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With: Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui, Ruben Blades
Written by: Jean-Claude Carriere, Larry Gross, from a story by Jean-Claude Carriere, Wayne Wang, Paul Theroux
Directed by: Wayne Wang
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Language: Cantonese, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/04/1997

Chinese Box (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Handover Fist

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Wayne Wang's Chinese Box, chosen as the closing night feature at the 41st SanFrancisco International Flim Festival, is a film that feels like a late-nightcoffee-house intellectual discussion. No answers are obtained, but the questionsare very interesting.

Jeremy Irons is John, a British journalist living in Hong Kong just before the 1997 takeover. He is in love with Vivian, played by the enchanting Gong Li (in her first English-speaking role). Vivian is dating Chang, a wealthy businessman, and waits for him to propose marraige to her. He can't because of her past as a high-priced call girl. John finds out he has lieukemia. He decides to make a video diary of "the real" Hong Kong, instead of just writing speculative articles about it. He finds Jean (the great Maggie Cheung), a street urchin, and wants to get her true story. Rueben Blades is a guitar-playing buddy who crashes at John's place.

All these characters and plotlines intermingle against a gorgeous portrait of Hong Kong. Wang succeeds in giving us a very good idea what it's like there, from the back alleys to the main streets. The climax is even filmed against the actual changeover ceremonies from last June.

One of the writers on Chinese Box is the legendary Jean-Claude Carriere, who began his career writing Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie for Luis Bunuel, and has kept up that pace ever since. His worldly care and knowledge help bring Chinese Box into focus.

Unfortunately, Wang seems to be in the same postition as John in the film. He doesn't know exactly how he feels about the takeover. No one does. No one is sure how Chinese rule is going to change anything. So Wang must follow his characters around until something does happen. On the other hand, he does perfectly capture a theme of uncertainty in the air. Everyone is just marking the time until they know. Symbolically, Irons (the British) is slated to die right around the time of the changeover.

So, it's the little things that make Chinese Box worthwhile; Gong Li imitating Marlene Dietrich in front of a TV, Blades singing little love songs, all of Maggie Cheung's scenes. I think what Wang wanted to do was capture a time and place, and he did that, even if there wasn't a concrete conclusion.

(This review was originally written for SF MODA magazine but was not published.)

DVD Details: Lion's Gate released Chinese Box in a two-disc Special Edition DVD in 2003. It comes with the unrated director's cut, Wayne Wang's commentary track and Wang's 1997 documentary Home Movies. Disc Two comes with Wang's 1990 feature film Life Is Cheap... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive, including a second director's commentary track. A bargain.

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