Set in Shanghai in the late 1930s, it is the story of the relationship between a disillusioned former US diplomat and a refugee Russian countess reduced to a sordid life in the city's bars.
Todd Jackson (Ralph Feinnes), once an American diplomat filled with idealism, has become bitterly disillusioned by realpolitik and the seemingly unavoidable nature of war and conflict. Moreover, he is deeply bereaved by the deaths of his wife and children, who were victims of violent political events in 1930s China that also robbed Jackson of his sight.
Jackson is trying to retreat into a smaller, more controllable world by creating here, in one of the world's most licentious, glittering and sordid ports, the perfect bar. After countless hours spent critically examining dive after dive in the city's pleasure districts, Jackson has become a connoisseur of decadence. One day, after a chance meeting with Matsuda - a mysterious Japanese man who appears to share his refined eye for the beauty of low-life establishments - Jackson gambles his savings on a horse, wins, and sets about realizing his masterpiece: a bar that will achieve the exquisite balance of romance, tragedy, and political tension.
Matsuda is a decidedly shadowy figure, but that fails to worry Jackson, and they partner to create the perfect bar. When rumors circulate that Matsuda has come to Shanghai to oversee a Japanese invasion of the city, Jackson still willfully refuses to listen.
Sofia (Natasha Richardson) is a White Russian countess in her thirties who fled the Bolshevik Revolution as a child. Her immediate family have perished, and she now lives in a Shanghai slum with members of her late husband's aristocratic family and her ten-year-old daughter, Katya. The household's sole breadwinner, Sofia works as a taxi-dancer in dingy night spots, resorting to prostitution when times are hard. The rest of the household show their gratitude by endlessly ostracizing her for bringing disgrace to the family.
Jackson encounters Sofia one night working at her taxi-dance hall, decides she is the perfect blend of tragedy and sensuality and asks her to become the centerpiece of his perfect bar. Thus begins a relationship that will see Jackson - despite his best efforts - slowly coaxed out of his enclosed world. He gradually comes to concede that Sofia may be more than a beautiful picture, becomes drawn to the spirited young Katya, and ultimately, into the intrigues within the family to separate Sofia from her child.
The story ends as the Japanese invade Shanghai, with the entire world on the brink of World War II. Ironically, it is at this point that Jackson, in acknowledging his love for Sofia and her daughter, finds reawakened his own idealism for a world free from war.
Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, Hiroyuki Sanada, Lynn Redgrave, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Kazuo Ishiguro, Natasha Richardson