With “Chinese Box”, Wayne Wang has filmed what he himself described as a “love-hate letter” to Hong Kong. Shot on location during 1997 following the events of “repatriation” as they happened on the streets, Wang has crafted a challenging, moving, intensely personal film that traces the unbearably complex relationships between China, Hong Kong and Britain through the relationships of individual characters.
Jeremy Irons plays an author/journalist who has lived on Hong Kong for fifteen years, scribing such works as “How to Make Money in Asia” (scratching out the “Make”, and replacing it with “Lose” during a brief book-signing scene) He is in love with a karaoke-bar-owning woman played by the ever-radiant Gong Li, who has locked herself into an extremely complex relationship with a man about to gain political control of Hong Kong (Michael Hui).
The film explores broken promises, unrequited opportunities and relationships, and the strange political intermarriage between Chinese and British culture that has spawned modern Hong Kong. Wayne Wang’s metaphor of the Chinese Box, with its containers-within-containers, is a perfect image to describe this film. Stories within stories, with rich supporting characters (including a fantastic portrayal of a photojournalist/Grecian chorus by Reuben Blades) driving the narrative, Wang’s film embodies the complexity of the political and social situations of a country in transition..
As Jeremy Irons described before the gala screening began, the filmmakers had read the papers daily and incorporated events preceding this year’s June 30th handover into the film. With a mix of Irons’ character’s video footage, and moving, intoxicating images of the streets and sounds of the bustling city, Wang has shown the grotesqueness and beauty of Hong Kong; a Hong Kong that he himself expresses mixed feelings about.
Gong Li, perhaps the most beautiful woman alive, inhabits her role with the force and persuasiveness of a Grace Kelly. She does not overpower the scenes with her radiance, but simply adds to the magnificent images around her. She acts with an honesty and clarity that suits her diverse roles, and her performance in this film continues to impress. Despite her platonically perfect form of beauty, she does not simply hide behind this visage, but explores her character with sophistication, intelligence, and wit.
Following Wang’s “Joy Luck Club” and “Smoke”, “Chinese Box” seems to be a much more difficult, pensive work. It unfolds slowly, but with a clear sense of direction; chaotic, sure, but a direction towards an inevitable date for unification with one party, and divorce from another.
Using his characters as metaphors, Wang has told a loquacious tale with few words, a moving story that gives a real glimpse at the insecurities, doubts, and fears of a country re-entering into a relationship with a close neighbor with whom it has had so many strange, uncomfortable encounters in the past.Though less accessible than his earlier films, Wang has nonetheless created once again a truly moving moving picture.