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Following History’s Unfolding Script

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sunday’s Calendar reported on how Hong Kong actors and directors view their career opportunities after the hand-over. Today, a visit to the location of a film being made about the historic event.

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The taxi driver balks when I ask to go to Central--Wayne Wang’s latest film, “Chinese Box,” is shooting near the Central Market, and to get there we have to pass through downtown Hong Kong. There’s been a bomb scare at the Legislative Council Building, he insists, and downtown streets have been blocked off. Grumbling, he drives toward the area. But we find that the barricades have been set aside and traffic is moving, so he proceeds--cautiously.

Still, it is congested, and we inch along in a congealed mass of cars and double-decker buses. I jump out near the Escalator, a series of moving walks that transport Hong Kong yuppies down to Central in the mornings, then propel them back home in the evenings.

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Under a skywalk, Wang has set up location shooting for “Chinese Box,” a film about a doomed interracial romance that takes place during the closing days of British rule in this colony, days that are upon us now.

The camera is rolling on Gong Li (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Farewell My Concubine”). She is languidly emerging onto the street from the dilapidated prewar apartment of her character’s British boyfriend, played by Jeremy Irons. In a form-hugging top and bell-bottom jeans, Gong is looking fresh as the morning. In the background, an elderly Chinese man uses his feet to flatten empty aluminum cans he has gathered for recycling.

Wang (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Smoke”) has decided to shoot a film about the last days of Hong Kong as British colony during the last days of Hong Kong as British colony. On midnight June 30, Hong Kong reverts to the motherland, mainland China. As it happens, the only filmmaker known to be attempting a movie on the momentous subject is based in the United States and being financed by European and Japanese companies. The movie has no U.S. distributor yet, though the filmmakers are hoping to release it in the United States in late fall.

Of course, Wang is not exactly a stranger to these parts. He was born and raised here, visits regularly and professes an umbilical attachment to the territory.

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“It’s one of the most exciting, most energetic, most vital cities in the world,” Wang, 48, says of his hometown. He’s a tall man with a gaunt face and closely cropped, graying hair. He carefully measures his words. “Things are always changing in an innovative and refreshing way. I don’t find any city in the world this way.”

At the same time he confesses to an intense love/hate relationship. “I love it because it’s my home, it’s Chinese, the food is great,” he says. “But I also hate it because there’s no history, nothing is kept, the air is bad. There’s a certain aggressiveness about it that wears you down.” Through this film, Wang wants to capture this crazy quilt of East/West collision--and a bit of history as well, although the history has been harder to grasp.

With an international cast headlined by Gong, Irons, Ruben Blades and Maggie Cheung, “Chinese Box” is being shot in various locations here over a two-month period. Gong plays Vivian, a mainlander who has climbed her way up from bar hostess to nightclub owner in the town without mercy, Hong Kong. Her longtime boyfriend, Chang (Michael Hui), is becoming a respectable businessman, so he is trying to distance himself from her. With the hand-over nearing, he thinks she would do better to attach herself to his friend, British journalist John (Irons). And thus, Vivian and John begin an affair, knowing that the world around them is shifting.

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Although there was an outline for “Chinese Box,” the real script has been written as the film is being shot, and the filmmakers have been able to incorporate events as observed during the countdown. For instance, when China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, died in February, Wang created a scene where Irons attends an editorial meeting to discuss how to cover the event. Throughout the project Wang has been working closely with veteran French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Incredible Lightness of Being”), in effect both inventing history and borrowing from it as they go along.

Wang hints that there have been things they could not shoot and mentions “the very subtle censorship that’s becoming more and more prevalent,” but refuses to go into detail. “We don’t make a moral judgment of any kind about the hand-over,” he says, “about whether it’s good or bad.” But he will be showing the negative side of Hong Kong life--the constant hustling some engage in to survive, the infiltration of gangsters--so he knows that he may be criticized. “China always has a way of reading things the way they want to read them,” he says.

However, things here have not been as dramatic as they expected them to be--no explosions, no riots and certainly no martyrs among the ultra-pragmatic population--and that, too, was used for the story. “We play a lot on the outside world’s perception of Hong Kong,” Wang says. “All these journalists come thinking they’re going to get this big news, and you find out that the real stuff is the people’s story and that’s what this movie’s about.”

In the real Hong Kong, 1997 is everywhere. On a banner draped outside a Chinese department store are the words, “Happily welcoming the return.” On a billboard in Central, Time magazine tells us that it is here to report the “before, during, after” of “ ’97.” The “9" is cleverly colored like the Union Jack, the “7" like the red flag of the People’s Republic.

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Ubiquitous posters announce that British nationals will have to abide by new regulations--they will no longer have the right to stay indefinitely. They will get visitor’s visas of up to six months, unless they apply for work or study permits. In the harbor, the new convention center, a gigantic roundish building with a roof that looks a little like the headpiece of the Flying Nun, is rapidly being completed in time to be the venue of the hand-over ceremony. It has been built in such record time, one wonders if it will support the weight of the 5,000 dignitaries--plus supporters and international journalists--expected to attend.

The bomb threat this morning turns out to be a hoax--but it was political, one of the quirkier moments of the war of words and innuendo waged between China and Britain, between pro-China and pro-democracy factions as the deadline draws near. The “bomb” was a shoe box painted with slogans protesting Tung Chee-Hwa (the post-hand-over leader), skyrocketing housing costs and poverty. Only a bit of sand was inside.

After her morning take, Gong Li hangs out by the rest area of folding tables and chairs set up under an escalator. She’s alternately talking on her mobile phone, shooting the breeze with assistants and nibbling on snacks. Director and crew have gone around the corner to set up the next shot. Someone pulls out a point-and-shoot camera.

