Dir: Ermanno Olmi. Italy. 2003. 100 mins.
Years ago, David Thomson wrote "A question mark hangs over Ermanno Olmi, as if he needed some gust of passion or surrealism to free him from the aspirations of realism". This gust began to blow in Olmi's last film, The Profession Of Arms, and it has whipped itself up into a full-scale gale in his latest, Singing Behind The Screens, which is released in Italy on 24 October in an unusual co-distribution arrangement between Mikado and 01 Distribution. This is a visionary film that lifts the meditation about war and peace initiated by The Profession Of Arms onto another, more other-worldly level. If a criticism can be levelled against the cinematic Impressionism of this Chinese pirate yarn, it is that it too often tries to wing it on atmosphere alone. Expect this to be a slow-burner; but it will be a slow-burner in several territories, as there is nothing remote country-specific about the film. If anything, it feels more Taiwanese or Korean than Italian.
Olmi is reaching new heights in his old age. This symbolically dense film has its opaque moments, and its rare attempts at humour mostly fall flat; but overall this is a visually seductive and consistently original fable about war and peace, defiance and surrender. Though Singing Behind The Screens is a resolutely arthouse film, its originality and allure should generate interest in a slew of European and international territories - including the States - and justify Lakeshore Entertainment's decision to board at the pre-production stage.
The film's narrative frame is established with great subtlety of montage in the opening five minutes. Slowly we realise that the boards paced by the old pirate who begins to tell the story are actually the boards of a huge, ship-shaped stage; that the stage is not in a theatre, but a Chinese brothel, and that the audience consists of clients who are being serviced in a series of covered booths which float like small boats in the sea of the stalls. Any last tatters of naturalism are dispersed by the strident underscoring of Han Yong's Chinese-tinged classical soundtrack, which is a full-scale orchestral work in its own right.
So by the time the main story kicks in - a historically-documented tale of the wife of a Chinese pirate captain who takes over her husband's command when he is murdered by his former patrons - the real world is already a distant memory. Even the casting of the two leads does its bit here: Carlo Pedersoli, alias Bud Spencer, drags all that Spaghetti Western baggage in with him; while Jun Ichikawa (not to be confused with the male director of the same name), an Italo-Japanese girl with no previous acting experience, becomes in Olmi's hands an icon with the presence and poise of a Gong Li or a Zhang Ziyi.
Shot on location on Lake Scutari, on the border between Montenegro and Albania, Singing Behind The Screens is a film of great material beauty, a film that celebrates the force of nature, the glittering surface of the manufactured object - the helmet and the sword, the kite and the brocade - and the human face, made-up or au naturel. Credit for this should be shared equally between Olmi's cinematographer son Fabio and the production design team led by Luigi Marchione, which spread the budget of Euros 9m with creative panache. In the naval sequences, a whole fleet was generated from just three floating hulls with interchangeable superstructures - one of which was then brought to the restored Dinocitta studios just outside of Rome and used as the stage of the theatre-brothel.
As in The Profession Of Arms, Olmi is interested not in battle but in the spaces in-between, the waiting, the aftermath, the negotiations. Consequently, distributors who pitch this as an Italo-Chinese Pirates Of The Caribbean risk being lynched by customers enraged by the lack of yo-ho-ho-and-a-bottle-of-rum. It's arthouse, and then some.
Prod cos: Cinema11Undici
Co-prods: Rai Cinema, Lakeshore Entertainment, Pierre Grise Productions
Int'l sales: Lakeshore International
Prods: Luigi Musini, Roberto Cicutto
Scr: Ermanno Olmi
Cinematography: Fabio Olmi
Prod des: Luigi Marchione
Ed: Paolo Cottignola
Music: Han Yong
Main cast: Jun Ichikawa, Bud Spencer, Sally Ming Zeo Ni, Camillo Grassi