Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Best Film of 2006: The White Countess

The film takes place from 1935 to 1937 when the Japanese invade Shanghai, destroying 100 years of European power, so I watched the film waiting for all hell to break loose in the end. The White Countess is similar to Casablanca but better. In Casablanca the beautiful heroine has no back history, but that’s not true of The White Countess.

The white countess of the title is Sofia Belinsky, a taxi dancer whose dancing in bars supports her destitute Russian aristocrat relatives—her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her aunt, her aunt, and her daughter. Except for her daughter, they all take her money and scorn her as a whore. Her relatives also try to alienate her daughter’s affections.

At one bar she meets Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind former American diplomat who escapes from the world that has disappointed him by hanging out in Shanghai’s many bars. Throughout the film first Chinese and a then Japanese named Mr. Matsuda tell Jackson how much they appreciate his work with the League of Nations on world peace, but Jackson is only interested in opening up his own nightclub where he can shut out the world. The only problem is Mr. Matsuda is the advance man for the Japanese army who plans to conquer Shanghai as well as the rest of China.

After Jackson wins big at the race track, he opens his bar The White Countess with Sofia Belinsky as it’s tragic, beautiful hostess. Jackson tells his friend e |HMr. Matsuda that his successful bar lacks one thing: political tension. So Matsuda uses his underworld connections to bring all the warring political factions into the bar where they can peacefully carouse . In one of my favorite scenes first a group of Chinese Communist-associated intellectuals enter the bar. Then come in another group of Chinese, the Kuomintang who are warring against the Communists. Outside in Shanghai the Kuomintang and the Communists have been killing each other for years, but inside they peacefully drink side by side. Next come a group of Japanese into the bar, and finally their soon-to-be enemies the Americans. Russians as well as Chinese singers, ballerinas, and comics perform while Sofia Belinsky is the beautiful centerpiece.

At one point Sofia asks Jackson why he has such huge doors to his club as if to shut out the world. She says that her family of Russian aristocrats tried to shut out the world with big doors but it didn’t work. Then I realized this film is as much about 2006 as it is about 1937: it’s about all those people who want to create safe worlds behind big gates. It’s about all those people who once tried like Jackson to improve the world but have given up. The film is about all those like Sofia who live on the edge, without any protections of big gates. The film is about the pettiest of snobbery: the destitute Russian aristocrats snub their neighbor , a poor Jewish tailor.

I read reviews of The White Countess, but most reviewers found it slow going because they didn’t understand that this world of the film was a beautiful soap bubble of 1937 Shanghai in its last days before it was all blown away. Sofia’s relatives desperately want to escape Shanghai for Hong Kong. Through a French connection they get the visas but need $300. Who do they go to for money? Sofia. She goes to her boss Jackson, who has also refused any emotional intimacy with her, thought both are obviously in love with each other. He gives her the money, knowing she will use it to flee Shanghai.

Of course, the Japanese send in troops. Thousands of Chinese flee before the advancing Japanese army. Sofia’s mother-in-law says they got the visas for the whole family to leave except for Sofia: a horrendous betrayal to leave her behind in the war-torn city. In his bar Jackson sees Mr. Matsuda enter, whom he accuses of betrayal. The film is about war and betrayal, but the screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro humanizes all people including Mr. Matsuda. At the end Matsuda tells Jackson to leave his bar to be with the real white countess Sofia, so Jackson goes out, a blind man in a city flooded with refugees, to find Sofia. So the film is also about humanity, courage, trust, and love in wartime. The film asks all of us: do we hide ourselves behind big gates or do we go out into the streets of the war-torn world?

The film is the last by producer Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, as Merchant died soon after the film’s completion. Merchant , who was from India, and Ivory, who is American, have been making splendid films for 40 years, but The White Countess is my favorite of their many films. They saved the best for last.e gi|He

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