Chinese Box

Friday April 17, 1998

     Drenchingly romantic, world-weary and perhaps not just a little foolish, "Chinese Box," Wayne Wang's love letter to his native Hong Kong, is the kind of film that can be rewarding if you embrace it for its bold attempt rather than its easy success.
     There are certainly plenty of inducements: Jeremy Irons and Gong Li's glamorous star-crossed lovers, Maggie Cheung's movie-stealing portrayal of a young woman living by her wits and, above all, a staggeringly rich visual evocation of Hong Kong on quite literally the eve of return to China after 156 years of British rule. To be open to this film is to be moved by it.
     It's understandable that Wang, having achieved considerable success in the U.S. in the last 15 years, starting with the beguiling "Chan Is Missing" and including the large-scale "The Joy Luck Club," would want to tell a story that climaxes just as the turnover occurs. The challenge, of course, was to come up with a tale worthy of the complicated and contradictory historic event that serves as its background.
     The obvious choice would be a love story, and to tell it he lined up the distinguished screenwriter and Bun~uel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, novelist Paul Theroux, an old Asia hand, and a Hollywood veteran writer, Larry Gross.
     Inevitably, Irons' English journalist, Li's mainland refugee bar hostess with a past and Cheung's native street vendor symbolize Britain, China and Hong Kong. But, golly, did they have to go and lay on Irons' John "a rare form of leukemia" that gives him only six months to live--exactly the film's time span, New Year's Eve 1996 to June 30, 1997? Talk about a literally dying empire!
     Nonetheless, "Chinese Box" captures so much of Hong Kong's raw essence: the naked, rampant materialism, the sense that life is cruel and cheap, the uncertainty of the future under Chinese rule with its inevitable curtailing of democracy and free expression, and the terrific energy of the city's daily life that gives it hope.
     John is the dashing, reflective but impassioned Anglo-Saxon and Li's Vivian the dazzling Asian beauty from countless movies and plays past. Anyone hear strains of "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing"? Echoes of "Suzie Wong"?
     Luckily, John is exceptionally well-drawn and played beautifully by Irons, and the reticent Vivian fits Li's limited English comfortably. But love for them is such a many-tormented thing, involving so much anguish of the hand-wringing, seesawing variety, that it's Cheung's Jean who grabs attention.
     This is not surprising because Cheung could be said to embody the vital spirit of Hong Kong as much as the character she portrays and is a resourceful actress of widely varied experience, shining in everything from kung foolery to an admirable portrayal of the great Shanghai screen star of the '30s, Ruan Ling-yu. In creating the character of Jean, Wang drew on a short story by Rachel Ingalls, "Last Act: The Madhouse," and has said that for him she is the most important character in the film. The plot unfolds as John, on receiving his grim prognosis, begins to realize that for 15 years he's been covering the economics and politics of the British crown colony so single-mindedly that much of its essence has eluded him.
     One side of her face badly scarred and partly hidden by a scarf, Jean peddles any kind of trinket on the street she can to survive. Persuaded by John to let him interview her and be photographed by his friend and colleague (Ruben Blades), Jean spins a lurid tale of a sexually abusive father because she thinks that's what John wants to hear, but her actual story involves classic British racism toward its colonial subjects.
     John and especially Vivian are believable characters, but John's terminal illness gives their relationship an inevitable aura of contrivance while Jean and her story have the stinging punch of reality.
     In all this interaction, Wang and his colleagues, who include his awesomely talented cinematographer Vilko Filac, who incorporates great documentary-like shots of actual events, charge "Chinese Box" with ambiguity and emotion about Hong Kong's past, present and future.
     With its beguiling Graeme Revell score, the film pays tremendous--and redeeming--attention to nuance and detail. Among the touches: Gross' inspired idea of having Vivian become fascinated by watching Marlene Dietrich singing Frederick Hollander's memorably cynical "Black Market" from Billy Wilder's postwar Berlin classic "A Foreign Affair."
     Sophisticated, ironic and highly complex, "Chinese Box" is to Wang's traditional narratives what the exotic and worldly "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" was to Frank Capra's cherished Americana.

Chinese Box, 1998. R, language and some sexual content. A Trimark Pictures release of a co-production of NDF International Ltd. & Pony Canyon Inc. and Le Studio Canal Plus. Director Wayne Wang. Producers Lydia Dean Pilcher and Jean-Louis Piel. Executive producers Michiyo Yoshizaki, Akinori Inaba, Jean Labadie, Reinhard Brundig. Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere, Paul Theroux and Wang. Cinematographer Vilko Filac. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Costumes Shirley Chan. Music Graeme Revell. Production designer Chris Wong. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Jeremy Irons as John. Gong Li as Vivian. Maggie Cheung as Jean. Ruben Blades as Jim.

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