1998, R, 110 min. Directed by Wayne Wang. Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Ruben Blades, Michael Hui.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 15, 1998
In the new movie by Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, The Joy Luck Club, Smoke), you can't scratch yourself without knocking elbows against the enigmatic metaphors crowding in on all sides. Starting with the portentous title, the complex political issues of Hong Kong's transfer from British to Chinese rule are variously symbolized by hacked-open fish with hearts still beating, a jilted and disfigured young woman, and a pathetic dog who amuses his master by running to exhaustion on a treadmill. Unfortunately, even for a fan of Wang's earnestly humane cinema, Chinese Box is likely to invoke yet another image: a slightly confused-looking Chinese-American man flinging random buckets full of shit at a movie screen and hoping something sticks. But even acknowledging this movie's high school lit journal pretensions and failure to deliver the insights for which it strains so mightily, there's a touching fervor and authenticity here that makes it compelling to watch, especially if you're already tuned into Wang's sensibilities. Per the hallowed Hollywood tradition of A Dry White Season, Havana, and The Year of Living Dangerously, Chinese Box assumes our basic cluelessness about or disinterest in “furrin political doin's.” To keep our attention from wandering, the story is filtered through the eyes of a jaded Western observer who's both alienated from and circumstantially bound to the culture at hand. An intense, ill-fated romance is thrown in for added flavor enhancement. Jeremy Irons steps into the classic insider/outsider role as “John,” a terminally ill photojournalist trying to decipher Hong Kong's inscrutable soul before he kicks the bucket. Adding to the pathos of it all are his emotionally charged relationships with two women. One is an ex-flame named Vivian (Li) who's trying to nullify her history as a prostitute by wheedling a rich old suit (Hui) into marrying her. The other is Jean (Cheung), a mysterious, scarfaced young beauty whom John seems to regard as the key to the Big Mysteries he's chasing. If all of Wang's dreamily intoxicating images and portents of millennial revelation in this quintessential modern city seem, in the end, to offer nothing more revealing than an extra-lavish American Express commercial, it's no fault of the actors. The stunning Cheung, in particular, comes close to conveying through sheer emotional force all the elusive truth that Wang and co-screenwriters Jean-Claude Carriere (Buñuel's longtime collaborator) and Larry Gross are straining for. The craggy, sad-eyed Irons is almost as impressive, squeezing hard for the few drops of fresh juice that remain in his derivative role. Overall, Chinese Box has to be considered a failure, simply because it achieves so few of its own clearly implied goals. Yet it's a failure that bodes well for Wang's future work. With its passion, unexpected outbursts of emotional rawness, and shameless reach for spiritual grandeur, it's a sharp break from the wan, aimless whimsicality that were becoming the director's trademarks. As artistic personae go, existential turmoil is more appealing than middle-aged slackerdom any time.