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By Stephanie Zacharek
Chinese Box arrives with one of the weirdest hybrid pedigrees in living memory. The writing credits include--in addition to the film's director Wayne Wang--Jean-Claude Carriere, who worked on most of the best films of Luis Bunuel's late period (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Phantom of Liberty, Belle de Jour); classy novelist Paul Theroux; and Walter Hill favorite Larry Gross (48 HRS, Streets of Fire).
Only God (and the Writers Guild) knows who contributed what. But under the guidance of the wildly variable Wang, the whole doesn't really come together in any satisfying way. The film's allegorical intent--this one's about Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule--bonks you on the head like a falling piano.
Jeremy Irons stars as John, a British journalist who has lived in Hong Kong for many years. John has an ex-wife and a couple of kids back in England, but he's futilely in love with Vivian (Gong Li), an ex-prostitute who is engaged to Chang (comedy star Michael Hui), a prosperous (and probably mob-connected) businessman.
John collapses, and subsequent tests reveal that he's got a rare and incurable form of leukemia. The doctors give him six months at most to live.
Like most of the other characters in this movie, John stops being a character and becomes a Representative of Historical Forces. Actions become less explainable as human behavior, and voiceovers are more like exegetical footnotes to the story. When Irons thinks, "Six months! I wonder if I can hold out longer than the British," the film blatantly acknowledges the connection to Hong Kong's takeover by China--which at least moves the metaphor from the realm of clunky subtext to right-in-your-face.
If you read a daily paper, you can probably guess the rest: Dying Colonialism continues to court the beautiful Colony. The Colony proceeds with her awkward and compromised marriage of convenience to the unsavory but on-the-move Future of the Chinese Economy. But heavy-handed metaphor aside, at least one potentially interesting subplot develops: John meets Jean (Maggie Cheung), a tough and mysterious scarred woman whom he desperately wants to interview.
Unfortunately, the story that emerges is once again fraught with meaning.
You can guess without any help here just how long John lives.
The story's allegorical nature is telegraphed in the earliest scenes, even before John's diagnosis, when we learn that he is the author of a book titled How to Make Money in Hong Kong, in which he quips, "Hong Kong is an honest whore." His best friend, Jim (Ruben Blades), a photojournalist, has no real purpose in the story; he just sits around playing guitar and singing, functioning as a Greek chorus.
Irons and Hui are as good as the material allows, but the movie never really feels alive. Li seems stiff and aloof, which could be either discomfort in her first English-language role or simply a deliberate part of her character. Only Cheung--probably the best Chinese actress alive, Li included--breathes a little life into the affair, but even she is eventually foiled by the story.
There is one level on which Chinese Box succeeds: Wang, a Hong Kong native and longtime U.S. resident, re-creates a certain tone of nostalgic world-weariness. The movie is suffused with feelings of sadness and guilt: John, the emblem of colonialism, finally seems defeated, not so much by an actual disease, but by his ambivalent position in a world that he himself has created.
Written by Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross; story by Jean-Claude Carriere, Paul Theroux and Wayne Wang. Directed by Wayne Wang. With Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui and Ruben Blades.
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