"In 1930s Shanghai, a blind and disillusioned former U.S. diplomat forms a relationship with a young refugee White Russian countess who has been reduced to a sordid life in the city's bars, working as a taxi driver and occasional prostitute to support members of her late husband's aristocratic family. " http://movies.yahoo.com
The movie starts in Shanghai with Sofia (Natasha Richardson) putting on make-up and getting dressed. Her family including her mother in law, Olga and sister-in-law Sarah are in another room discussing how much of a disgrace Sofia is to the family. Sofia's young daughter (I'd guess about 9-11 years old) Katya (Madeleine Cooper) stands up for her mother telling her aunt Sarah that if Sofia wasn't doing it then Sarah would have to and she wouldn't be near as good at it. Sofia leaves for her job after saying goodbye to Katya. On the way out she greets her downstairs neighbor, Samuel (I believe it's Samuel).
Next we see Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) who is asleep as other men talk business around him. He wakes up just in time to say "Absolutely" when a question is asked of him. The businessmen are lounging around in chairs and discussing how Jackson is a bad image for the company. Jackson comes up and greets them and then walks away. He is using a walking stick and bumping into things. You find out he is blind.
Sofia is on a tram when a French man begins to hit on her, thinking she is a prostitute. He says he is a rich man and has a limousine nearby. She gets off the train with him and when he turns his head she jumps right back on. She tells him maybe some other time but she has to go to her job.
Her job turns out to be that of a bar-girl. Her boss comes up to her and tells her she must get a new dress because hers is shabby. She says she will. A man who is shabbily dressed and very poor says hi to her. They were friends as children when they were both the offspring of influential Russian counts before the Russian Revolution When their families fled and lost all of their money and power.
Jackson is at a small, crowded bar drinking rum. His boss' son, Crane, comes and asks Jackson what he is doing in a shady place in the wrong part of town. Jackson says it might be shady but he finds it charming nonetheless, even though it's missing something. Crane leaves. A man sitting a seat down from Jackson says he couldn't help overhearing and he agrees with Jackson's comments about the bar. He introduces himself as Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada). The two strike up a conversation and leave the bar to attend another one (this is the one where Sofia works).
The two talk about Jackson's ideas for a dream bar. Jackson says he is well-off but doesn't have enough money for the bar. Mr. Matsuda leaves. Two crooks sit in the corner of the bar pointing and whispering. Sofia walks up to Jackson and acts like she wants him as a client but really warns him that the men are going to steal his money and probably his shoes. She proposes that he walks her out of the bar and act like she is his prostitute, because the men won't interfere. After they get out of the bar he thanks her. When he is getting into his car he tells his driver that she will be the centerpiece for his bar.
Sofia takes Katya to the docks with her because she is going to pick up a dress. She argues with the dressmaker for a lower price and Katya wanders off to an old man's looking box. She looks through the peephole and a beautiful hand drawn montage of images such as a rainbow bird flying and a family on a sailboat.
Jackson goes to the horse races and bets all his money on a horse. His horse wins and he has the money to build his dream bar. He meets Mr. Matsuda and tells him of his win. Mr. Matsuda says he came to say goodbye because he will be leaving Shanghai for a year. Jackson tells him when he comes back to come to his bar. Matsuda agrees. Jackson then goes to the bar where Sofia works and buys a ticket to dance with her. He asks if they can talk instead of dance and she agrees. Jackson starts to ask her to be his bar centerpiece because she is perfect. She asks how he could think shes perfect because he can't even see her. She offers for him to feel her face but he turns her down. She agrees to be his centerpiece after he says that she will be paid more and will never have to do anything morally questionable (I'm assuming he meant prostitution. Some reviews for the movie said she was a prostitute but it's never made clear) again. They dance and Sofia's boss yells at her in Chinese to stop dancing with a blind man. Jackson tells him he can understand what he's saying and Sofia tells the boss to go to hell.
