Letter from an Unknown Woman (2004) Movie Review

“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is mainland Chinese director/actress Xu Jinglei’s 2004 take on Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s novella, which had already been adapted for the screen to great acclaim in 1948 by Max Ophuls. The film won Xu the Silver Seashell award for Best Director at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, adding to her growing reputation as one of China’s most interesting young filmmakers. Her profile was recently given another boost when she starred in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s big budget Hong Kong thriller “Confession of Pain”, a role which nicely reflects her career of balancing commercial and more artistic fare.

“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is Xu’s latest directorial effort following her 2002 debut “My Father and I”, and sees her relocating Zweig’s story from Vienna to Beijing in the 1930s. The film begins with a man opening a letter from a dying woman confessing her long unrequited love for him. The woman’s sad life then unfolds through a series of flashbacks which reveal not only her many encounters with the man, but also the hardships she has faced during this chaotic time of change.

Although this new version of Zweig’s tale sticks quite closely to the basic plot of the novella, it does feature a different set of characters, most notably the female protagonist herself, who very much takes centre stage, even more so than in Ophuls’ treatment. As such, the film is seen entirely from her perspective and is arguably more faithful to Zweig’s original text, albeit with a somewhat feminist slant. Here, there is very little in the way of actual romance, as Xu paints a picture of an obsessive young girl whose desire for her ever-distant beloved comes to resemble a quest not so much for him to love her as for him to recognise and acknowledge her existence. The fact that he never does so thus adds a sense of tragedy of a wasted life rather than a wasted love, something which lends the film a melancholy impression of loss throughout.

Although the film is perhaps not emotionally rewarding in a traditional sense, through eschewing what is essentially an unconvincing and male fantasy-oriented central gambit of asking the viewer to believe that the titular woman could honestly love an openly immoral man who consistently ignores and forgets her, Xu turns the story into an effective character study of a woman struggling to find her own identity.

Interestingly, “Letter from an Unknown Woman” actually has the look of a far more romantic film, with lush, soft visuals and slow, gliding camera work that evokes a feeling of nostalgia which is markedly at odds with the intrinsic nihilism of the narrative. Through this, Xu explores themes of memory and self-image, not only on an intimate, personal level, but nationally, as the film touches on conflicting feelings towards pre-communist life in China. Whilst the film is not as successful in this respect, and never really convinces as historical or social commentary, it does at least suggest a sense of critical ambition absent from the works of many other prominent Chinese directors, and adds a welcome layer of depth to the proceedings.

The film is not without its flaws, chiefly in that the various chronological leaps are often quite confusing, with the viewer being unsure of the characters and their motivations. Whilst this may be in keeping with the oddly naïve way in which the protagonist seems to see other people, it at times makes certain aspects of the plot quite obscure and gives the proceedings a cold and distant air. These shifts also lend the plot an episodic feel and the film almost as a series of set pieces which would have benefited from being more emotionally connected.

However, such criticisms are perhaps to be expected from what amounts to an artistically inclined, modernist update of a classic tale of romantic tragedy. Certainly, Xu manages to mine the text to tell her own, quite different story, one which is fascinating in its own right, and which succeeds if not in psychologically unravelling, then at least in poetically depicting the sad, lonely woman who spent her life in the shadows.

Jinglei Xu (director) / Jinglei Xu (screenplay), Stefan Zweig (novel)
CAST: Jue Huang, Wen Jiang, Huang Jiao, Yuan Lin, Enran Ma, Feihu Sun, Xiaoming Su, Zihao Su, Jinglei Xu, Baomo Zhang

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