The Painted Veil: Shanghai Chicken Wings

Year Released: 2006
Directed by: John Curran
Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Live Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg
(PG-13, 125 min.)

"Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life" Percy Bysshe Shelley

All the more romantic because it tries so hard not to be, this film focuses on the careless treachery and deliberate cruelty we inflict upon each other for love’s sake. It is a bleak and dangerous journey that strips the soul bare but also unmasks its secrets.

In the beginning, both Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Walter Fane (Edward Norton) heed Shelley’s advice and refrain from lifting the painted veil of life, content with its pretty pictures and illusions. For Kitty it is a tempestuous affair that puts color into her drab life and loveless marriage; for Walter it is the illusion of Kitty that he worships and not the woman herself.

It is really to get away from her manipulative mother and avoid the embarrassment of her younger sister becoming engaged before her that Kitty accepts Walter’s rather hasty marriage proposal and goes with him to Shanghai where he works as a bacteriologist. Unfortunately, for all his protestations of love for her, Walter devotes more time and attention to the bacteria under his microscope than to his frivolous wife. Of course, the bored coquette is vulnerable to the unctuous charms of the very married Charles Townsend, British Colonial Secretary.

The painted veil is lifted when Walter learns of the affair, and this “negligible husband” responds with a shocking ferocity, cunning, and passion, albeit all very civilized and under the surface. He will avoid scandal and give Kitty a quiet divorce only if Charles agrees to marry her. Otherwise, she will have to go with Walter to his voluntary post in the cholera-infested Mal-tan-fu. While Kitty is humiliated to learn Charles isn’t about to leave his wife for her, Walter adds insult to injury when he informs the chastened Kitty that he has already had her bags packed for her. He has always known that Charles would not take his offer.

The Painted Veil continues to surprise us with its telling detail and dialogue. Some of the best occur with Consul Waddington (Toby Jones), who welcomes them to his cholera infested post with concerns over their haggard looks. Kitty admits that their ten-day journey has been taxing. “But why didn’t you just travel up the river?” he asks, indicating a sojourn of just a few days. “We wanted to see the country,” is Walter’s tight-lipped response. 

If we didn’t already suspect that Walter’s taking this post has been planned to punish Kitty and possibly kill them both, we are now certain. Kitty looks over the Spartan quarters and picks up a doll from a bed. Walter warns her not to touch it as it might have belonged to someone who has died of cholera. Without missing a beat, he continues: “This will be your room.”

And if you think there is anything more stinging than “I despise you, “ how about “I don’t despise you; I despise myself for allowing myself to love you.”

Perhaps that is why Kitty decides to eat the uncooked vegetables against Walter’s admonition, and why he, then, too partakes of the potentially fatal salad. 

When she is finally so desperate that she writes to the vile Charles Townsend, Waddington subtly deters her from this final humiliation. Although whiskey and opium numb him to the smell of death that pervades, Waddington’s mind is nonetheless clear and shrewd – shrewd enough to surmise the intent of the letter Kitty asks him to post, and kind enough to realize its damaging futility. In a few economical sentences he acknowledges a passing acquaintance with Charles and casually indicates that the women who fell for him were usually insignificant beings. Somehow Kitty leaves him with her letter in hand, which she tears to shreds once back in her room. 

It is only as more bodies drop and their illusions as well that Kitty and Walter form a separate peace, she recognizing the quiet courage and strength of the man she has married, and he understanding her very human weakness.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Let’s avoid Walter and Kitty’s Russian roulette game of eating the uncooked, cholera laden vegetables and settle for some simple appetizers from their earlier post in Shanghai. Just the thing to nibble on at those British colonial gatherings with the locals, Shanghai Chicken Wings.

Okay, maybe that’s not what they ate back there in the 1920s, but isn’t it something you’d like to serve here and now in the USA? 

Shanghai Chicken Wings

The chicken wings and sauce are cooked together, as the sauce reduces around the wings, it transforms into a rich and thick glaze. Have lots of napkins on hand for this scrumptious finger food!  

  • 2 to 3 pounds chicken wings
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger 
  1. Combine all ingredients in a large cooking pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. 
  2. After 20 minutes, uncover, increase heat slightly and continue cooking, stirring often, for about 15 minutes, or until the sauce has become a rich and thick glaze. Toss wings to coat. 
  3. Serve hot or cold. 

Makes about 18 to 24 appetizers.

Recipe Source: Cooksrecipes.com