Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,-behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it-he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
This is one of the more superior films set in an imperial context - China of the 1920s. Perhaps because it is based on a story by Somerset Maugham who lived and knew the empire for what it was, the film feels more realistic and believable than many other contemporary films about empire which tend to project modern values back on to the characters and subjects depicted. The people in this film feel all too human and frail with faults that are easily related to and all to believable.
The film seem to begin like a typical period drama with elegant surroundings, costumes and beautiful looking characters, but this is only a device to help contrast events later in the film. Do not be put off into thinking that this is just a kind of Merchant Ivory like depiction of the early Twentieth Century. It sets up a formal and fairly loveless relationship between the stiff and proper Dr Fane and the elegant but carefree socialite Kitty. She seems to be interested in marriage in order to attain freedom from her domineering mother but perhaps not fully understanding the gravity of the commitment that she has made - at least not for the era and society that she lives in.
A move to Shanghai in China allows Kitty to maintain her cosmopolitan and socialising lifestyle whilst her prim husband seems to offer her little of what she truly desires in life. Her frivolity leads her into an entanglement and affair with a diplomat who feigns love in return. When her husband discovers the affair he offers her various unpalatable choices including a relocation to a distant and isolated cholera afflicted settlement far from the trappings of civilisation. We wonder if this posting has been taken out of humanitarian concern or purely to punish her adulterous affair? Either ways, they find themselves in the midst of the chaos of 1920s China where warlords and nationalists fight for domination whilst resenting the presence of Europeans - who many blame for the state of affairs in the country. Interestingly, this is where the film casts an intriguing light on imperial motives of individuals. Far from showing grasping capitalists or military experts, this film shows the humanitarian inspired doctor armed only with his microscope and knowledge genuinely trying to help a population who often do not appreciate or even resent his efforts. It also shows technology and knowledge transfers which were very much the norm as European expertise was more frequently placed at the service of local populations than is often appreciated or accredited. There is also another provoking character, Mr Waddington, who illustrates another kind of 'imperialist' the European who straddles the two worlds or civilisations and not entirely inhabiting either. To Europeans he appears to have 'gone native', in the terminology of the day, whilst still being the 'outsider' to most Chinese. The film even questions the motives of the nuns who seem to put up with intolerable conditions in order to help the poor and orphans. It is subtleties like these that make the film worth investing in.
At its heart though, this is a love film. It attacks relationships and commitment from many angles; motivations for marriage, issues of trust, must love be earned or is it implicit? Somerset Maugham was a master of taking complicated themes and portraying them in often surprisingly brief storylines. The director, unlike many these days, has done a fine job at balancing complicated emotions and themes but keeping them within a believable interwar years framework. He has built up complex characters who you can empathise with but you still feel that they are operating in the context of their era with few of our own prejudices and morals impinging upon them. It is worth mentioning that the cinematography and scenery are gorgeous - whilst still managing to show terrible suffering and conditions for the local population. It also has a wonderful soundtrack that really helps evoke and gets the most out of the era, the heavy emotions and the Chinese setting. If you wish to lose yourself for two hours into the world of a flawed couple dealing with their own relationship whilst powerful external forces rage around them, then this is a film for you.