Movie Review By Andrea Chase
In "Chinese Box," Wayne Wang takes on the complex issues surrounding Britain's return of Hong Kong to China. Instead of politics at the highest government levels, though, he examines the far more complex politics of east and west by examining the life of a doomed British journalist in the six months before his country decamps.
Jeremy Irons, as the journalist, John, is limpid-eyed and stiff upper-lipped. Though John is sinking into despair, Irons shows a morsel of idealism and hope leftover from his youth. He writes every day about Hong Kong, yet is frustrated that he understands it no better now than when he first arrived in the colony years before. His malaise is heightened by his unrequited love for Vivien a refugee from the mainland, played with nerves of near steel, by Gong Li. As he pines, he's also irresistibly drawn to Jean, a mystery woman scarred in mind and body, played with punk-grunge verve by the astounding Maggie Chueng.
Wang, who co-wrote the story with Paul Theroux and Jean-Claude Carriere, gives us just enough information about these people to care about their fates, trusting the audience to fill in the gaps with the clues he offers.
The approach is impressionistic with many different stories, some only a few frames long, intercut to reflect the fragmented society the Brits are leaving in their wake. And also to highlight the individual attitudes about the imminent changeover which range from ho-hum to suicidal. The camerawork underscores the emotions. Classical compositions of contentment contrast with shots of confusion and anxiety made with the camera moving as if in a stupor.
It's with surprise that we discover that, in the end, "Chinese Box" is not John's story at all. But instead that John was so integral to the fabric of another's life, that the other's changes could only be told by focusing on John, the hapless sinophile as mystified as he is in love with Hong Kong. But upon reflection, it's yet another metaphor in a film rife with them. Hong Kong and England, John and the two Asian women - in both instances, the changes that result from the occidental brush with the east are irrevocably responsible for the shape of the east's future, whether for good or for ill.
© 1998 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 5/6/98
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