Love Collage, otherwise known as Collage of Our Lives, is a surprising film in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s the title. One would expect something exceedingly sappy and romantic from a movie called Love Collage, where attractive, full-of-potential boy meets attractive, out-of reach girl, moons over her for a while until she finally realises how wonderful he really is, and they live happily ever after.
But actually, that’s what Love Collage isn’t; a love story. Rather it’s a journey of self realisation, from the trite self-orientation of early adulthood into true maturity, captured in a series of moving snapshots that defy reality and express something far more genuine and inspiring than your average boy-meets-girl-loses-girl love story.
They do say a picture is worth a thousand words, and if that’s the case, one gets the impression that photographer Makoto Seigawa (Ryuhei Matsuda) has something stuck in his throat. After being thrown out a third story window for not making a gangster’s girlfriend look better, and then punching out his editor, he finds himself out of a job and at a loss as to why everything in his life is going so wrong. The last straw is a letter from his old girlfriend, who’s living in New York and wants him to come to her first photography exhibition. In a fit of pique, Makoto throws a pretty neat tantrum and throws her invitation and the accompanying photos in the bin. Which is understandable, after having such a bad day, and really it kind of seems like things couldn’t actually get worse, until Makoto fronts up at school reunion only to be told that his ex-girlfriend is dead, and has been for a year.
This seems kind of odd, considering he only just got a letter from her. Convinced she’s actually alive, Makoto, in another seemingly out of character fit, jumps on a plane to New York to find her, with only one photo accidentally missed by the trash and no address to guide him.
What follows is a strangely poignant story offset by flashbacks as Makoto searches for his girlfriend. Yes, it’s a love story, and Ryoko Hirosue as Shizuru Satona is sweet and unconventional enough to make the romance believable. But it’s less about them and more about him. Matsuda’s normally remote, doe-eyed stoicism is caught up for the duration of the idyllic flashback in Shizuru’s passion not for love but for life, which of course is the whole point. Makoto doesn’t look at the world the same way as Shizuru does. For him the camera is something to put between him and the world, rather than something to view the world through, and slowly he comes to realise it.
It’s a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder. Being empty, lacking the one thing that really would fulfil him if he actually realised he was unfulfilled, Makoto sees something in Shizuru that he yearns for without even having the words. The way her images affect him, bursting out of their frames to encroach on his reality without his say-so, are some of the most stunning, telling moments in the film. These pictures, so full of intimacy and courage and life and wonder, aren’t his. He’s just a voyeur in Shizuru’s world, and eventually this seemingly inarticulate longing consumes the relationship until six years later, he’s lost in New York, looking for his dead girlfriend on the outside and his own self on the inside.
Love College has its flaws; sometimes its heavy handed and a bit manic (especially in the climax), and there are things that you really are going to have to make your own mind up about. But overall its quirky, synchronous narrative and sheer visual beauty outshine any absence of satisfactory cinematic answers, which rather than detracting from the overall message is actually a point in its favour. It’s probably more accurate to think about this film as being Collage of Our Lives (the Japanese title) rather than Love Collage (the Hong Kong title), because that’s what this movie is really all about — not love, but life.