A Student's Guide
Arguably, the biggest mistake of this film is the presumption that Maggie Cheung ("2046") possesses the screen filling qualities to carry a movie. For this western viewer, the biggest problem was to remain engaged as she portrays the plight of a tragedic rock performer trying to reform her junkie ways in order to be an acceptable mother for her young son.
The tale starts off at the low end of sympathy for Emily Wang (Cheung), the central character, by depicting her as a fitful, hysterically demanding singer struggling with the loss of popularity for her husband Lee Hauser's (James Johnston) rock group, once an iconic force in the genre (think Kurt Cobain in an Asian context).
The couple's efforts are sustained by a steady infusion of drugs and, shortly after a clandestine buy, Lee OD's in their hotel room and Emily gets thrown in jail as a user. Jay (James Dennis), her son, is left with Albrecht and Rosemary Hauser, Lee's parents. Her mother-in-law rejects Emily totally, holding her responsible for the loss of her son, and she raises the boy to believe the same.
Emily gets out of prison on a diet of methadone to suppress her narcotic withdrawal, and with a demo recorded by her and another inmate. She plays it for an old pal at a record company in an effort to spark interest in her new sound. (Cheung writes and sings her own songs--see the soundtrack link below). As she attempts to rekindle her career, she's forced by the loss of fame and cachet to try various straight jobs which just don't fit her. The attempts prove futile and she faces an ever rising hopelessness of seeing her boy again.
Her virtual conscience in the matter is father-in-law Albrecht (Nich Nolte) who doesn't see her as so much as the killer of his son as the mother his beloved grandson will need. In a stroke of fine sensitivity, writer-director Olivier Assayas ("Demon Lover") defies the stereotype by creating this paragon of a man who has the objectivity and flexibility to weigh the factors and understand the needs and psychology of a very different kind of individual than he is -- a creative artist.
While unflinching in his demand that Emily prove worthy of her son's trust and protection, his judgement doesn't rest on her success in an alien work environment. Rather, he allows for her need to be who she is through musical expression and supports her dream to return to the recording studio and the show business spotlight.
In a film that struggles for dramatic justification, this comes off as refreshing as any departure from cliche' can be. The meetings and understandings between the errant daughter-in-law and the aging father-in-law, whose judgement she never challenges, nearly justifies the price of admission.
The magnetic screen presence of old-pro Nolte unfortunately demonstrates, whenever he's in the scene, the relative wispiness of the central figure. Nolte is old school and master of every cinematic detail, which goes a long way toward making sense out of his strange casting in this role. Cheung has a long way to go to be able to add much to a meandering, unfocused storyline or to develop much care for the plight of a character whose command of our interests remains marginal. Frankly, Scarlett, I didn't give much of a damn.