One year later. Jackson's bar, The White Countess, is up and running. Matsuda comes to visit and remarks on how perfect it is. Jackson says yes but it's missing political tension. He introduces Matsuda to Sofia. Later Jackson has fallen asleep above the bar and is awoken by Sofia playing the piano. He comes downstairs and they have an awkward conversation. He asks why she isn't at home sleeping and she tells him it's because the only bed is only open during the day so she has to wait for the others to wake up. She asks him how he became blind but he doesn't tell her. Sofia remarks that she can't tell him much because he made her promise that their relationship was strictly bar/business related. She leaves after remarking how heavy the doors are. Jackson has a flashback. He is coming off a bus and his apartment is on fire. The next thing you see is him kneeling by the two tombstones of his wife and son. His daughter is near him and asks him to make her a promise.
Sarah, Sofia's sister-in-law, is berating Sofia for letting her daughter see her when she is in her bar get-up. She makes Sofia promise that she will not speak to Katya when she is dressed that way. Sofia agrees but only if Sarah promises that she will love Katya as her own if anything happens to Sofia. Sarah promises.
Jackson is at a cafe outdoors when Sofia and Katya pass by. Katya greets him but he doesn't answer her because of his and Sofia's agreement. Katya and Sofia continue on but Katya runs back and asks Jackson why he ignored her. He apologizes and she asks him to take her and Sofia on a boat trip to Soow-eeong (I'm just guessing on the spelling). Sofia drags Katya away before Jackson can answer. After they leave Matsuda comes upon Jackson and tells him he has a connection that can get many different groups of Chinese to come to the bar so that Jackson's goal of having political tension is accomplished. Jackson thanks him.
At Sofia's home her mother-in-law and father-in-law are discussing the power and money they had back in Russia. They talk about how everything will be back to normal when they finally get to Hong Kong. They discuss going to the French Consulate to ask for visas. Katya tries to show a painting to Sofia but Sofia ignores her (because of her agreement with Sarah). Sarah calls Katya over and they begin to talk and laugh and it is obvious that they have become very close.
At The White Countess many political groups are milling around and dancing but still keeping a healthy distance from each other. There are Japanese soldiers, Chinese soldiers, politicians, immigrants, etc. Jackson's bar is finally perfect. He and Matsuda talk and Matsuda says that Jackson's bar is finally a masterpiece but that he himself prefers a "broader canvas".
Sofia's mother-in-law and father-in-law are at the consulate when an old friend from Russia bumps into them. When they get home they tell Sofia that he is willing to get them visas and passports to Hong Kong but that it will take $300. Sofia says she will try to get it. Sofia walks in on Katya using her lipstick and wearing a dress of hers and grabs it from her and the two collapse crying.
Crane comes to visit Jackson at the White Countess. He tells Jackson that he is a bad image for the company. Jackson tells him that he isn't even part of the company. He was never a part of their company because they only wanted him because he had a great reputation back when he was a US diplomat and the company would look good with his name attached. Crane basically fires Jackson after telling him that he is disappointed in him because Crane was supposed to be Jackson's protege but Jackson wasn't worth learning from. On the way out Crane starts to question Jackson's relationship with Matsuda and tells him that whenever Matsuda arrives in a city a Japanese invasion isn't usually too far behind. Crane leaves. Sofia is sitting at the bar when the french man from the tram comes up and starts hitting on her. Jackson goes ballistic (he is drunk and angry from Crane's visit) and starts smashing things and yelling at the bouncers because they let him into his perfect bar. Sofia escorts Jackson upstairs and he kisses her passionately but she just sits him down on his sofa and goes back downstairs.
Jackson, Sofia, and Katya are in the park when Katya again asks him about the boat trip. He says that they will go sometime but that he isn't promising anything. Here we see another flashback: Jackson and his daughter are walking when she makes Jackson promise that no matter what he will live with her forever, even if she is married and old. Jackson agrees. The two get on a tram and it starts to move but blows up. Jackson dives on top of his daughter but the next thing you see is Jackson at a hospital with bandages over his eyes asking if she suffered at all. The doctor says no, it was instantaneous. Jackson starts crying because he feels like he broke his promise to his daughter. Back in the park Sofia tells Jackson she needs 300 but doesn't tell him why. They walk through an outdoor market and see Samuel, the kind downstairs neighbor from Sofia's building. Samuel and Jackson are introduced.
