Friday, 5 January 2007

Painted Veil, The (2006)

Where's the welcoming committee of the natives?

It’s a curiosity that the 3 most memorable movies to come out of the Chinese film industry in 2006 have an old-school, almost antiquated feel about them. It’s as though Chinese cinema, with its recent massive injection of funds and leaps in technological/technical know-how, is poised to enter a long phase where it will make films from the Golden Age of cinema in the 1930s-50s. I speak of Curse of the Golden Flower, The Knot, and The Painted Veil – all box office successes in their native land. The first is a film in the style of the Hollywood period costume epic, with its opulent, extravagant, and very baroque sets. The Knot is a revival and update of the classic Taiwanese triple-hanky tearjerker, with more sophisticated storytelling and expert camerawork, and a more lavish budget. The Painted Veil, itself a Chinese co-production, is a splendid recreation of how Hollywood used to make films in the late 1940s, and based on a Somerset Maugham novel set in the 1920s.

The elements are unmistakably old-school: Kitty (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited and headstrong flapper whose parents are eager to marry off to ease their finances, and Walter Fane (Edward Norton) is the very reserved gentleman who the parents conspire to marry Kitty off to, just because he exchanges a few (too few!) words to their daughter at a dinner party, and seems to be an eligible candidate anyway – given his civil servant status and smidgeon of interest in Kitty. We didn’t think for a moment that the marriage would succeed: Dr Fane is far more dedicated to his bacteriological research than to his wife, while the fabulous Kitty prefers gentlemen of action, and the both of them soon find their marriage falling into a benign neglect in the city of Shanghai, where Fane practises.

For the first act of the film, we very much enjoyed looking at the self-centred Kitty indulge herself while being contemptuous of her inert husband, and the type of emotional torture that only Walter can submit his wife to when he finds out her indiscretions. You see, in the golden age of Hollywood, every story about man’s incivility to women (or vice versa) was really a set up for a love story. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton pull off easily the type of characters that used to populate movies from that era: the miserable, equally and co-equally suffering couple who are too dignified to snipe at each other, and instead each other more harshly in non-verbal ways; too dignified to break down into tears and screaming, and instead execute their resentment to each other in alternative but louder methods.

But it’s not all fun and games, as Dr Fane decides the most cruel and unusual punishment would be to continue the scornful neglect of his wife – not in Shanghai, but in a remote Chinese village situated near ground zero of a cholera outbreak. You wonder if he intends to have her die there of an accidental infection, or whether he intends to be the one who dies there, because neither of them are selfish, decisive, or courageous enough to walk away from each other. It’s a strange kind of love that is grounded in hate, and the beauty of Maugham’s tale is that it essentially tells a love story in reverse: with both couples indifferent to each other during courtship, detesting each other during marriage, and perhaps slowly coming to terms and affection to each other only during the end of their matrimony – mainly because there is no one else to talk to in that village.

A nice sub-plot augmenting this tale is the modernisation of China during its period of troubles with major colonial powers. The director and screenwriter avoid the simplistic extremes of both the White Man’s Burden as well as the Evil White Man narratives, and settle for a subtle but accurate depiction of the many struggles between Walter Fane and the villagers, between a charity mission and its orphan charges, between Fane and the KMT colonel (an unforgettable cameo by Anthony Wong, incidentally) tasked to protect him from anti-foreigner elements as well as from himself, and between the colonel and an older order in China. All these are sparked off or deriving from the colonial incursion into China, even though everyone believes they have acted in the best interests of the many.

I’m very pleased with the set design of this movie: whether in scenes set in Britain, Shanghai, or the village of Mei-tan-fu, the old world charm of the 1920s are resurrected very faithfully and vividly by the director and the production team. The score by Alexandre Desplat added to the evocation of a long-lost age, despite being very modernist.

No one makes movies like this anymore, not in the grand old tradition, not with classic character types, and not with such sensibilities. You would normally have to rent a DVD to enjoy a vintage experience, but would have to endure colourisation and crackling audio, but now this is the best chance of watching an old school movie made with today’s resources and technology.

This is my only point of dispute with this film: If they’re going to make fun of fat, short, moustachioed Chinese warlords, the producers should have cast (and Anthony Wong should have lobbied for) the most excellent Michael Hui to reprise the role he made a cultural icon all the way back in 1972, with The Great Warlord.

First published at incinemas on 11 January 2007

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