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Tender and near sublime
The beauty of this film and its heartbreaking romance lie in the unspoken, between the acrid disavowals of love, in the bitter context of colonial racial, socio-economic, and gender relations. Tony Leung and Jane March superbly portray the tensions existing within the multiple layers of colonial relations - the emasculation of the Chinaman vis a vis the privilege of the girl's whiteness playing out along with the shame and barbarity of the girl's poverty vis a vis the civility and access of his Chinese (not even native) affluence. Ultimately, the schism wrought by the sociocultural constraints of their disparate backgrounds is what tears them asunder or rather dooms their romance from the beginning.
What Annaud does brilliantly is to portray the lovers' yearning without giving voice to it overtly. He depicts it through a series of disavowals, through the wounds they inflict on each other, and allows the viewer to fill in that which cannot be uttered.
As for the graphic portrayals of sex, I am usually the first to decry graphic sex scenes. However, in this film, the sex scenes again plays out the dynamics of the characters as a part of the larger colonial relations. The tenderness of this film and of its romance lie within the beautifully cinematographed sex scenes as well as in the violence and poignancy that exists throughout rest of the film.