Chinese Box

on April 17, 1998 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
The first major film to be based on the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese squanders its political capital and offers up a tepid love story in its place. At the center of a triangle of sorts are John (Jeremey Irons), a jaded British photojournalist who has been in love with society butterfly Vivian ("Temptress Moon's" Gong Li) for years. She's never reciprocated, but he keeps hoping she will. Meanwhile, as the deadline for the changeover looms large, he becomes obsessed with a scarred street vendor ("Irma Vep's" Maggie Cheung) and decides to film her sordid life story. Oh, yes, he's also been informed that he's dying and will probably live only till the political changeover in Hong Kong.
   That symbolic nod towards a disappearing British way of life is pretty obvious, but then this latest from Wayne Wang ("Smoke," "Blue in the Face") is hardly a subtle film in any way. What political tidbits it dispenses usually take place in the form of bon mots uttered by guests at the interminable cocktail parties John is fond of attending--or in CNN footage of key events, such as the Chinese tanks entering Hong Kong, before and after June 30; the latter is a lazy approach to creating drama.
   Irons, in his role as the terminal man, gives a wan imitation of the similar and more successful part he played in "Stealing Beauty." The beautiful Gong Li is handicapped by having to perform in English; her customary fire and passion are missing here. Cheung, too, is wasted in the film. Thank god for Ruben Blades, who's made a specialty of cheering up bad movies like "Color of Night" and "Chinese Box." He's a hoot as a cynical photographer given to strumming sad, misogynistic ballads about love on his guitar. Only in his performance does one get a glimpse of the lively movie "Chinese Box" could have been. Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross. Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Jean-Louis Piel. A Trimark release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 110 min. Screened at Toronto.
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