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Love story with a twist inspires actress-director
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-02-14 09:34

Young director Xu Jinglei has offered her new film "Letter from an Unknown Woman" as a Valentine's Day gift to the nation's lovers.

Xu Jinglei's new film "Letter from an Unknown Woman" stars veteran actor/director Jiang Wen and herself. [China Daily]

The movie hit cinema screens across China yesterday and runs until early next month.

Unlike the fare normally offered up to the nation's cinemagoers, this is no cheesy comedy or regular romance. Rather, it deals with an unforgettable, heart-breaking story and may offer the viewers much food for thought about love - love cared for, love ignored and love forgotten, critics say.

Adapting a masterpiece

After her directorial debut in 2003 with "My Father and I," Xu decided to adapt renowned Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's short story "Letter from an Unknown Woman."

"Every time I read the story, I am moved to tears. But as time goes by, I read it very differently," said Xu.

"When I was a freshman at Beijing Film Academy in 1994, I read it as a love story about a love-crazed woman and a heartless man. But when I read it time and again in later years, I have come to see it as a story about pure love. It is a story about a respectable woman who leads a passionate, meaningful life and whose last letter shatters the heartless man's false sense of superiority towards women and love," she said.

Xu knows that there already exists a splendid adaptation of Austrian author Zweig's masterpiece by Max Ophuls in 1948.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) published the story in 1936.

But Xu insists that her interpretation will be very different.

"I am not trying to moralize or to educate the viewers with my film. What I am trying to do is to depict the story with passion and bring to life a moving tale," Xu told China Daily.

"As I see it, today's women in love care only about their own feelings. My film tells a story that caters to the tastes of contemporary audiences. It portrays a woman who loves with dignity, who takes control and achieves her independence in love," Xu explained, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's famous line "If I love you, what business is it of yours?"

Xu Jinglei says the film is really fused with her own experience and understanding of love.

Depicting pure love

A Poly Asian Union Film and Media production, "Letter from an Unknown Woman" cost 20 million yuan (US$2.4 million) to make.

Starring Xu and veteran actor/director Jiang Wen, Xu's film is set in Beijing of the late 1940s.

On a bleak winter night, a man rides through the war-torn city and returns home. He finds a letter awaiting him. It is the last letter written by a woman before her death.

In the letter, she reveals to him for the first and last time the story of her life-long passion for him that has not diminished over time, but one that he has never known. Shaken by the letter, the man searches his memory for the nameless woman.

Superb camerawork by veteran cinematographer Pin Bing Lee from Taiwan, music by Kubota Osamu and Lin Hai, and vivid revival of old Beijing by production designer Cao Jiuping add to the inner strength of Xu's well-crafted script.

However, from the very beginning, Xu knows that it is a challenging job to adapt Zweig's work into a good film.

"The big problem was how to translate the meticulously described inner feelings of the heroine from words into visual sequences," Xu recalled.

The film story turned out to be moving experience, at least for audiences at the 52nd Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival held in Spain last September and to a handful of Chinese viewers who attended closed-door test screenings in Beijing and Nanjing in recent months.

At the festival, Xu took home the coveted Altadis-Best New Director Silver Shell award.

Actress-turned director

"Winning the award and accolades from industry insiders gives me a great deal of encouragement. But I am also looking forward to receiving confirmation from Chinese audiences who go to watch it during the Spring Festival holiday," said the actress-director.

Born in Beijing and trained as an actress at Beijing Film Academy, Xu has been one of the hottest pop idols for TV and big screen fans for years on the Chinese mainland. Upon graduation in 1997, she shot to stardom for her roles in several TV drama serials.

In 1999, she won the prestigious Chinese Filmmakers Association's Best Performance Award for her first major film role in "Spicy Love Soup" (Aiqing Malatang).

Her recent films include "Far from Home" (Wode Meili Xiangchou) (Golden Rooster "Best Supporting Actress" award in 2001), "Dazzling" (Huayan), and "Spring Subway" (Kaiwang Chuntian De Ditie) ("Most Popular Actress" award at the Beijing University Students Film Festival in 2002, ), "I Love You" (Wo Ai Ni) (Golden Rooster "Best Actress Award" in 2002).

In 2003, Xu pushed her career in a different direction by writing, directing and producing her first feature film, "My Father and I" starring Ye Daying and herself.

The film won her a Golden Rooster and a Hundred Flowers "Best Directing Debut Award" in her homeland. The film also attracted international attention at major international film festivals including ones held in Toronto and Tokyo.

"Letter from an Unknown Woman" is her second feature as a director and screenwriter.

Now a teacher at the Performing Department of Beijing Film Academy, this up-and-coming director is busy making new plans for more films.

"Film directing is fresh and exciting for me at this stage of my life. But that does not mean I will easily give up acting. I have no set plans for my future life. You see, I am also interested in photography. Maybe some day, I will work as a photographer travelling worldwide," she said with a smile.

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