Directed by Wayne Wang
Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, Jean-Louis Piel, and Wayne Wang
Written by Jean-Claude Carrière, Larry Gross, Paul Theroux and Wayne Wang
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Gong Li. Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui, Rubén Blades
A journalist that has only a few months left to live wants to rekindle his relationship with a former lover, as British rule over Hong Kong draws to an end.
2017 is the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong. Realizing that, I figured it would be the perfect time to re-watch Chinese Box. I recall watching it several times before. Chinese Box is a rare English film to deal with the anxieties over the handover, so, at least it has that going for it. Re-watching Chinese Box largely lived up to my expectations. An award-winning novel Kowloon Tong is cited as one of the main inspirations for Chinese Box, so the movie had always much thought put into it from the onset. In fact, the entire film reeks of profoundness due to the many topics the film handles. Whenever Chinese Box achieves this profoundness is completely debatable.
Chinese Box’s strongest element in my eyes is the urgency it creates in its tone. A sense of urgency that exists two-fold, firstly because the plot takes place in the last days of Colonial Hong Kong, and secondly because John Spencer’s death is looming around the corner. Thematically, John Spencer’s death and the end of the British rule becomes one. John Spencer’s dilemma is not only reflected in him but the world around him as well. Hong Kong’s hysteria for the incoming handover becomes a reflection of John Spencer’s anxiety. John Spencer’s anxiety existing outwardly and inwardly heightens tension. The story becomes enveloped with this sense of urgency due to the setting, and the main character dealing with a short of amount time. It’s a fierce countdown to an end, emotionally and politically.
John Spencer is a curious protagonist. Is he a hopeless cynic or romantic? Oddly, it’s hard to tie him into anyone of those labels. John’s pursuit of Vivian seems like a hopeless endeavor yet there is a strange romanticism involved in the whole ordeal. The thought of death is less frightening than being loveless to him. Consequently, no matter how cynical John can be, John’s longing for love keeps him from becoming an utter pessimist. He isn’t a perfect guy; his longing can cloud his judgment. Jeremy Irons’ dignified presence make his narrations rather poignant. John services the film he is in very well.
After John, Maggie Cheung’s Jean is the second most notable character. Jean is quite the character. You could probably use her exploits as material for a movie just dedicated to her. Not the writing around her character is strikingly good. Jean is an eccentric free-spirit that just oozes personality. Physically, Jean has a peculiar look akin to a punk rock star. Jeans looks and acts like a teenager. Mentally, in a way Jean is still a teenager. Like John, Jean has the inability to let go of the past. Both characters lead their lives in the hope to relive the past. This parallel is even hinted in their names as Jean and John are the different variations of the same name. However, Jean has a more child-like optimism to re-live the past. Her story is rather touching. Jean is an another ”lost soul” trapped in a city looking to the future. Jean is John’s last journalistic assignment, and she turns out to be stuck in the past like he is. Maggie’s portrayal is both deeply enthusiastic and subtle.
The cinematography is quite documentary-like in its execution. There is little to no use of extras here. Hong Kong as it takes center stage here. The daily hustle and bustle of Hong Kong never a scene or two away. It’s an unadulterated tour of the landscape, and the daily life of the people since these two are always firmly in the background. The historical occasion makes the whole thing all the more special.
Chinese Box’s gaping weakness is the relationship between John and Vivian. The relationship is need of more development. The two look more like close colleagues than actual lovers. If the foundation of their relationship was explored better, it could have been solved. But, the unfortunate fact remains, much of this film’s emotional resonance centered on this poorly developed relationship. Making many of the emotional moments hit or miss. If this flaw was corrected, the movie could have been truly something greater. Vivian is also too sidelined as a supporting character.
Chinese Box doesn’t reach the greatness it could have because it’s bogged down by a mediocre romance. Nonetheless, there is an emotional intensity in how it recounts the last days of an era and the life of a man. The ending is a perfect juxtaposition of British Hong Kong and John Spencer meeting their end in Hong Kong’s harbor, the lifeblood of Hong Kong.