A thin romantic melodrama tied to a facile political frame concerning the Hong Kong handover, "Chinese Box" recounts the last six months of a dying Brit and a dying era of colonial rule. Director Wayne Wang's first outing since the well-received double bill "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face," this tale of impossible cross-cultural love is rendered dreary by lukewarm chemistry between stars Jeremy Irons and Gong Li, and a script that provides no character depth. Given the cast, some theatrical sales should follow, but this love letter to the Chinese island will be returned to sender in most territories.

A thin romantic melodrama tied to a facile political frame concerning the Hong Kong handover, “Chinese Box” recounts the last six months of a dying Brit and a dying era of colonial rule. Director Wayne Wang’s first outing since the well-received double bill “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face,” this tale of impossible cross-cultural love is rendered dreary by lukewarm chemistry between stars Jeremy Irons and Gong Li, and a script that provides no character depth. Given the cast, some theatrical sales should follow, but this love letter to the Chinese island will be returned to sender in most territories.

Irons plays John, a Hong Kong-based British financial reporter who for years has nursed an unrequited passion for bar owner Vivian (Gong), a former “hostess” from mainland China. She is romantically involved with fast-rising businessman Chang (Michael Hui), who set her up in the bar but is hedging on marriage because of her shady past. When John is diagnosed with a quick-spreading form of leukemia and given a maximum of six months to live, his love for Vivian takes on a desperate note.

While Chang’s hesitancy to commit gradually steers Vivian toward John for warmth, a parallel strand follows John as he wanders around the city documenting its market-bazaar street life with a video camera. He meets physically and emotionally scarred hustler Jean (Maggie Cheung), who hawks everything from fake watches to cans containing the last breath of colonial air. John becomes obsessed with finding out her story, and learns she fell in love at 16 with a privileged British youth whose father’s firm had strict rules about employees romancing local girls. When the boy was stopped from seeing her, she attempted suicide.

The skeletal foundation of the twin stories is fleshed out to some degree with mosaic-like glimpses of the city and observations about the impending changes under Chinese control. These are expressed through newscasts, discussions with John’s journalist cronies and occurrences such as the suicide of a student activist, protesting the loss of personal and cultural freedom. News inserts show the funeral of Deng Xiaoping, the handover celebrations on June 30 of this year, and the arrival of Chinese military troops soon after.

But the film lacks a point of view. Despite the obvious effort to create a sociopolitical canvas for the love story, and despite Wang’s having been raised in Hong Kong, the analysis and understanding of the changes being undergone seem like those of an outsider able to grasp only the mechanical aspects of the shift in power from British to Chinese rule. Nor is the affectionate view of Asian communities from Wang’s early features much in evidence here.

In the absence of any kind of concrete take on Hong Kong’s transition, the screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross doles out more metaphors than a fortune-cookie factory. In the opening stretch alone, the island is described as a whore who must become accustomed to a new pimp and a department store under new management; British influence is likened to a grain of salt in the China Sea; and Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover inspires comparison to Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius. Enough already.

The big problem, however, is in the weak dynamics of the leading characters. Irons does a solid enough job as a man making a last-ditch attempt to understand his environment and express his love before he bows out, but neither John nor Vivian is sufficiently developed to allow audiences to empathize or even care much whether they get together.

The use of arthouse icon Gong here is particularly clumsy. Serving as little more than a prop, she looks uncomfortable throughout, delivering short bites of English dialogue that clearly have been learned phonetically and only coming alive when she lapses into Mandarin. Cheung has more spark, but is underused, and Ruben Blades brings some mild humor to a small role as a photojournalist.

Shot mostly with a hand-held camera by Emir Kusturica’s regular d.p., Vilko Filac, the film has a rough-edged, claustrophobic look to it, with wide use of grainy vid footage; Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle did second unit work. Texture is added by composer Graeme Revell’s rich score threaded with Chinese vocal themes.

Chinese Box

(French-Japanese-U.S.)

Production

A Le Studio Canal Plus (Paris)/NDF Intl. (Tokyo)/WW Prods. (New York) production. (International sales: Le Studio Canal Plus, Paris.) Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, Jean-Louis Piel. Executive producers, Michiyo Yoshizaki, Reinhard Brundig, Akinori Inaba, Jean Labadie. Co-producers, Heidi Levitt, Jessinta Liu. Directed by Wayne Wang. Screenplay, Jean-Claude Carriere, Larry Gross; story, Carriere, Paul Theroux, Wang.

Crew

Camera (color), Vilko Filac; editor, Christopher Tellefsen; music, Graeme Revell; production design, Chris Wong; costume design, Shirley Chan; sound (Dolby), Drew Kunin; associate producer, Francey Grace; line producer, Andrew Loo; assistant director, Jo Jo Hui; second unit camera, Christopher Doyle. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 1997. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 109 min. (English and Mandarin dialogue.)

With

John ..... Jeremy Irons Vivian ..... Gong Li Jean ..... Maggie Cheung Chang ..... Michael Hui Jim ..... Ruben Blades
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