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On the set, both Chinese and English are spoken. Most of the Chinese crew speak Cantonese, a dialect of Southern China and Hong Kong, with a few speaking English, as well. Gong Li, despite having lived in Hong Kong on and off for the last couple years, sticks to Mandarin. Wang speaks everything, so he bridges the gap, but other members of the staff he has imported, like cinematographer Vilko Filac and assistant director Mary Soan, have to get their requests and questions translated for them.

An assistant offers Gong a can of Coca-Cola. She reaches out her hand, then quickly thinks better of it. During the year-and-a-half sabbatical between her last film, “Temptress Moon” (which opened Friday), and this one, she had gotten dangerously plump, then had to slim down when it was time to get back to work. “No, thanks,” she says.

This all seems very relaxed, I remark. Is the set always like this?

“No way,” says Gong, lest I think they are just partying all the time. “Just today.”

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During lunch, she explains that she prepared for her role by visiting B Boss, a mega-nightclub in the Tsimshatsui district, to talk to bar hostesses there. “They just look like ordinary girls,” she says. “Not too much makeup, some of them wearing glasses. They smoke a lot, though--all of them smoke.

“They’re not ashamed of what they’re doing. It’s all about money, anyway. They just want to earn enough money in a year or two and go back to China to open up a shop, a beauty salon, or something.”

Even having to do her first English-speaking role is no big deal, though she reportedly doesn’t have much facility for other languages. “It’s not particularly difficult but they’re changing things all the time,” she says with a pout of exasperation. “So not only do I have to worry about pronouncing the English correctly,” she says (in Mandarin), “I’ve got to worry about putting on the right expression and going through the appropriate movements. It was really too much to think about all at once!” To help her along, a coach who helps Gong in her English and Irons in his Chinese was hired.

“Fortunately, it’s better now,” she says, relieved. “The scenes I have left are mostly nonspeaking.”

Since her marriage to Singaporean businessman Ooi Hoe Seong last year, Gong now spends most of her time in Hong Kong. What does she think about the hand-over? “I don’t think it’s going to be so different after ’97,” she says. “Well, maybe to the British, it’s a big change, but for a Chinese person, an ordinary person living in Hong Kong, there won’t be much change.”

Gong is called around the corner where she has to stroll down an open-air street market. Wang explains how she has to stop and look down at fish arranged in bamboo trays--apparently, a recurrent image in the film is a gutted fish with a beating heart.

“Yuck, I don’t want to look at those dead fish, all cut open like that . . . ,” Gong says. But when the time comes, she strolls down the crowded lane, stops and looks down, her face crinkling into a grimace of distaste. The look is completely convincing, probably because it’s completely real.

Irons has been wandering about the streets while waiting for his take and sits down to chat. “I met Wayne in December and he gave me a general idea of the story,” he recalls, “but of course, the script wasn’t finalized.” The actor was drawn to the idea of an evolving script and the possibility of improvisation. “It was a way I’d never worked before, and I was very attracted by it.”

Also intriguing was the idea of coming to Hong Kong, where he had never been, and of working with Gong, “an actress I have great admiration for.” He gallantly compares his latest leading lady to Meryl Streep.

Irons, too, did some on-site research to get into character. He met with foreign journalists, hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club, and tried to learn a bit of Mandarin. “There are myriad different views,” he says. Overall, though, the impression he got from the expatriates was that “the only reason to be here is to earn a lot.” Admittedly, “It’s very difficult to film approaching change. The film will be, by nature, a collage.”

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When asked why the title “Chinese Box,” Wang said, “When I think of a Chinese box, I think of an intricate thing with many facets, and you can’t figure it out all at once.”

With Gong as the beautiful Chinese woman and former bar girl, and Jeremy Irons as the ruggedly handsome white man, the film evokes such precedents of East/West romance as “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” works that have been soundly deconstructed--if not denounced--by a generation of politically conscious Asians.

Wang is aware of the implications. "[I wanted] to make a contemporary and modern and realistic version of all those classics, which are somewhat problematic in terms of portrayal of a cross-cultural relationship,” he says. “I grew up with them, they’re always on TV in the states. Recently I’ve watched them for how they’re outdated, why the love relationship is sometimes unbelievable and how to make ours more believable.”

For one thing, the white man is not the knight in shining armor--brave John is not sweeping down to save poor Vivian--in fact, to hear Wang talk about the character, he needs much more saving himself.

One of the most complicated scenes has been saved for the last week--they’re shooting the projected revelry of June 30 in Lan Kwai Fong, a small L-shaped street crammed by singles bars, music cafes and trendy restaurants with names like Oscar’s and Tokyo Joe. It is midnight hand-over night. Dawn brings a new sovereign power. A mass of young extras has been armed with party hats and favors, some with faces painted with a mix of the stylized bauhinia, the flower that is the new Hong Kong symbol, and mainland Chinese and British flags. On cue, they skip down the hill in a noisy, rambunctious stream.

“Cut, cut, cut!” shouts assistant director Soan. She is British and shouts in English, while other production staffers are shouting in Cantonese. “Go back to your places, go back to your places!” The crowd stops moving forward, they slowly climb back up the hill, still laughing and chatting.

The scene begins again. The crowd picks up volume, cheering louder, moving more wildly. Weaving through the crowd, in the opposite direction, is a serene interracial couple with their arms around one another. Gong is in an evening gown, Irons is in his white shirt-sleeves, having given up his dinner jacket for her. The revelers are rushing by, blowing on party horns and spraying streams of liquid string through the air.

Nestled shoulder to shoulder, the lovers stroll quietly against the tide. Like lovers of all colors and throughout the history of film romances, they are far from the madding crowd.


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