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THE WHITE COUNTESS
USA: Sony Pictures Classics
UK: Sony Pictures Releasing
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Madeleine Potter, John Wood, Madeleine Daly, Hiroyuki Sanada, Allan Corduner, Luoyong Wang, Madeleine Cooper, Lee Pace, Kyle Rothstein, Da Ying
Director: James Ivory
Countries: UK / USA / Germany / China
USA & UK: 135 mins
USA Rated: PG-13 for some violent images and thematic elements
UK Certificate: PG contains mild violence, peril and sex references
USA Release Date: 21 December 2005 (Limited Release - New York and Los Angeles)
UK: Release Date: 31 March 2006
Shanghai, 1936 was a crossroads for political intrigue, refugees escaping turmoil, gathering military forces, international business, and underworld culture. Two people caught in this maelstrom forge a bond on the brink of the Japanese invasion: a beautiful Russian countess, reduced by circumstances to supporting her family as a bar girl and taxi dancer; and a blind former diplomat, devastated by the loss of his family in political violence and disillusioned by the world's inability to make peace. The story revolves around "The White Countess," the elegant nightclub created by the diplomat to shut out the chaos and tragedy that surround him.
The once-aristocratic BELINSKY family's fortunes are much reduced since the Bolshevik Revolution displaced Russia's nobility. They occupy a slum flat in Shanghai, supported by Sofia (Natasha Richardson), a beautiful young widow who sets out at night dressed in a threadbare evening gown to earn a sparse living as a taxi dancer and presumably as an occasional prostitute. Sofia supports her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly), her elderly Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and Uncle Peter (John Wood), and her spiteful mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and Greshenka (Madeleine Potter). Olga and Greshenka ceaselessly lament the shame and degradation that Sofia brings upon them, but she is their only means of support.
On the other end of the social spectrum, Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) snores audibly through a board meeting, to the dismay of his other company directors. As the businessmen leave the meeting, it is evident that Mr. Jackson is blind; he walks unaided and shrugs off attempts to assist him. While they sympathize with the as-yet unnamed tragic circumstances that led to his blindness, they are disturbed by his present eccentricity and disreputable habits. These habits include nightly tours of Shanghai's many lowlife dives.
Another man has been watching Jackson: Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) introduces himself as a fellow connoisseur of nightlife. Jackson is pleased to find a companion who seems to understand and share his fascination with finding just the right ingredients for the perfect nightlife ambience: comfortable, but with a frisson of violence; not too posh nor too grimy; a volatile chemistry of people, music, bouncers, and women.
Matsuda accompanies Jackson on his prowls of Shanghai's pleasure district, and they part at the taxi-dance hall where Sofia works. Sofia, a stranger to Jackson, notices some thugs planning a move on him, and she intervenes, taking his arm and guiding him out of the dance hall as if he is her client. But Jackson knows that Sofia is no ordinary prostitute; he has overheard a conversation she had in the dance hall with an old acquaintance: a Russian prince, reduced to working as a porter, who comes over and pays his respects to the one-time White Russian countess. When Jackson's chauffeur and faithful caretaker Liu (Luoyong Wang) arrives to pick him up, Jackson points Sofia out: she is the one Jackson has been looking for—although we don't yet know why.
THE PERFECT NIGHTCLUB
Jackson, increasingly cut off from the respectable world, decides to gamble his life savings on the horses in hopes of raising the funds required to underwrite his dream project—his perfect nightspot. Even at the racetrack, his former fame as a diplomat shadows him; we learn that Jackson was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations, is a hero to Chinese nationalists, but remains deeply disillusioned by the failure of diplomacy to establish peace. The racetrack brings other fortunes, however: Jackson has won enough to finance the bar of his dreams. He returns to Sofia at the taxi-dance hall and asks her to come and work for him: she'll be his centerpiece, the hostess who sits at his bar and never has to augment her income with "other work." Jackson and Liu recruit musicians, dancers, vamps, and strong-arm men to spice up the atmosphere. Soon, "The White Countess" is the new gathering-place of Shanghai nightlife, with Sofia ensconced at the bar as the real thing, the White Countess herself. The atmosphere evokes glamour, sophistication, a vibrant international elegance.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: CHINA IN THE 1930s
THE WHITE COUNTESS takes place in 1936 and '37, during the tense prelude to the Japanese invasion of eastern China and the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945. The film's climax, with Shanghai under attack, takes place on August 14, 1937, known as "Bloody Saturday." On Bloody Saturday, the Japanese launched bombing raids on Shanghai but were deterred by dense cloud cover. The Chinese responded by bombing Japanese ships in Shanghai's port, but the attempted retaliation went awry when Chinese bombs hit crowded areas of the city instead, including the International Settlement where the film's nightclub would have been situated. The bombs caught crowds of onlookers gazing up at the planes and the loss of life was appalling—thousands killed and injured. The incident sparked the beginning of full-scale Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression and the start of the Sino-Japanese War.