I have been spending a lot of time watching movies recently, one of which was James Ivory’s The White Countess starring Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener), Sanada Hiroyuki (The Last Samurai), and Natasha Richardson, whose previous work I am unacquainted with. The screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese-born author who grew up in the UK.
The film is set in 1930s Shanghai. There, Countess Sofia Belinskya, a White Russian driven from Europe and living with her dead-husband’s family, survives as a hostess and occasional prostitute in order to support her young daughter. She meets a retired American diplomatic, Todd Jackson, blinded by a terrible accident in the past, who establishes a bar, ‘The White Countess’, with Sofia as the centrepiece. Jackson forms an intellectual kinship with Matsuda, a Japanese intelligence agent with a keen interest in Jackson’s new club. Ultimately, however, we learn that Matsuda is the harbinger of a Japanese advance and siege of the city.
Jackson longs for a political tension in his bar to reflect the outside world: Kuomintang, Chinese Communists and Japanese. This longing is expressed in the film itself which excels in capturing the tensions of the 1930s in the foreign enclaves of Shanghai: Germans shout abuse at Jews, Russians attempt to regain the stature they lost in the Revolution, and Wilsonians lament the collapse of the League of Nations. It is reminiscent of, but in this aspect is better than, Empire of the Sun, also set in Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion.
It was nice to see Sanada Hiroyuki capitalising on his post-Last Samurai fame. Certainly, this was a better role for him than his Rush Hour 3 character. I hope that, along side Yakusho Koji, Sanada’s star keeps rising in Hollywood.