Marja-Leena Rathje
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Shanghai in films


From CBC TV: Some 20,000 white Russians fleeing the Soviet revolution flooded into Shanghai. Many [of the women] ended up in the entertainment industry and replaced the American prostitutes.

Last night, husband and I sat down to watch a movie on DVD that had come recommended and lent to us by our son-in-law. His good friend in the UK has a blind partner who had the interesting job of tutoring the lead actor of this film on how to behave as a blind person.

Another reason the movie interested us was that the story takes place in Shanghai in 1936 and 1937. In one of our very rare TV-watching evenings a week or two ago, we happened on a fascinating documentary Shanghai, Paradise for Adventurers, one of the CBC's Legendary Sin Cities series. This is about life in Shanghai in the 20's and 30's, the so-called Paris of the East, a sometimes questionable refuge for many Eastern European Jews, Russians and other refugees as well as the numerous rich businessmen, playboys, adventurers and gangsters - before the coming chaos of war. A great historical background for viewing the movie.

The White Countess is a well-done story of a blind ex-diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) and a Russian countess and her family, played by the wonderful Redgrave women, against the turbulent political background of a Shanghai about to be attacked by the Japanese. Dramatic and compelling with lovely filming, as to be expected by the Ivory team, we enjoyed the human face and colour it gave to the history we'd just learned.

This film made me recall one of my favourite ones The Empire of the Sun. This story of a young British boy (played wonderfully by Christian Bale) began in Shanghai with another attack by the Japanese. I'm not fond of war movies, but this was an incredibly moving and memorable film for me. I've seen it twice.

Watching these films, it hit home again how much our history education was almost all western and northern, and how little we knew of Asia's past. Now that China is a growing world power, our eyes look eastward and we want to understand its history, especially of the tumultous later 19th and the 20th century. So many parts of Asia came under the influence of white colonialists and businesses, Shanghai included. Since the CBC program, husband has been reading up on China, sharing interesting bits out loud with me, feeling the history that is now even more alive.

Marja-Leena | 14/10/2006 | 4 comments
themes: Films, History


White Countess was an excellent film. It would be very interesting to know the person that tutored him on the role, since Fiennes is notorious for his method acting.

Daniel, thanks for your comment. If you wish, I'll see if I can get his name and whether he cares to have it posted here. It was not included in the film credits for some reason.

I adore The Empire of the Sun too and watch it again from time to time. The child was superb. But I always want to stick pins in Ralph Fiennes.

Anna, is Ralph Fiennes too stiff and not emotional enough for you? I rather think he is, though I still admire some of his films.