If you're Kazuo Ishiguro, how do you follow up Never Let Me Go, one of the best-received and reviewed books of 2005? You hope that your screenplay for the Merchant-Ivory film White Countess might find some degree of similar critical success at the year-end awards, including the Oscars.
The story is set in late-1930s Shanghai and centers on a former American diplomat named Todd Jackson. Once a man full of idealism and excitement, he has now become disillusioned - as Graham Greene put it at one point, a burnt-out case. He spends his time hanging out in Shanghai's big hotels and gentlemen's clubs, embittered over the fact that war and conflict are simply unavoidable. Even worse, he's grieving over the loss of his wife and children, victims of the political turmoil in China that also left Todd blind.
To ease his own pain, Todd becomes determined to create a more controlled environment by attempting to create the perfect tavern in what is perhaps the most sordid and eventful port in the world. Since he's already put in the time by hanging out in various seedy joints throughout the city, his research is already partially complete. He visits bar after bar until finally having a chance encounter with Matsuda - a shadowy sort of person who shares Todd's talent for enjoying the decadent ways of life. Todd is convinced to gamble his savings on a horse race, and he wins. From those winnings, he will create a bar that has the perfect blend of romance, tragedy and political tension - a Shanghai Rick's Café, if you will. Matsuda helps him in his endeavors.
Although rumors begin to spread that Matsuda has actually come to Shanghai to lead a Japanese invasion of the city, Todd refuses to listen to these rumblings. He becomes absorbed in perfecting the bar, which he believes will keep both the outside world and his own emotions locked outside his doors.
One evening, Todd encounters a woman named Sofia working at a taxi-dance hall. She is actually a 30-something White Russian countess who fled the Bolshevik Revolution during her childhood. Alone and without any surviving family, she lives in a Shanghai slum with her late husband's aristocratic family and her own ten-year-old daughter. Although she is the sole breadwinner for the family, she must make her living in sordid night spots, even to the point that she must resort to prostitution from time to time. As a result, her family ostracizes.
Todd, on the other hand, is entranced. He sees her as a sublime blend of tragedy and sensuality and asks her to come work as the centerpiece of his bar. Their relationship eventually helps him to break free from his insular world. He eventually realizes that his feelings for Sofia are much greater than that of a man who admires a beautiful picture, and becomes drawn to both the woman and her child. (Kim Hollis/BOP)