100 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, May 8, 1998
Directed by Wayne Wang
Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Ruben Blades, Maggie Cheung & Michael Hui
Slow death, unrequited love themes drive Wang's timely drama
"Chinese Box" is a farewell love letter to Hong Kong's days under British rule and a metaphor for the colony's recent hand-over to China. It's plainly obvious how director Wayne Wang feels about the hand-over, which is the underlying theme of the film about a dying English journalist in this bustling Eastern monument to Western capitalism.
Wang takes his cameras to a street market and shows a gutted fish with its exposed heart still beating. He shows a gaunt, weary fight dog being run to exhaustion on a treadmill. The film is positively swimming in such metaphors, which also include the heartbreak of a former prostitute and references to Pompeii.
But "Chinese Box" is also a painful story of the unrequited love (also a metaphor?). At the center of the story is John (Jeremy Irons), an English newspaperman who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years in order to be near Vivian (the luminous Gong Li), a former hooker whom he loves far more than she loves him.
The film opens with celebrations on New Year's Day 1997, six months before the hand-over. Early in the film John discovers he has Leukemia and only a few months to live himself.
An obsessive recorder of everything around him, he spends his last weeks documenting Hong Kong street life with his constant companion Handycam, eventually focusing on a reluctant subject, a scarred street-hustling girl (Maggie Cheung).
John's video footage (some shot autobiographically by the girl) serves to evidence a part of Hong Kong where the changeover will mean nothing. On the streets and in the markets, politics, democracy and personal freedoms take a back seat to day-to-day survival. The people we see though his lens -- cart vendors, the working class, the homeless -- won't be effected at all.
The use of the Handycam helps remarkably capture the complexity of the feelings expressed in this picture -- especially toward the end when footage of the actual hand-over ceremonies, shot on video, makes it way into the film with the emotional immediacy of live news footage.
In harmony with Hong Kong's palpable, hurried, industrial-urban atmosphere, Wang ("The Joy Luck Club") maintains a deft balance between political statement and a painful love story involving John, Vivian and her former pimp, a man she dreams hopelessly of marrying, even though he treats her with disdain. Unrequited love gets a lot of play in this movie.
Irons, his weary, frayed, incredibly expressive face full of longing, grief and fleeting happiness, looks completely at home in Hong Kong. He has about him the composed desperation of a man who will never see his dreams of a life with Vivian fulfilled, and who suffers more from his broken heart than from the disease that is eating his body.
Gong Li ("Farewell My Concubine," "Temptress Moon"), keeps up in well matched performance, playing Vivian with depth and sincerity even though at times she falls back on the tricks of her former trade, teasing John cruelly when she doesn't know what to do with his affection.
"Chinese Box" is anything but timeless, and once the novelty of Hong Kong's hand-over wears off it will have far less meaning, but here and now this is a beautifully executed film with quite a lot to say.