Colonialism and its discontents

A heavy-handed allegory nearly sinks Chinese Box

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) know 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--concerning 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 in turn engaged to Chang (comedy star Michael Hui), a prosperous (and probably triad-connected) businessman.

John collapses after a New Year's Eve party that closes 1996; subsequent tests reveal that he's got a rare and incurable form of leukemia. The doctors give him six months at most to live.

Hmmm...you think to yourself...six months...why!...that would take you right up to around June 30, 1997--the very date that the Brits are due to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule. What a coincidence!

From that point on, characters stop being characters and become Representatives of Historical Forces. Their actions become less explainable as human behavior and their voice-overs 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--which at least moves the metaphor from the realm of clunky subtext to right-in-your-face text-text.

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 becomes obsessed with interviewing.

Unfortunately the story that emerges is once again Fraught With Meaning. Her suicide attempt was a reaction to being used and discarded by--you guessed it--a shallow, upper-class Brit.

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 entitled How to Make Money in Hong Kong, in which he quips "Hong Kong is an honest whore." His best friend, Jim (Ruben Blades), has no real purpose in the story: He just sits around playing guitar and singing.

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 who has long lived in the United States, recreates 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.

Chinese Box.
Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross; story by Jean-Claude Carriere, Paul Theroux, and Wayne Wang. Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui, and Ruben Blades. Opens Friday.

 
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