Monday, 12 March 2007

White Countess, The (DVD) (2006)

I'm always true to you in my fashion

If you take a trip to Shanghai, you'd see the ghost of the old city in its fast disappearing colonial style buildings. Even then, there is enough character in them to suggest its old reputation as the Paris of the East, the cosmopolitan jewel of China. Much of this architecture has been dismantled in the decades after the Communists took over, as though they would rather not be reminded of China's period of troubles as the Sick Man of Asia, the process hastened now by the march of industrialisation that grips the nation. Yet the idea of old Shanghai exerts its influence in popular imagination, not least in the best TVB production of all time, The Bund ("Shanghai Tan" to those of you who watched it in the 80s) and the lyrics of its Frances Yip theme song. Far ahead of its time, The Bund saw Shanghai as the Paris of the East, its glamour tied intimately with a criminal underworld conducting business through the dance halls, gambling dens and parlours - a beautiful dream coming to an end with the invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The White Countess does one better than The Bund, focussing on the underbelly of the underbelly. The criminal underworld is there in this movie, together with Japanese spies, Communists sympathisers, and corrupt Kuomintang party functionaries, who spend their evenings in a bar/dance hall named after the movie. But they are hardly the focus of The White Countess: the underbelly of cosmopolitan Shanghai have their own underbelly; the charm of old Shanghai is built on the disreputable dens, halls and parlours that are staffed by the disgraced, the enterprising, the disreputable. If anything, The White Countess, unlike the TVB production, shows cosmopolitan Shanghai as it existed - an international refugee city hosting dispossessed Russian aristocrats, expelled Jews from Germany, disgraced businessmen and diplomats from the West.

The story of the White Countess is, naturally, about a world-weary blind American diplomat, a Japanese spy, a dispossessed Russian noblewoman, and a German Jew struggle with the remnants of their dreams in this city. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the screenplay can be thoughtful and subtle, showing the great lengths people will go to achieve their dreams, questioning the solidity of these dreams while simultaneously believing in the seeming reality of the illusions and dreams they create. In a way, these are the classic themes of both Merchant-Ivory and Kazuo Ishiguro, and The White Countess is a fitting end to a long series of films by the producer-director team.


For any Merchant-Ivory fan, the "Tribute to Ismail Merchant" would be the first feature they'd watch - the producer passed away before the film could be released. It's very tastefully done, no weeping collaborators and friends proclaiming what a genius he was - instead, it's a highlights reel of English and Indian movies he's made over the years, excerpts from past interviews, short documentaries, and news archives. It's a loving, tasteful, and informative tribute, but it doesn't quite reveal anything new that a fan wouldn't know already.

Merchant and Ivory are the masters of period movies, and the Behind the scenes and Making of featurettes are great ways to see how they recreate both the city Shanghai as well as its grandeur and spirit.

First published at incinemas on 12 March 2007

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