Chinese Box (1997 film)

Chinese Box is a  1997 movie directed by Wayne Wang (director of Joy Luck Club released in 1993) starring Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and Michael Hui. I have seen this film three times and loved the soundtrack so much I bought a CD from the USA – more about the music later.

The movie is set in the time of the handover of Hong Kong by the British to the Chinese Government on June 30th 1997. The story follows the lives of several characters during these turbulent times.

Jeremy Irons plays John, a reporter estranged from his wife and family in England. He is in love with Vivian (played by Gong Li) a former prostitute in the patronage of Chang, a businessman who does not want to marry her but will allow photographs of a mock wedding to be taken.  John has a chance encounter with Jean (played by Maggie Cheung) a woman with a mysterious past and trying to survive on the streets. He wants to learn her story  – to find meaning in both his life and hers in Hong Kong – and pays her to record her story on video.

The title of Chinese Box is an allusion to the nested ornamental boxes – a metaphor for a multi-level, multi-faceted story. The Wikipedia article has a good summary of these different levels.  Chinese Box has to be treated as pure fiction and people from Hong Kong probably think the story and film are very contrived. I would be interested to hear your comments.

Paul Theroux is one of three writers for the film  and he used some ideas from his novel Kowloon Tong which I decided to read. Kowloon Tong is the story of a bachelor Neville ‘Bunt’ Mullard and his mother who run a textile mill in Hong Kong. Mr Hung offers to buy the mill but Neville can’t be persuaded. Neville falls in love with Mei Ping, a Chinese worker and wants to take her back to England but she disappears under mysterious circumstances. I can see some parallels with the character of Vivian and they both have the same disappointing outcome.

The story of Jean and the English boy who loved her and abandoned her was inspired by a short story “Last Act of the Madhouse” by Rachel Ingalls. I am trying to find this book in local libraries so I may have to search the online bookshops including Abebooks for second hand books.

I like the style of the film especially the documentary style of hand held video in the hands of both John and Jean. The British formality of New Years Eve party is contrasted with frantic life on the streets of Hong Kong, especially the food sellers and film of the dog on the treadmill.  In the final scene of the film, John lies on a wharf holding a video camera while Vivian observes the beating heart of a freshly killed fish – a symbol of post 1997 Hong Kong?

The Soundtrack was written by Graeme Revell with additional music by various artists. What made me buy the soundtrack was the haunting vocal of Dadawa (Zhu Zheqin (朱哲琴) who sounds like a Chinese version of Enya.  Other songs include “Song for a Jolly Gathering” by Bobby Chen sung in Cantonese, Black Market by Marlene Dietrich, Across the Borderline (by Ry Cooder) sung by Ruben Blades who acted in the film.

My tastes in movies are rather unconventional but I like this film.

Is this because I am a gweilo ((鬼佬) ?


Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

2 thoughts on “Chinese Box (1997 film)”

  1. I watched this film many times, loved the metaphore about dead person, the song pulsing, dead married beetwen england and hong kong. A prostitute and report, or impossible relationships. This happens everytime and to everyone, or nations. Nobody will read this, so, iam a simple fã , greetings

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