Cantando dietro i paraventi

Italy, UK, France


Because of a misunderstanting a western student sees, in a Chinese brothel-theatre where reality and magic merge into Relinquishment and Dream, the performance of Widow Ching's story: her husband, fierce leader of a pirates fleet, has been murdered by his concealed financers with a poisoned carp, after he had welcomed an Imperial Pardon in exchange for subduing to Government. The Widow is deranged and injured for this double trecheary: now in command, she harbours vengeance and goes as far as to assault merchant ships directly under Imperial Protection. After having defeated the old Admiral Kwo-Lang - who kills himself out of shame - the Widow must face, without a gleam of hope, Prince Think-Wei's boundless navy. But it won't be in battle that Widow Ching is vanquished: a rain of kites and old Chinese tale The Butterfly and the Dragon will earn her enlightenment and Prince Think-Wei's pardon.

Director's Statement

Defying gusts of wind and torrential rain, a tottering rickshaw with its fragile and dimly-glowing coloured lautern leaves the broad street with its brightly-shining shop windows, headlights and signs, and turns into a labyrinth of dark lanes.
Hauled along by an old Chinese man (an emaciated and soaking-wet Charon ferrying his passengers to their squalid destinations), the rickshaw makes its way along sinister alleys; and, turning a corner, draws up abruptly near a reddish light. This comes from a coloured bulb that is hidden in the jaws of a china dragon hanging above a closed door: the only sign of possible human presence.
There is a precise and unspoken understanding between those whose commerce is vice. And now a crack of light announces that the door is being opened.
The foreign client has reached his destination. The show can begin.
As soon as the client steps over the threshold that marks the boundary between the licit and the illicit, and as soon as the door has been closed behind him, everything changes instantly. It is as though the flat mundaneness of everyday life has been left behind, and now it is time to enjoy, with pleasurable abandon, the unfettered transfiguration of reality.
Up an the minuscule stage, to the accompaniment of the magic play of lights and delicate musical harmonies, a number of painted female figures act out with sinuous movements, imaginary epics, heroic battles, sly betrayals, serenity and apprehension, quiet enjoyment and sudden fear, melancholy and solitude, the travails of work and explicit abandonment to amorous acts.
Thus begun, the narrative subsequently develops as a form of reverie in which the stage and life, the small company of actors and their motley public, and the world of harsh reality and that of the imagination, all cohabit and blend; in order that experiences, emotions and shades of meaning might be represented with an intensity that a simple reconstruction of the facts, however rigorously executed, is incapable of producing.

Director's Biography

Ermanno Olmi was born in Bergamo on 24 July 1931. His father worked on the railways, and in 1933 his family moved to Milan.
He spent his childhood among the world of workers on the outskirts of Milan and among the peasants in Treviglio, in the countryside around Bergamo.
At the end of the war, he was hired as an employee at Edison where in 1951 he organized a cinematographic service that documented the great enterprises of hydroelectric construction. In the following years, he made about forty documentaries, among them, La diga del ghiacciaio (The Dam of Ice), Pattuglia di Passo San Giacomo (The Patrol of Passo San Giacomo), Tre fili fino a Milano (Three Wires to Milan), Michelino laB (with text by Goffredo Parise), Manon finestra 2 (Manon Window 2) and Grigio (Gray) (with text by Pier Paolo Pasolini).
His first feature film was in 1959, Time Stood Still: it was about the friendship between a city boy and the elderly guardian of a dam in the high valley below Adamello. In 1961, at the Venice Film Festival, he won the OCIC prize and the critic s prize with the film The Job (which also won countless international festivals): it is about the aspirations and difficulties of two young men from Milan coming to grips with their first jobs. Other films on the world of work followed: The Fianc s, on the industrialization of Southern Italy on the part of the big industries of the North; in this film, we can see the first problems of a society transformed too rapidly by the economic boom. And so were his next two films: One Fine Day of 1968 and The Circumstance of 1972.
In 1965, he made a film that was not on the theme of work, and dedicated it as a tribute to Pope John XXIII, And There Came a Man, with Rod Steiger and Adolfo Celi.
In 1978 The Tree with the Wooden Clogs, a film on the life of peasants in the Bergamo region at the end of the nineteenth century, won the Palme d Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 1976 he moved with his wife Loredana Detto and their children Fabio, Elisabetta and Andrea, to the high plain of Asiago, leaving Milan for good. The call of the rural world and of nature got the upper hand over the metropolis.
In 1982, with Paolo Valmarana and the support of other friends at the RAI, Beppe Cereda and Emanuele Milano, he started up Ipotesi Cinema, an educational project to train aspiring young people in the film industry by basing their apprenticeship on doing.
In 1983 he filmed Camminacammina and did the documentary Milano 83, dedicated to his adopted city. In 1987 Olmi went back to directing after a long period of inactivity with Long Live the Lady, which won the Silver Lion in Venice. The following year he directed one of his masterpieces: The Legend of the Holy Drinker, with which he won the Golden Lion in Venice. The film is a faithful transcription of the story with the same title by Joseph Roth, and was filmed in Paris, with Rutger Hauer and Anthony Quayle in the leading roles. A few years later, in 1993, he directed Paolo Villaggio in The Secret of the Old Woods, based on a story by Buzzati. In 1994, Genesis — Creation and the Flood, the first chapter in a project to make a televised version of the Bible.
An important new success was Profession of Arms (2001), presented at the Festival at Cannes and a candidate for the Palme d Or. Set in the early years of the sixteenth century, it narrates the last days in the life of the condottiero Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.

1959 Time Stood Still
1961 The Job
1963 The Fianc s
1964 And There Came a Man
1967 La cotta
1968 One Fine Day
1969 The Scavengers
1974 The Circumstance
1978 The Tree with the Wooden Clogs
1983 Camminacammina
1987 Long Live the Lady
1988 The Legend of the Holy Drinker
1991 Down the River
1993 The Secret of the Old Woods
1994 Genesis — the Creation and the Flood
2001 Profession of Arms

Cast & Crew

Directed by: Ermanno Olmi

Written by: Ermanno Olmi

Produced by: Luigi Musini, Roberto Cicutto

Cinematography: Fabio Olmi

Editing: Paolo Cottignola

Production Design: Luigi Marchione

Costume Design: Francesca Sartori

Original Score: Han Yong

Cast: Jun Ichikawa (The Ching Widow), Bud Spencer (The Old Captain), Sally Ming (Confidant), Camillo Grassi (Boatswain), Makoto Kobayashi (Admiral Ching), Xiang Yang Li (Supreme Admiral Kwo Lang)

Nominations and Awards

  • Feature Film Selection 2004