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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 05/14/1998, B: Tom Meek,

Puzzle Box

Wayne Wang's Hong Kong story

by Tom Meek

CHINESE BOX, Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Larry Gross based on a story by Paul Theroux, Wang, and Carrière. With Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui, and Rubén Blades.

Wayne Wang's reputation as a director has unfairly hung on the immense and largely synthetic success of The Joy Luck Club. Whereas his ethnic and cinematic pride infused Amy Tan's stiff adaptation of her bestselling novel with a soaking visual richness, Wang later, in two improvisational collaborations with writer Paul Auster (Smoke and Blue in the Face), proved himself a free-spirited filmmaker as he rekindled the quirky, on-the-street atmosphere that had been absent from his works since his American debut, Chan Is Missing. That's why Chinese Box is such a refreshingly raw, emotional odyssey: it allows the Asian-American auteur to engage his cultural-political ardor within an affecting, neo-realistic framework.

Like Welcome to Sarajevo, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Under Fire, Chinese Box focuses on a Western journalist enmeshed in the political machinery of a changing foreign landscape. In this case the Westerner is John (Jeremy Irons), a British economist and expert on making money in the Pacific rim, who's caught up in Hong Kong's ideological identity crisis as the reins of governmental control revert from British to Chinese hands.

This is Wang's home turf -- he was born in Hong Kong, two years after his parents fled mainland China following the Communist takeover. Yet apart from having a young man blow his brains out on New Year's Eve to protest the "loss of personal and cultural freedom," Wang eschews the political soapbox. Instead he crafts the picture as a cathartic ode to a dear and passing friend. John is the vehicle for Wang's lament, and like the democratic vitality that's about to be extinguished in the city, John discovers that he too is dying, from a rare form of leukemia.

In his 15 years as a resident, John has been intoxicated by the romantic aura of Hong Kong's colorful cluttered sprawl, though he doesn't seem to know why. The embodiment of the city is Vivian (Gong Li), a nightclub hostess and the girlfriend of a highly prosperous businessman (Michael Hui) who won't marry her for traditional reasons tied to her tainted past -- which is, of course, the means of his new-found wealth and thus the bane of his uneasy indebtedness to her.

Over the many years he has known her, John has adored Vivian from afar, pondering the what-ifs and could-have-beens of their languorous interactions. It's not until he learns of his illness that his quest for Vivian's love and the elusive significance of his nonresidential home becomes urgent. In gaunt, specter-like sojourns, he begins to drift through the city with a video camera, a hovering, patient observer compiling his "Pompeii tapes" to chronicle Hong Kong before "Vesuvius erupts." Through these urban expeditions, John encounters and becomes infatuated with Jean (Maggie Cheung), a vibrant street hustler with a curiously cloaked face. The antithesis of Vivian, she leads John through the maze of Hong Kong's seamy underbelly. The streetwise imagery of fish markets and brothels is provocatively captured by cinematographer Vilko Filac (Underground) in cubelike frames, each a different compartment in Wang's Chinese box.

Irons turns in a glib, sallow performance: his sunken, sardonic demeanor gives his character's quixotic meanderings an appropriately defeatist definition. Similarly Gong Li, who has always maintained an exquisite screen presence, is pleasing and predictable in a sensuous but scared portrait of feminine independence restrained by patriarchal hypocrisies. Her strength combined with Cheung's enigmatic playfulness offsets Irons's anemic sobriety. Cheung, who's best known for her work in martial-arts films and her own self-portrayal in Irma Vep, continues to grow as an actress: she demonstrates dramatic range while casting an appealing effervescence. Michael Hui adds a soft, humanistic touch to his entrepreneur trying to have it all in a rapidly changing world; the always amicable Reubén Blades is effective as John's guitar-plucking sidekick and occasional flatmate.

Based on a story created by Wang, Paul Theroux, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (Luis Buñuel's frequent collaborator), Chinese Box hangs on the dislocation of its protagonist as he bounces among women, cultures, and classes, seeking closure in his waning hours. The first film to chronicle the handing over of Hong Kong, it's a tragic romance that flirts with but never quite makes a political statement. Yet its honesty and emotional impact have set a mark that future moviemakers will find hard to beat.