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May 20, 2008

Letter from an Unknown Woman

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Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin
Xu Jinglei - 2004
Dragons Group All Regions DVD

Adapted from the same novel by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman can easily be enjoyed by those who have not seen the more famous film by Max Ophuls, or have, like myself, not seen that film in many years. If, for no other reason, this satisfying version should be seen as a showcase for the multi-talented Xu Jinglei. With its setting of China in the Thirties and Forties, and glancing nod to the so called "Women's Pictures" of that era, with a poster of Now, Voyager featured at a movie theater, Xu's film is a reworking of the classic genre. At the same time, Xu makes the man who is the object of unreturned love almost peripheral to the story.

As one familiar with Ophuls' version, it was easy to accept Xu in the role associated with Joan Fontaine. What is jarring is the exchange of dashing Louis Jourdan for doughy Jiang Wen. Xu addresses this casting choice in an interview about the making of her film. This casting may not conform with reel life as much as real life where the heart beats faster for reasons often incomprehensible to others. Additionally, Jiang is filmed in such a way that his image is fleeting or obscured, the visual compliment to his being the frequently unseen and unobtainable lover.

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What also makes this version of Letter from an Unknown Woman almost radical among contemporary films is Xu's comfort with near silence. There is a scene when Xu is getting dressed after a reunion with her forgetful lover. What is barely heard is the sound of Xu putting on her necklace and earrings. Another moment shows Xu gently caressing the books in her lover's library. What Xu understands is that romance is not just the grand gestures or even the physical act of love, but often the solitary thinking of that other person.

Xu also sees the humor of the situation, first by naming her characters, Miss Jiang and Mr. Xu. In their last time together, the frequently self-absorbed male comments to the woman he has loved and forgotten before, about his feelings of deja vu when the couple has breakfast, ascribing his feelings to a past life rather than events that occurred about eight years ago. It is also worth noting that Xu's film ends in 1948, the year of release of Ophuls' version.

Certainly, a more detailed comparison should be made of these two films, not only in the changes in content but also in examination of visual style. Like Ophuls, Xu makes use of tracking shots that move with and around her actors. Xu's version of Letter to an Unknown Woman can easily stand on its own merits making it that rare remake that actually honors the source of inspiration.

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Speaking of Ophuls and remakes, I realized that due to a schedule change I made this week, I will be able to see a double feature of The Reckless Moment and The Deep End.

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Posted by peter at May 20, 2008 12:51 AM