Category Archives: China

Letter From an Unknown Woman (2004)

“The dead no longer want anything.”

I’ll admit that I am not a die-hard fan of Chinese cinema. That said some of Zhang Yimou’s  films stand out in my mind–those that star the exquisite Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, Shanghai Triad, Ju Dou). I arrived at the Chinese film Letter From an Unknown Woman (Yi Ge Mo Sheng Nu Ren de Lai Xin) from writer/director Jinglei Xu because it is based on the Stefan Zweig novella of the same name. For those who don’t know, I have a film-book fascination, and I am drawn to watching film adaptations of books. I am fascinated by the changes made from one medium to another–how characters are dropped or minimized while the visual is accentuated. But enough of that. Back to the film.

The film, which reminds me a bit of Zhang Yimou’s loving style, begins in 1948 Peking with a famous writer sitting at home and reading letters. The camera lingers on golden-hued shots of the letters and their elegant Chinese characters. These letters are piled in front of the writer as he eats his meal, and then one letter catches his attention. This is, of course, the letter from the unknown woman. The writer becomes transfixed by the story that unfolds, and then this segues into the rest of the film.

It’s now 1930s Peking and a young girl and her widowed mother live in poverty. The girl (Yuan Lin) is perhaps 13 or 14 when a famous writer (Wen Jiang) moves in across the courtyard. He hosts endless noisy parties, and a veritable caravan of gorgeous, expensively clad  women rotate through the writer’s life. Always in the background, the young girl quietly watches, and gradually she falls in love with the much older, worldly man.

I’m not going to add too much description here of the plot because that would spoil it, I think, for those who may come to this film for the first time. But I will say that over the course of nearly two decades the girl and the writer meet for a total of three times, and each meeting has a great significance for the girl–although much less so for the writer.

This film is basically a romance–doomed at that–not my forte, but at the same time, this is a visually stunning film, and the cinematographer’s languid shots–often full of golds and reds–seem to lovingly caress the subject. I was particular caught by the repetitive shot of the rickshaw as it progresses through an alley to the writer’s home in the snow.

As for the story itself–it says more about the nature of obsession than anything else, and from a modern perspective it’s perhaps difficult to swallow the woman’s role or her obsession with the writer. On the negative side, the writer seems a little unlikely cause of such complete devotion, love and obsession. The Chinese civil war and later WWII rumble distantly in the background, but there’s almost zero political content here. In fact the wars and unrest exist as excuses for the writer’s ignoble exits more than anything else.

The film’s plot explores one of my favourite themes: the inequity of relationships. In Letter From an Unknown Woman, the inequity occurs not just in the social positions between the two characters (this is not rare in film or books), but in the amount each character means to the other. To the writer, the girl is one of many, but to the girl, the writer is everything.  The writer occupies a vast space in the girl’s life, while to the writer the girl hardly even exists–she’s not even a memory. 

 Now I’m looking forward to the 1948 Max Ophuls version.

On a final note, the film made me think of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, a story which delves into a man’s role in a woman’s downfall.


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Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

“Fate has brought them together.”

Flowers of Shanghai is set in the late 1880s; the story revolves around several Flower Houses–that’s a pretty name for brothels. Flower Girls–with names such as Crimson, Emerald, Pearl, Jasmine, Jade, Crystal, and Golden Phoenix, inhabit these houses. Their names imply that they are like precious jewels, and it’s true that their earning potential makes them valuable, but they are also beaten and quite replaceable. ‘Aunties’ buy girls when they are about 7 or 8 years old. The girls’ feet are then bound, and the ‘Aunties’ train the Flower Girls for their ‘duties’ in the Flower Houses. Girls receive callers, but as the girls become more popular, they may only receive one caller exclusively. It is every Flower Girl’s goal to have her freedom purchased by this one exclusive caller who will then make her a second wife.

Visually, Flowers of Shanghai is a stunning film. The sets are sumptuous, candles delicately light exquisitely beautiful rooms, and wind chimes gently move in the evening breeze. The great beauty in the rooms and houses inhabited by the Flower Girls is in contrast to the ugly reality of their lives. Most evenings, the girls sit around and watch wealthy men gamble and drink. The girls are kept like some sort of exotic pets–they’re beautiful to look at, but fragile and expensive. They exist to watch their decadent masters’ sport. The film is basically a sequence of beautiful tableaux, and in no sense is this a character-driven story. We actually know very little about the characters, and there is no story in any traditional sense. The film is a depiction of a system, and as such, it exceeds very well. However, since emphasis is not on individual characters, the film flows with a sort of beautiful detachment. Flowers of Shanghai is clearly not for all tastes. It is not a traditional film–it is however, a beautiful, artistic film, and those committed to watching it in its entirety will grasp the director, Hsiao-hsien Hou’s design.

