A story about two lost people in Shanghai, China in the late 1930s. Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson), whose aristocratic youth prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution did little to prepare her for the hardships of foreign exile. Left widowed by the Revolution, Sofia and her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly) flee Russia with the remains of her husband's family which includes Aunt Sara, the Princess Vera Belinskya (Venessa Redgrave) and Uncle Peter (John Wood), her mother-in-law, Olga Belinskya (Lynn Redgrave) and sister-in-law, Greshenka (Madeleine Potter). All live together in a squalid apartment in Shanghai. However, while the rest of the family hides from the world in shame as they wait in vain for help from former White Russian acquaintances who escaped the Bolsheviks with their fortunes as well as their lives, Sofia concentrates on surviving in the present by going out into the world and working for a living. However, in the Shanghai of the 1930s the best work women, like Sofia, can find is that of a hostess and dance partner in a club which caters to men willing to pay to dance and talk with women like Sofia. While the family eagerly accepts the money Sofia brings home they are embarrassed by her work and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law are especially vicious in their dealings with her.
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Unlike Sophia, Todd Jackson is running from painful memories. A former American diplomat, Jackson appears to be financially comfortable. But he is haunted by painful memories of the loss, first of his wife and one child due to a fire in their home, and then by the loss of his young daughter when the street car they were riding in was blown up. Left blind by the explosion, Jackson spends his days and nights in the cafés and clubs in Shanghai. He has a plan for his ideal club all worked out in his mind and he describes it in detail to a young Japanese man named Mr. Matsuda who makes Jackson's acquaintance in a sleazy bar they are both visiting. After describing his ideal bar to Mr. Matsuda, Jackson promises that his bar will be open within a year of his acquiring the remaining money he needs to launch the venture. A chance meeting with Sophia later that evening provides Jackson with a name for the bar and a hostess - all that remains to fulfill the dream is the money, and that is acquired a few days later following a successful bet on a horse.
Jackson opens his high class club naming it "The White Countess" and hires Sofia as his hostess. Life is good for Jackson, now comfortably sheltered from the world outside, in his club. Sofia's life also improves as she now has a better income, a kind employer and is no longer forced to put up with the pawing and sexual advances of drunken sailors and assorted playboys. A bond forms between the two but, the emotional shields each, especially Jackson, have erected results in their developing friendship growing slowly. However, events in the world outside threaten to end the calm that has settled into each of their lives. The Japanese army is advancing on Shanghai and people are scrambling to leave. After her family pressures Sofia into asking Jackson for the $300 they need for passports and other documents to get to Hong Kong, her sister-in-law cruelly informs Sofia that they are leaving her behind as her association with bars could harm their chances for reconnecting with their aristocratic friends in the White Russian émigré community. With the Japanese Air Force dropping bombs on the city, Japanese troops marching through the streets, and Sofia gone, Jackson suddenly acknowledges to himself the love for Sofia he had been suppressing. Meanwhile, betrayed by her family and seeking her daughter who has been taken by her sister-in-law, Sofia discovers the love she has for Jackson and regrets not having declared her love to him. Droping their emotional walls, both struggle amidst the engulfing chaos to salvage their emotional and physical lives.
The review of this Movie prepared by Chuck Nugent