The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
October 11, 2002 6:40am EST
Frank Martin (Jason Statham) is a former Special Forces operator who fed up with military bureaucracy retires from the army to lead a quiet life in the south of France or so one would think. Frank actually makes a living hiring himself out as a transporter carrying packages in his spiffy BMW. He manages to keep his nose clean by adhering to three simple rules: never change the terms of the deal never exchange names and never look at what's inside the package. But when Frank notices that one of his packages is moving curiosity and concern get the better of him and he takes a peek. A beautiful woman named Lai (Shu Qi) emerges from the duffel bag in his trunk and it's love at first sight. (We know this because of the overpowering instrumental love theme that goes along with the scene.) Breaking rule No. 3 gets Frank into a whole lot of trouble especially when he discovers the kind of mess Lai is involved in: she is trying to stop a ring of human smugglers led by her father.
Statham (John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars) carries this film with complete ease. There is an intelligence in his work that comes through here in the same manner it did with his character Turkish in Snatch. In Frank Statham creates such an identifiable character--stylish brawny and brainy--that audiences will want to revisit him in a few years just to see what he's been up to. The gorgeous Qi (Millennium Mambo) plays his love interest but her character has a piece of duct tape over her mouth for most of the film. It's not to say she is not a good actress but her lack of lines makes her character--whose loyalties are a bit confusing from the start--seem a little dimwitted. Worth mentioning is French actor Francois Berleand (Alive) who plays the role of Detective Tarconi a cop who knows Statham is up to something but lets him do his thing as long as he keeps it under the radar. The two actors have good chemistry on screen although their relationship could have been explored more. The same can be said of Matt Schulze (Blade II) who plays the main villain--nicknamed "Wall Street." Compelling bad guys are hard to find these days and it would have been interesting to see more done with this character.
Slick action scenes and artfully choreographed fight sequences are director Cory Yuen's specialty: he was martial arts choreographer for Kiss of the Dragon and The One and martial arts supervisor for Romeo Must Die. His extensive background in the genre shows in this film but while the The Transporter is visually exciting and technically well done it loses points for adding some really tacky elements to an otherwise action-packed flick. For someone as professional and calculating as Frank for example to break one of his long-standing rules at the sight of a pretty woman seems out of character. Writers Robert Kamen and Luc Besson have a great hook with the Frank Martin character but they introduce too many cheesy elements. I mean Asian families being shipped in containers and sold into slavery? Call me a cynic but human-interest stories simply don't belong in action movies.