'Chinese Box' contains an exotic city

May 22, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Hong Kong on the eve of the Chinese takeover serves as the kinetic, subtly explosive backdrop for "Chinese Box." Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung, this part-romantic, part-political drama evokes with eloquent imagery and exquisite detail the heightened emotions that come into play at a time of societal transition.

For his eighth film, director Wayne Wang uses edgy, immediate camera work and the bold palette of neon signs and city markets to draw the audience into a world that seems to be disappearing just as it is being created. "Chinese Box" is his love letter to a city as ephemeral as it is intoxicating.

"Chinese Box" opens on Dec. 31, 1996, New Year's Eve and the beginning of the end of British rule in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government will assume leadership of the city in six months, a fact that isn't lost on New Year's revelers, including John (Irons), a British journalist who has been living in Hong Kong for 15 years, filing boilerplate stories on the island's economic this and political that.

With impending change -- or doom -- hanging in the air like heavy perfume, John is searching for a more personal story, a story that will get to the heart of Hong Kong and point to where the city is going. He thinks he's found it in Jean (Maggie Cheung), a street waif with an eclectic flea-market wardrobe, punkish hair and a mysterious scar on her face.

While Hong Kong hurtles toward its destiny, John must come to terms with his future as well. He is in love with Vivian (Gong Li) and begs her to marry him, but he doesn't stand much of a chance next to her beau, a wealthy Chinese businessman. John pursues both Jean and Vivian with the obsessive fury of a man on whom, much like Hong Kong, time is running out.

Wang, whose last films were the gently discursive ensemble drama "Smoke" and its offshoot, "Blue in the Face," films "Chinese Box" with nervous energy, layering filmed images of garish neon nightscapes and raucous markets with edgier videotape that John takes of the city's daily life. Combined with the constant thrumming of a pile driver in the background, the effect is one of jangly discombobulation.

Irons, whose hollow-eyed pallor suits his character's nervous edge, turns in one of his more impassive performances here; Gong Li -- best known for her work in the films of Zhang Yimou -- lends stunning regality to a woman burdened by too many hard choices in her past and present.

"Chinese Box," which captures the boozy, uprooted freedom of expatriate life, should appeal to fans of Wang, as well as anyone with passing familiarity with Hong Kong and its storied life. If the story on which he hangs them is a bit thin, Wang nonetheless evokes those stories with vivid eloquence.

'Chinese Box'

Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Ruben Blades

Directed by Wayne Wang

Rated R (language and some sexual content)

Released by Trimark Pictures

Sun Score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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