Cherries aren’t the first fruit that come to mind when watching “No. 7 Cherry Lane.” In an entirely welcome way, veteran Hong Kong auteur Yonfan’s first film in a decade (as well as his first foray into feature animation) can better be described as a bowl of bright, aromatic and very, very ripe bananas. As entrancingly singular as it is steeped in pastiche, this frequently dream-distracted vision of young love against the turmoil of the 1967 Hong Kong riots practically defies critics not to resort to that hoarily overused term “valentine to cinema”: If a film containing no fewer than three lengthy cartoon reenactments of Simone Signoret classics doesn’t merit it, what does? Many will be left bewildered by the sheer, deranged obsessiveness of Yonfan’s nostalgia head-trip — indeed, there were whistles and walkouts at its first Venice press screening — but accustomed Yon-fans and patient adventurers will fall madly for its madness.
As a distinctly adult animation that drifts across two hours through modes of Proustian mood piece, wild id-driven fantasy and pansexual erotic reverie, “No. 7 Cherry Lane” isn’t an easy film for international distributors to place — though its domestic prospects are bolstered by an all-star voice ensemble that includes such major names as Sylvia Chang, Zhao Wei and Ann Hui. (The latter has a brief, inexplicable cameo voicing a mustachioed male thief; the film is crammed with such winking stunts and in-jokes.) For animation buffs, meanwhile, the film’s unusual technique alone makes it essential viewing. Rendered in 3D before being hand-drawn in 2D, the film’s woozy movement and jumble of visual styles and textures — equally influenced, it seems, by anime, pen-and-ink illustration and even woodcut — are as beguilingly strange as the storytelling.
For the 71-year-old Yonfan to have dived into this technology so late in his career may be a surprising flex, but “No. 7 Cherry Lane” is absolutely of a piece with his florid live-action filmography, indulging his love of high-kitsch melodrama, queered romanticism and impossible movie-star beauty on a very different canvas. As in his last feature “Prince of Tears” (which also bowed in competition at Venice, back in 2009), these fixations are fastened to a highly specific evocation of historical tumult: There, it was Taiwan’s “White Terror” of the 1950s, while here, Hong Kong’s growing resistance to British colonial rule complements the personal awakenings and liberations of several entangled characters in the “Little Shanghai” district of North Point.
Drawn from three of the director’s own published short stories, and divided into three obliquely titled chapters — Dream Charade, Play Shadow and Winter Cometh — the discursive, elliptical script pivots on Ziming (Alex Lam), a bright, well-mannered and doll-handsome student at Hong Kong University. Supposedly an English literature major, he seems to spend most of his time playing faintly homoerotic tennis matches with his equally picture-perfect pal Steven (Stephen Fung): A swooping introductory sequence colors in the cityscape, in crayon-colored picture-book layers, via the tennis ball’s soaring arc between shots, before we retire to the showers for some extended, steam-swathed bodily appreciation. (Any of the director’s admirers initially disoriented by the switch in medium can breathe easy from this point on.) “Look how the Golden Years flowed away,” an onscreen title card mourns: Rose-colored nostalgia and anti-colonial politics will gently wrestle each other throughout.
A tutor in his seemingly copious spare time, Ziming is hired by wealthy divorcee Mrs. Yu (Chang) to brush up the English skills of her 18-year-old daughter Meiling (Zhao), a model with a steely, entitled eye on the future — and initially little interest in her dishy instructor’s attempts to force “Jane Eyre” on her. Mother and daughter rather starkly represent Hong Kong’s past and future: Mrs. Yu, a former Sino-Japanese War revolutionary turned luxury goods importer, is torn between radicalism and materialism, while Meiling is eager to shed all historical baggage. Ziming, a gentle romantic whose favorite book is Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” (subtlety, thy name is not Yonfan), is first drawn into an affair with the former, taking her to Simone Signoret matinees at a local picture palace, while her Mrs. Robinson-like relationship to him is wryly referenced by a passing marquee for “The Graduate.” Gradually, however, he succumbs to Meiling’s force of personality too.
The unhurried, Wong Kar-wai-reminiscent love triangle that ensues is merely a jumping-off point for multiple musings on cinema, social change and the capricious, elastic nature of human desire — as articulated through one digressive, beautiful, often elaborately baffling setpiece after another. Yonfan’s witty, visually meticulous recreations of whole sequences from “Room at the Top,” “Casque d’Or” and “Ship of Fools” may be the film’s most purely delightful formal coup; a protester march executed in the monochrome aesthetic of propaganda leaflets, breaking from the swooning, whipped-cream orchestral score into a sudden frenzy of Chinese hip-hop, is its most jarring.
Indeed, the film language of “No. 7 Cherry Lane” is so consistently unhinged — even as it skitters across different forms of lush artifice — that it eventually forms its own rules. By the time a climactic, opium-logic hallucination sees a black cat leaping into life from a Craven A cigarette box, joining the club of people, places and things making carnal overtures toward our impassive hero, this all seems entirely par for the course in Yonfanland. There’s a melancholic “past is a foreign country” undertow to the whole soup, but to scrutinize the film too closely for thematic meaning or message is to break its spell a bit. Its loopy, daydreamy, stream-of-consciousness flow is the point, while the director’s wild whims and fancies, his darting impressions of past, present and future, are all the more free in cartoon motion.