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Zhou Yu’s Train (2002)

“Your destiny is in your own hands.”

The story in Zhou Yu’s Train is quite simple–a young woman, Zhou Yu (Gong Li) who paints porcelain for a living meets and falls in love with a poet, Chen Ching (Tony Leung). He lives in a remote part of the country so she insists on traveling via the train to see him twice a week. On one of her journeys, she meets a veterinarian, Zhang, who pursues her.

The plot is made far more complicated by the fact that the film skips back and forth in time, and that a fourth character–a former lover of Chen Ching’s is also played by Gong Li (with short hair). I thought this fourth character was just an older Zhou Yu looking back on her life. Gong Li playing both roles–with no explanation–was extremely confusing.

It takes patience and a commitment on the part of the viewer to reach the film’s conclusion, and just at that moment, it all begins to make sense (if you haven’t already given up). And the unnecessary complications are quite unfortunate, for Zhou Yu’s Train really is a stunningly beautiful film. It is only at the film’s conclusion that one wonders exactly why Zhou Yu travels on the train–even when she no longer has a reason to do so. There are hints from her memories that train travel means far more to her than just going from point A to point B, and the train journey is more important than the destination. Zhou Yu’s hopeless love and obsession for Chen Ching is echoed by Zhang’s hopeless love for Zhou Yu. Love isn’t inherently sensible, and some lovers are destined to only be second best.

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A Soul Haunted by Painting (1994)

“I threw myself into a sea of art.”

The Chinese film, A Soul Haunted By Painting begins in the early twentieth century. It’s the true story of a beautiful prostitute, Yuliang (Gong Li) who breaks free of a brothel and becomes a famous artist when she runs off with the liberal, educated married businessman Pan Zanhua (Er Dongsheng). At first Pan, a customs official, takes Yuliang with him planning on freeing her by sending her back home. Thanks to gossip, plus a mutual attraction, Pan makes Yuliang his second wife and even teaches her how to read.

When Pan goes off on a “business trip” (we see one scene of Pan dressed in uniform mounted on a horse), he leaves Yuliang with an artist friend. Yuliang is drawn to art, and while Pan is away, she begins painting–and this begins her life long obsession and solace.

The film concentrates on showing that Yuliang made many sacrifices in order to be an artist. Painting nudes was completely unacceptable in China, and Yuliang, unable to give Pan a child, chooses to leave China and embark for France. Pursuing art in Paris establishes Yuliang as a major talent, but fame and recognition does not bring Yuliang personal happiness.

A Soul Haunted by Painting succeeds in some details more than others. For example, the scenes of the brutality of brothel life, and the interactions between Yuliang and Pan’s first wife are exceeding well done. However, when the film stretches to reach the category of sweeping epic, it falls short. For example, Pan’s “business trip” and Yuliang’s adjustment to Parisian life are never explained.

The film quality lacks the sharpness one expects from a DVD release–although the picture’s quality is certainly acceptable. Yuliang’s story is a grand one–full of struggle, determination, and defiance. But somehow the film loses all that, and it remains rather pedestrian fare. For fans of Chinese cinema, art history, or fans of the delectable Gong Li, however, the film is worth renting just for the visuals alone.

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Red Cherry (1995)

 “You are fortunate to be a work of art.”

red-cherryRed Cherry from director Daying Ye is based on the true story of ChuChu (Ke-Yu Guo) a 13-year-old Chinese girl who’s attending the International School in Moscow in 1940. ChuChu–who witnessed the public execution of her revolutionary father in China–is no stranger to cruelty and violence when German troops overrun a summer camp in Belarus. ChuChu is just one of several children captured by the Nazis. The film follows the fate of ChuChu, Carl Zhang–a German-Chinese student, and Luo (Xiaoling Xu), a 12-year-old Chinese boy.

ChuChu comes to the attention of a bizarre, one-legged Nazi general, a Dr. Von Dietricht whose hobby is tattooing. Kept as a servant within the walls of a monastery for several years, ChuChu becomes a subject for the Dr’s “artistic” whims.

Since Red Cherry is based on a true story, it seems crass to complain that the story is ugly and unpleasant. However, those watching the film should prepare themselves beforehand for several scenes that show close-ups of people–including children–who get their brains blown out at close quarters. The camera explores the lurid, exploitive machinations of the general in some relentless detail, and it does not try to avoid showing absolute brutality. Yet at the same time, the film also engages in moments of blatant sentimentality and cliched scenes depicting decadence. Consequently, Red Cherry is not a particularly easy or enjoyable film to watch. It’s wrenching, and tragic, but the film also seems to have a lingering fascination for some subjects that borders on lurid exploitation. In Mandarin, Russian and German with English subtitles.

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