Hong Kong, 1967. Set lightly against the riots of that year (a superfluous idea given the city’s more recent history), Yonfan’s late-career first foray into animation No. 7 Cherry Lane is a frustrating piece of nostalgia and kitschy romance that at no point goes beyond its stunningly beautiful animated surface. Ziming, a good-looking university student with a love for Proust, is hired as a tutor for the daughter of Mrs. Yu, the resident of the title’s address. Ziming and Mrs. Yu turn out to share a love for languid literature, and as they start to go to the cinema together, a love for the films of Simone Signoret as well (no fewer than three scenes are dedicated to animated reworkings of the French actress’ works, including her Oscar-winning role in A Room at the Top). In the meantime, Mrs. Yu’s daughter Meiling is drawn to her tutor, which finds Ziming in a tug of war between mother and daughter. In the background Hong Kong is rumbling, as the (then) protectorate riots against British authorities, though the three principals remain largely oblivious to it.
No. 7 Cherry Lane is beautifully animated, the rich colours and ever-moving shadows evoking a melancholic romanticism of old Hong Kong. Unfortunately the story it tells is as vapid as a coffee table book about Simone Signoret’s smoking in movies. The love triangle at the center of it never develops because Ziming’s character is no more than an inert object of desire, and Meiling is too thinly drawn (no pun intended) to make a lasting impression, making a pivotal third act development ring hollow. The film’s main focus, Mrs. Yu, has more body, but her motives and agency in the film amount to little more than a desire for Ziming to fill a void in her life, be it emotional or sexual. Where that void comes from is hard to gauge. There are allusions to her being a revolutionary in her younger years, and her story is briefly recounted to Ziming by Meiling, but what this has to do with the greater scheme of her life remains elusive.
There are several flights of fancy that have a certain allure but no impact on the story as a whole. Are these Mrs. Yu’s erotic fever dreams? What is the former opera diva from upstairs doing in them? Very little explanation is given. A modern piece of music, including a rap in barely understandable English, that accompanies a montage of sorts midway through the film is a particularly misguided choice. Ultimately, No. 7 Cherry Lane is pretty to look at it, but does not have enough to say to justify its two-hour runtime. It tells the story of a city on the brink of a new era with all the turmoil that entails, but the historical riots that rang in that new era are all too quickly sidelined for a trite love triangle that can hold no interest because its characters remain mysteries.