At The White Countess Jackson gives Sofia 300 dollars. He tells her he was tempted not to because he realizes it is probably to help Sofia flee. Sofia thanks him. Jackson asks to feel her face. She lets him and he remarks on how beautiful she is. Sofia begins to leave and then turns and says "These heavy doors won't keep your world contained this time." Jackson says he knows and Sofia leaves.
The Japanese Invasion of Shanghai starts.
It's the next day and Jackson is trying to get to the White Countess. His driver decides it's too dangerous because hundreds of refugees are running in the opposite directions. Jackson says goodbye and gets out to walk to the White Countess.
Sofia is back at her home and gives the money to her Aunt (-in-law?) Vera. Vera thanks her and tells her that she will make the trip after them. Sofia is aghast and Vera tells her that they could go back to life as they are used to in Hong Kong, but not with Sofia because of her history. She says they will also take Katya, because it is for the best. Sofia collapses crying as her family packs around her.
The family (minus Sophia) is in the back of a large truck when Samuel passes and Katya yells out to him (the In-laws told Katya that Sofia was right behind them). Samuel assumes Sofia is on the truck but once he arrives at the building he can hear her sobs. He is stunned and disgusted that they left her but he insists that she go get Katya so that she can leave with Samuel and his family. For a few seconds she fights with him saying it's the best but he keeps insisting that Katya needs her mother. Sofia leaves with him to go to the docks where they are leaving for a boat to Hong-Kong.
Mr. Matsuda is driving along when he sees Sofia and Samuel heading in the direction of the docks. Mr. Matsuda's face falls (I'm assuming it's guilt for having uprooted all these people and seeing Sofia made it more real to him because he knew her).
Mr. Matsuda gets to the White Countess and sees Jackson there. There are a few men passed out but otherwise there is no business. Jackson asks him how his canvas is doing. Mr. Matsuda indicates the sounds of bombings and gun shots and shrugs. Mr. Matsuda advises Jackson to leave the White Countess. Jackson doesn't want to but Matsuda says that unfortunately his broader canvas will probably destroy it. He tells Jackson that he genuinely appreciates and is thankful for the friendship the two had and it is doubtful the two will ever meet again. On the way out he turns and advises Jackson that maybe he should start a new canvas- a life with Sofia. Jackson tells him it's too late now, but Matsuda says that he just saw her heading to the dock. Matsuda leaves. Jackson sits and thinks for a few seconds and then he leaves.
Jackson is walking towards the dock. It's a tough journey and he has many missteps and runs into many people. Most people are running the opposite direction. He walks down an alley and from the other direction a line of Japanese soldiers with their bayonets out are walking in his direction. Jackson slowly walks right until he feels the bayonet point. A Japanese commander realizes he is blind and tells his men to lower their weapons. They do and Jackson walks by.
Sofia and Samuel are on the docks which are crowded and busy screaming for Katya. Bombs are exploding in the water and in the city behind them making this whole place just a chaotic mess. Katya is on a small boat with her relatives screaming for Sofia (She still believes that the relatives are taking Sofia with them). Jackson arrives at the docks and starts screaming for Sofia as well. Samuel sees Jackson and tells him of the relatives' treachery. The two see Katya and run down to her and begin trying to get her off the boat because Sofia isn't going with the relatives. Sarah is holding Katya back, though. Sofia finally spots Katya and starts screaming for her to get off the boat. Sofia finally pries Katya loose from Sarah's grip and the two embrace. Sarah begins heartbreakingly screaming and yelling for Katya because she truly loved her.
Samuel and his children and Sofia, Jackson, and Katya are in a very crowded room. The children are sleeping and Jackson brings some oranges for Samuel's family and for Sofia and Katya. Sofia scolds him for leaving and Jackson apologizes. Katya is actually awake and listening. Jackson tells Sofia that he thinks they can both help each other. Katya closes her eyes, at peace.
The last scene is of the boat to Taiwan. Jackson and Sofia have their arms wrapped around each other. He apologizes to Katya because the boat trip isn't like the one she made him promise to take her on. She smiles and runs off to listen to a singer who is standing at the bow of the boat. The camera pulls out in the longest shot of the movie and shows a beautiful sunset.
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