“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.