I love movies about pre 1937 Shanghai. Shanghai was the most the most incredible city in the world at that time. It had virtually no central government, like much of China, and what it did have was totally corrupt and selling out its people to the foreigners who were there exploiting the Chinese in every manner of business. You could get anything you wanted in the Shanghai of the 1930s – from posh high class night life (shown in this movie), to art, to musical and dramatic performances by Chinese or any number of foreign cultures, play polo or tennis or swim in an exclusive upscale club for foreigners - to drugs, prostitutes, gambling, etc. Most Western newsmen, businessmen, government employees, or even common sailors who went there did not want to leave. It would take more than a single movie to capture all of this, but one strength of this movie is that it does give us a pretty good slice of it with the more tawdry dance halls (prostitute pick up joints), the very upscale clubs of excellent music, live performances, and a glimpse into the night life of the wealthy and privileged. It shows this against the backdrop of the poverty that haunted most Chinese – those who were not corrupt officials, traders, or vice lords. There must be a thousand stories in 1930s Shanghai, but have not been more than a half dozen movies about it.
Natasha Richardson is a White Russian Countess, deposed by the revolution, and living in relative squalor in Shanghai after the Russian proletariat deposed her family not only of status, but of all of their holdings and wealth. She lives with a family that, as I gather, was a mother in law, an aunt, a sister in law, a father in law and her little girl. She maintains her poise and charm, but she also has adapted to the fact that they must survive and she alone goes out into the tawdry world of Shanghai nightlife to support the family. The others sit at home, maintaining the kind of arrogance and hypocrisy and cruel contempt for the lower classes (that they now are part of despite their refusal to accept it) that led to the overthrow of the Russian ruling class, and pretending that someday they will live as they had before. Natasha gives us an ex-Countess, not as a spoiled aristocrat turned whore out of necessity, but an elegant, poised, resourceful woman who desperately loves her daughter Katya, and is loyal to this most unappreciative family, and who maintains the core of her character despite her circumstance.
Ralph Fiennes plays a role which he is well suited for, but somehow, he never really gives us enough to know what he really is, or for that matter, is not. When I saw them together in a scene, I felt well fed and satisfied with my main course of Richardson. But, I felt I have been given nothing more than a morsel, a tiny hors d oeuvre, and hungering for more with Fiennes. From the opening scene he has some kind of position with some hugely successful trading company – but other than that scene, until he essentially gets fired late in the movie – he has nothing to do with them. He never goes to meetings, or to work in an office. We learn he has been in the USA State Department, and somewhere early in the movie, perhaps his first meeting with the mysterious Matsuda, he is described as the last hope of the League of Nations – implying that his worldly dream is peace and cooperation between nations – which the United States never joined due to an isolationist Congress. This seems at odds with Jackson’s (Fiennes character) later complaint to Matsuda after he has gotten his posh, very exclusive, club off the ground “that there is no political tension here.”
So it is quite unclear what Jackson is doing in Shanghai – other than wandering in his melancholy – he seems to be employed by no one, his family is gone, but he is here. He wins a pile of money in a horse race and creates his world in the form of a posh night club. He invites the Countess to be his hostess. This is not a dance hall where you pick up whores – and she is more than happy to accept the position as she does nothing more (nor less) that greet the customers, provide an elegant and charming face behind the name of his club.
Then, as all is going well, enter the equally mysterious Matsuda. Matsuda seems to have been put in the script simply to give Jackson a way of expressing his philosophy of life, and particularly, his dream of a bigger world, something that he has not yet created. We learn late in the movie that Matsuda is some kind of agent facilitating the invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese. But for me, that dog just does not hunt. Not sure how a gentleman attending posh night clubs facilitates an invasion anyway – but perhaps he is part of a secret intelligence organization – in which case he would have a front job and would be happy to disclose it since it would divert attention away from the fact that he is essentially a spy. Or, perhaps he is in the diplomatic circle trying to lure the city officials into betrayal – but again, his credentials would not need to be hidden. It just seems such a contrived character that exists only for Jackson to pontificate on his hidden view of the world. I consider this a major flaw in the movie.
And Jackson wants more “political tension” in his club and Matsuda suggests Chinese Reds, Chinese nationalist soldiers, Japanese sailors, etc. Well, Jackson’s need for political tension to expand and improve that little world that only he sees is, in and of itself, a mystery; but inviting soldiers and sailors of three opposing militaries seems almost laughable. What? He want brawls, fist fights, to provide his political tension? This is not a club for soldiers and sailors – this part of the screenplay is so novice it really hurts the movie.
I am not going to spoil any more of it. Jackson certainly deserves to be veiled, hiding from emotion, and perhaps even bitter after the bitter pill of losing his entire family and his eyesight in two separate tragic events. His blindness allows him to see a world that he seems unable to reveal to anyone other than Matsuda – certainly, I could never see it. In that way he makes us as blind as he is. Perhaps that is what he wanted.
I liked the ending, although, it still was shrouded with a lot of uncertainty. Nevertheless, it showed him to see again through his feelings for the Countess, it showed the incredible courage, strength, and morality of the Countess by her desperate and unrelenting attempt to recover her beloved daughter, and her deep and genuine love for Jackson.
A few and significant flaws or it would be 5 stars. But watch it. It is well worth it.