Friday, February 20, 2009

Review – Letter from an Unknown Woman (2004)

February 20, 2009

Letter from an Unknown Woman – China, 2004

Jinglei Xu’s 2004 remake of Letter from an Unknown Woman takes Stefan Zweig’s story and places it in post-war Beijing circa 1948. There, a man named Xu Ai You (Wen Jiang) returns home in neither an excited, nor a particularly saddened state, as if he is a man simply going though the motions of a normal life. Perhaps that is why he forgets the reason his servant cooks him noodles that evening, for when your life is a mundane routine, you can be forgiven for not remembering your own birthday. If the noodles were not enough of a treat, the man also receives a mysterious letter. It begins with the phrase “You who never knew me” and ends with a statement that should shock him but which he reads with a blank expression that expresses neither surprise nor concern – if he is reading this letter, then he is hearing the words of a dead woman.

The letter is from a woman we come to know only as Miss Jiang, and as she explains it, she has been in love with Mr. Xu for most of her life. It is a love that Mr. Xu is obviously oblivious to, so Miss Jiang begins a long narrative detailing her severe case of unrequited love. She was a teenager, he a successful writer. She was from a poor family; he had become wealthy as a result of his writings. In her own words, she loved him “slavishly”; he would not recognize her if he bumped into her, which he does. And for this accidental contact, he apologizes; she in turn says nothing, too overwhelmed to mutter even the most basic response, but from that moment on, she is his. If this does not sound entirely like the stuff of fairy-tale romance, it’s because it is not portrayed as such. For as we see a much younger Miss Jiang’s romantic fantasy take shape, we hear the testimonial of Miss Jiang as an adult. It is the words of a bitter, heartbroken woman cursing the pitiful nature of young love, proclaiming the love of a child as “without hope, so servile, so submissive, so intense” and saying that only a lonely child ignorant of the world’s complicated nature could love like this. And so we watch Miss Jiang in flashbacks pouting because she’s made to dress in clothing that she thinks will not impress Mr. Xu, trying her hand at writing, and eventually finding her way into his apartment, an experience that she describes as the happiest moment in her life. When her mother agrees to marry a rich landlord in Shandong, Miss Jiang is devastated, for she now knows that she cannot live without him.

Her feelings are not easily understood. Part of the reason for this stems from the decision to make Mr. Xu a writer yet not include any samples of his writing. If his words are powerful enough to inspire both romantic and scholarly dedication in Miss Jiang, then the audience certainly deserves to hear evidence of his talent. Denied of this, we are instead given only fleeting images of Mr. Xu with which to try to understand the intensity of Miss Jiang’s feelings toward him. We see him sitting at his desk writing, teaching a young woman how to skate, and bringing a young woman to his home late at night. None of these moments convinced me that he was a man that would inspire great passion in one woman, let alone a number of them, which is apparently the way the film wants you to see Mr. Xu later on. I say later on because for much of the first half of the movie, Mr. Xu is portrayed as somewhat of an enigma. He’s there; we just don’t know that much about him.

One of the problems with this version of Letter from an Unknown Woman is the characters themselves never become worthy of sympathy or emotional investment. Mr. Xu goes from being a solitary, quiet writer to being a womanizer who is not above using the aggression of the Japanese as a way of getting away from a woman after having achieved his desired one night stand. Ordinarily such a character would make viewers feel for the woman he led on. However, as played by Jinglei Xu herself, Miss Jiang is too unemotional, not even shedding a tear as the man she loves ignores on a daily basis. It could even be said that she adopts his mannerisms when she decides to close herself off emotionally and essentially sell herself to the highest bidder. Her claim that she’s doing it to provide for her son is certainly true, but it doesn’t get her the level of compassion it probably should.

I remember watching Max Ophuls's original version and being shocked when Lisa Berndle stood outside Louis Jourdan’s apartment, practically stalking him. It’s clear that Lisa initiates their rendezvous. In the updated version, Miss Jiang is far to shy to take such drastic action. It is Mr. Xu who initiates contact with her and he who invites her to his house at the end of the evening. And no amount of eagerness on Miss Jiang’s part changes this. Also missing from the original version is the consequence of Louis Jourdan’s actions. In the original, he is facing a duel and potential death. In the remake, all Mr. Xu does is read a letter. While there may be emotional costs in doing so, their extent is not made clear. The result of this is a film that carries significantly less of an emotional punch that the original, and without that emotional involvement, that acknowledgment that a tragedy is indeed unfolding in front of us, I felt slightly bored, and no amount of impressive cinematography, dazzling costumes, or interesting side characters could alter my impression that what I was witnessing was a lackluster, yet somewhat interesting missed opportunity. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*Letter from an Unknown Woman is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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