeling low; the story is a devoted thesis on the debilitating effects of loss and survivor’s guilt. Sparks of supernatural mystery and the tension of an uneasy reunion add intrigue to the middle chapters, but all in all, melancholy and decay are pervasive throughout the 110-minute run. This is especially so for the Singaporean segments.

For some viewers, I suspect the latter would be a huge turn-off. For those who have experienced or witnessed traumatic loss, though, Last Shadow at First Light could connect on a profound level. Its quiet conclusion might even be comforting.

In my case, I’m fortunate not to have experienced the sort of loss narrated in the movie—I’m grateful—and so what held my attention was the lyrical beauty in the Japanese chapters. It’s almost a contradiction. While there are none of the usual touristy Japanese shots like torii gates and zen gardens, the lushness of the Tohoku countryside is underlined several times. Even structures devasted by the tsunami exude a certain austere and dignified beauty under the lens of cinematographer Hideho Urata.

The massive sea wall that now protects Rikuzentakata is featured several times, including an aerial shot that shows the misty sea beyond which residents can now no longer easily see. During one rainy night scene, the top of the sea wall is ominously streaked with angular water stains, almost as if this structure that is so hated and yet also so necessary is weeping. (The movie poster captures this)

These emotive moments invite thought. Their metaphorical meanings are obvious enough, I presume, with each appearance also layering the fragmented inner worlds of Ami and Isamu (Masatoshi Nagase) with a complexity that is not all grim. Could they possibly hint at resilience and defiance? Could they also be mental compartments with which Ami would ultimately lock away her trauma with?

In short, Last Shadow at First Light is a desolate journey framed by exemplary cinematographic beauty. It demands patience but can reward. I should also highlight that some of the “spiritual” scenes, with their wispy grace, are among the most elegant, most contemplative moments.

The epilogue does not wrap up the story; personally, I feel it merely marks the mid-point of Ami’s recovery. It’s still appropriate, though, for the trauma of loss never truly goes away, does it? As Ami’s journeyultimately indicates, the only thing that we can do is to manage and embrace it.

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Watch the trailer here.

Last Shadow at First Light will be screening at The Projector from May 9, 2024. Details and tickets here.


Check out my other snappy movie reviews.

Read my other Asian Movie Features.

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Last Shadow at First Light
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