By Simon Whitlock
When talking about “The Very Last Day”, first-time writer-director Cédric Jouarie has been vocal about having had to live with a harrowing experience which was inflicted on him when he was a teenager. His film has presented an opportunity to explore his trauma, and perhaps even offer Jouarie some catharsis for what has happened. The end result is captivating if a somewhat messy mix of high melodrama and revenge thriller.
“Watching the film, it’s impressive how Jouarie and his co-writer and wife Dan Kee Chuang were able to avoid any temptation to draw their characters as broad caricatures.”
The film introduces novelist Raymond Ho (Lawrence Ong) accompanied by his wife Viola (Heng-Yin Chou) on the eve of the successful release of his latest novel: a story of a romance which culminates in a sexual assault. It’s not a success enjoyed by all: Viola can only look on whilst addressed as “Mrs Raymond Ho”, her own credibility as a writer belittled both by fans of her husband’s work, and by Raymond himself – it’s revealed that he’s been lifting from her stories of childhood abuse and hardship to use them as plot points for his books.
Raymond’s exploitative relationship with women is a major part of what Jouarie is exploring in his film, especially after the arrival of Melanie (Wei-Yi Lin), a beautiful young woman who claims to be an admirer of the writer’s work. Melanie and Raymond eventually find themselves in a clandestine relationship of sorts, though it becomes clear after an escape out of town, that Melanie may not be entirely interested in the writer in a romantic sense.
Watching the film, it’s impressive how Jouarie and his co-writer and wife Dan Kee Chuang were able to avoid any temptation to draw their characters as broad caricatures. Each player in the story gets their chance to earn at least a little sympathy before the third act comes in to bulldoze over any warm sentiment, which only goes to make the late-stage reveal of the motivation behind Melanie’s actions even more impactful when it comes.
The decision to dress the long game of a character’s revenge in a relationship drama for the first couple of acts doesn’t entirely work, sadly. The film feels like it might have left its narrative change in direction until perhaps a little bit too late to be truly effective, and the end result feels more jarring than anything.
“The film’s biggest praise though goes to Wei-Yi Lin as Melanie, whose past and present are integral to the film’s story.”
There are some impressive tricks being played here though: the beginning of the film is shot entirely in black and white with the exception of a couple of sequences, the difference at first appears to be separating the real world from the story told in Raymond’s work, until bits and pieces of colour begin to bleed into Raymond and Viola’s otherwise monochrome existence. Likewise, the camera work in the film is used to its utmost potential: Jouarie and cinematographer Kuan-Yu Chen are all too happy to let the camera remain static in the corner of a scene, which builds the tension wonderfully as they refuse to pull away.
The film’s biggest praise though goes to Wei-Yi Lin as Melanie, whose past and present are integral to the film’s story. Hers is a role which could easily have fallen victim to being overworked, but the performance is played so deliberately that when the film’s events descend into the anger and darkness inside Melanie, she remains a character for whom sympathy comes easily: no matter the endpoint of her story, she was made a victim of something unspeakable in her past, and Melanie’s path is all about wanting to reclaim her sense of self.
After making a film which is as full of personal pain as “The Very Last Day”, it’ll be interesting to see what Jouarie and his team work on next. For now, this is an impressively well-worked debut and one which may even get better after a revisit.