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CHINESE BOX

SYNOPSIS:
Set in the months before the last days of colonial Hong Kong, British journalist John (Jeremy Irons) tries to come to terms with his infatuation for Chinese resident Vivian (Gong Li), who has been supporting her Chinese lover Chang (Michael Hui) for some years. Now a leading figure in the business community, Chang is unwilling to legitimise their relationship, as Vivian's past as a pricey prostitute would not be accepted in his circle of important businessmen. John's compulsive desire to record the last months of a quickly disappearing Hong Kong is encouraged by his friend Jim (Ruben Blades), and he meets Jean (Maggie Cheung), a streetwise young woman who has learned the skills of survival. He wants her personal testimony to reveal the real Hong Kong. But her story, like Hong Kong’s own, is a patchwork of truths and lies; knowing how to separate them is like knowing how a Chinese Box works.

"Chinese Box begins with a wonderful title sequence exploring how a Chinese Box actually works. It leads into a satisfying, complex film that never disillusions, never condescends and never fails to illuminate its subject matter with insights as complex as the Chinese box of the opening. But it remains eminently accessible and soars with intelligence as well as emotion. The extraordinarily luminous Gong Li, in her first English language film, is perhaps a tad muted, but she nonetheless creates a multifaceted character, mature and pained but also feminine and mysterious. Jeremy Irons plays as subtly as ever, and conveys inner turmoil better even than Harrison Ford. Set in Hong Kong on the eve of its return to Chinese control, the film is a fascinating, often documentary revelation. But it also pulses with a heart (realistically, at times, with its metaphors caught at the fish market, in earthy scenes that some will find tough to take). The story is in some ways a metaphor for Hong Kong’s own story, with Gong Li representing the island, Chang mainland China, and Irons the West, in particular Britain – and all of them as much moral representations as socio-political. But let’s not labour that point: it’s a sublime and provocative film, always engaging and singularly fresh."
Andrew L. Urban

"As intricate and ornate as the culture where it is set, Chinese Box is a delicate story of human emotions, crossing culture, language and life changing events. Here is an intelligent love story set against a political backdrop with characters which are each going through changes of some magnitude. The flavours and textures of Hong Kong seep through the celluloid, and we glimpse life above and beneath the surface, delving into stigmas, perceptions and the differences between the cultures. A lot of the subtleties are internal, and it's a credit to the strong cast that the complexities shine through. Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast, giving a wonderful, nuanced performance; in every role he takes, Irons manages to give the impression that there's much more to him than meets the eye – little wonder he's called the thinking woman's sex symbol. While the exquisite Gong Li may disappoint some of her fans within the restraints of her first English-speaking role (her language skills need to improve), she nonetheless exudes a serenity and appeal that complements Irons. Elfin-like Maggie Cheung is striking as the damaged intermediary between the old and the new Hong Kong. But as the film unfolds, we learn that each of the characters is damaged. Visually there is much that is striking and memorable, while the soundtrack marries musical styles in keeping with the film's theme. Chinese Box is a story of life, death, survival and change – all thrown delectably into the colourful melting pot that is Hong Kong."
Louise Keller

"Chinese Box is a film which has some wonderful moments that are somehow more memorable than the film as a whole. Wayne Wang is certainly a filmmaker who knows how to capture the essence of his own Chinese ethnicity, and his capturing of Hong Kong nearing its demise is beautifully handled. In fact, these elements of the film end up being far more interesting than the rather tedious relationship between John and Vivian, played somewhat simplistically by Chinese actress Gong Li. While that main part of the film is handled with a certain degree of clumsiness, the reverse can be said of the Jean story, because of the dynamic work of the normally beautifully Maggie Cheung. She's virtually unrecognisable as a woman scarred, both physically and emotionally by a shattered past and her tough veneer is slowly stripped away throughout the course of the film. Irons' performance is spotted, but is generally acceptable, while Li, whose lack of English tends to accentuate a degree of self-consciousness in her acting, is somewhat dull, until the last section of the film. Chinese Box is a very sad film, and it's certainly a work with a considerable degree of emotional resonance, as well as a haunting quality. Hong Kong, with its myriad of diverse groups, has been beautifully captured on film, and the parallels between the dying John and the end of one of the last bastions of British colonialism, is very poignant. Yet somehow, with its undue verbosity, one has the distinct feeling that Chinese Box could have been a far more intricate and personal film than has ultimately been constructed."
Paul Fischer



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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

Read Andrew L. Urban's interview with
JEREMY IRONSand
WAYNE WANG

CHINESE BOX (M)
(French/Japanese/US)

CAST: Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui, Ruben Blades

DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang

PRODUCER: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Jean-Louis Piel

SCRIPT: Jean-Claude Carriere, Larry Gross (Story Carriere, Paul Theroux, Wang)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Vilko Filac

EDITOR: Christopher Tellefsen

MUSIC: Graeme Revell

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Chris Wong

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

LANGUAGE: English & Mandarin (subtitled)

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Beyond Films

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 18, 1999

VIDEO RELEASE: November 10, 1999

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: 21st Century







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