Jettisoning all traces of his realist style, veteran helmer Ermanno Olmi has crafted his most complex and sumptuous work to date with “Singing Behind Screens.” This Chinese folktale, partly staged in a brothel, is the product of a mature director confident with the range of techniques at his command. Arthouse auds familiar with the Olmi name and sympathetic to Chinese period tales may help to defray, or even cover, pic’s 10 million euro pricetag. Stateside, Miramax has already picked up pic as part of a package deal.
Olmi himself sees the film as a follow-up to his anti-war “The Profession of Arms,” but the multi-layered construction and ravishing imagery combine to make it more like a fairytale.
A young man (Davide Dragonetti), in what looks like 1930s urban China, gets lost and mistakenly enters a Chinese brothel. Though visibly uncomfortable, he becomes attracted not only to the sexual situations but even more to the staged narration of a Chinese folktale about a female pirate.
Pic initially crosscuts between the start of the staging and the young man’s entrance. Though it occasionally returns to this character, for the most part the film moves between the highly theatrical staging of the story in the brothel and the “opened-out” scenes in actual locations.
Fable is narrated by an old captain (Bud Spencer) from the deck of a large Chinese junk that fills one end of a huge room. The brothel’s clients, in little reed huts arranged with a view of the stage, can either watch the show or indulge in other pleasures.
Initially only the narrator’s voice is heard, and the action is performed as a dance. However, at the moment the young man succumbs to the charms of a hooker, the pic cuts to a real lake where pirate junks are firing on a shoreside village.
Leader of the pirates is Admiral Ching (Makoto Kobayashi), who’s backed by a consortium of profiteers. To calm things down, the Emperor (Xuwu Chen) offers Ching a high title if he’ll give up his pillaging. However, Ching’s backers, unwilling to lose their income, murder the pirate first with a poisoned carp.
Ching’s widow (Jun Ichikawa) seeks vengeance, pillaging villages and vessels and becoming the most feared corsair of the coast. When the old emperor dies and his heir (Sultan Temir Omarov) ascends the throne, the new ruler personally goes out to capture the widow.
Olmi has worked with fairytales and fantasy before, from the sweet simplicity of “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” to the childish misfire of “The Secret of the Old Wood.” But “Singing” is a more complex realization of the director’s liking for creating multiple worlds that work both in the imagination and in real terms, somewhat a la Peter Greenaway. Auds expecting a swashbuckling tale or an anti-war tract will be disappointed: Skirmishes and pillaging are kept to a minimum, and the pirate figure is sympathetic, so it’s hard to perceive any pacifist theme here.
Rights problems prevented screen credit being given to Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate” from his “A Universal History of Infamy.” (In fact, Borges took the plot from a 19th-century Chinese work, and the tale may well go back further than that.) Olmi adds the framing device of the brothel, using the staged play-within-a-play to reveal what is seen as the essence of truth. The plot boils down to a tale of fury appeased by forgiveness; the opulent staging gives a sense of depth to the material.
Glorious lensing by Olmi’s son, Fabio, makes the stunning vistas of Lake Scutari in Montenegro completely convince as a Chinese coast, with majestic, painterly mountains. Where “The Profession of Arms” (also shot by Fabio), was memorable for its icy blues and smoky whites of a frozen landscape, here the dominant tones are opulent blues, rich reds and vibrant yellows, all redolent of the Far East.
Music mirrors the striking settings, with generous chunks of Stravinsky, Berlioz and Ravel.
Thesps take a back seat to the visual compositions. As often, Olmi gathers a cast of mostly unknowns, headlined by female dancer Jun Ichikawa (not to be confused with the male Japanese helmer), whose calm, at times hard exterior occasionally slips to reveal the jumble of emotions that thrust her into pirating. Seasoned vet Bud Spencer (aka Carlo Pedersoli) brings flair to the narrator’s theatrical recitation, and finds humor in the role without straying into Robert Newton-like excesses.
Film’s title comes from a Chinese poem, in which the sign of a contented home is said to be the sound of a woman singing within its walls.