Todd Jackson, (Ralph Fiennes), has closed himself off to the world after losing his wife and children at the hands of political turmoil. He's also lost his sight. A once American diplomat, Jackson has retreated to a life behind closed doors in the underworld of brothels, disillusioning himself to the world outside. While drinking at a bar, Sofia Belinsky, (Natasha Richardson), a refugee Russian Countess reduced to working as a dance girl and part time prostitute, comes to his aid fearing men in the bar are about to take advantage of his loss of sight. Jackson finds himself drawn to her kindness while aware of the woman she's become working as a hostess. He envisions in his mind, one day becoming the owner of a fabulous establishment suitable to the likings of optimistic beauty of this Shanghai town and making her the center of the club. He's so sure he will have it someday, he shares his dreams with his new friend Matsuda, (Hiroyuki Sanada), a high ranking Japanese officer, that frequents the bars.
As war forges it's way closer to Shanghai, Sofia's family, packs up and moves leaving Sofia behind as Aunt Sara, (Vanessa Redgrave), and Olga, (Lynn Redgrave), are ashamed of her profession and question the effect it's having on Sofia's daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly). But Jackson finally decides to see again what he's been missing out on in life and comes to Sofia's rescue.
TF1 Films Productions, Shanghai Film Corporation, Merchant/Ivory Productions, Sony Picture Classics
Director: James Ivory
Writer: Kazuo Ishiguro
Producer: Ismail Merchant