[Screen It]


(1998) (Jeremy Irons, Gong Li) (R)

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Drama: A British photojournalist, given only a few months to live, pursues his romantic interest amidst the last days of British rule over the island of Hong Kong.
John (JEREMY IRONS) is a British photojournalist who's worked and lived in Hong Kong for many years. Along with a fellow photographer, Jim (RUBÉN BLADES), who's temporarily moved in with him, John covers the upcoming exchange of ownership of the island from British to Chinese hands. After discovering Jean (MAGGIE CHEUNG), an enigmatic street peddler, John wants to do a story about this woman who stands out from the normal Hong Kong crowd. When not working, John romantically pursues Vivian (GONG LI), a former call girl and now fiancé to Chang (MICHAEL HUI), a local and wealthy businessman.

Although they once flirted with romance, John and Vivian never allowed their relationship to grow, a fact that has haunted John ever since. To make matters worse, John learns that he has a fast spreading form of leukemia and only has months to live. Not wishing to share his bad news, John doesn't tell anyone. Hoping to have one last chance of getting Vivian to love him, he wonders if that will ever happen or if he'll live long enough to see Hong Kong's transfer of power.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast or are interested in Hong Kong, it's not very likely.
For language and some sexual content.
  • JEREMY IRONS plays a photojournalist who pursues a nearly unattainable romance. In doing so, he drinks quite a bit and later discovers that he has only months to live from a fast spreading disease.
  • GONG LI plays a former hooker who now tends bar when not seeing her prosperous boyfriend. Smoking quite a bit, she feels that her past will prevent her from having a happy future.
  • MAGGIE CHEUNG plays an enigmatic woman who is self-conscious about a scar on her face. Peddling a wide array of items on the street, she later reveals her troubled past, including prostitution, to John.


    OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
    Using the eventful and historic handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese hands as its location and symbolic backdrop, Wayne Wang's "Chinese Box" is occasionally intriguing, but ultimately comes off as a disappointing feature. A character-driven story, the movie relegates the more interesting stories to the background while fronting a less than inspired romantic plot.

    It's too bad that the film doesn't focus more on the highly anticipated, and potentially volatile exchange of power (the film is set just before the July 30, 1997 transfer of Hong Kong back to China). Although we see some video footage of both unrest and nervous anticipation, the events -- just like the main character's reaction to his shortened life expectancy -- don't have a great sense of urgency surrounding them.

    Unlike the atmosphere of the backdrop story in the fabulous "The Year of Living Dangerously," which felt immediate and dangerous, the government "takeover" in this film has nearly no emotional resonance or suspense. Granted, in real life the transition was rather smooth and void of any major conflict, but the characters in this story wouldn't know that in advance. Other than for some news footage, a New Year's Eve suicide, and the main character's voice over narration, we'd never guess what significant and historic event was approaching.

    Of course, Hong Kong director Wayne Wang (best known for his 1993 film, "The Joy Luck Club") who also co-wrote this story, is more interested in using that backdrop as a metaphor regarding the main character's deteriorating health and life. While that should have come off as interesting as well, it also suffers from a lack of urgency. Although John doesn't tell anyone about his condition -- thus giving the audience an ironic sense of superior position over the other characters -- we never feel the need for him to get out and do everything he always wanted to before his time is up, or more importantly, to get Vivian to fall in love with him.

    That's mainly because the two main characters don't seem right for each other. Portraying the somber photojournalist, Oscar winning actor Jeremy Irons ("Reversal of Fortune" and seen mostly recently in "The Man In The Iron Mask") is rather listless throughout the production. Granted that's somewhat acceptable due to his condition, but such behavior -- or lack thereof -- subdues any sense of urgency as well as any hopes of a romance.

    Part of that responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the usually fabulous Gong Li ("Temptress Moon," "Farewell My Concubine") and the character she plays. Although she's been great in -- and is best known for -- those period pieces in which she's appeared, her character here is so shallowly written that we don't know or care much about her. While she's certainly attractive enough for the role, Li isn't given much with which to work or develop.

    Far more interesting is the character of Jean, played by Maggie Cheung (best known domestically as appearing in Jackie Chan's "Supercop"), and one expects and begins to hope that perhaps a romance will build between her and Irons' character, but that isn't to be. Playing a mysterious woman with an even more mysterious background, she's the most interesting of all the characters, but like the Hong Kong issues, is unfortunately shortchanged as far as her time on screen.

    Rubén Blades ("The Devil's Own," "Color of Night") also gives a decent turn as John's fellow journalist, best friend, and guitar strumming balladeer, and he provides the film with some brief, but much needed humor. Like the other better bits of the film, however, he serves as more of a background piece to the less than involving central plot.

    As far as the rest of the movie, Wang has decided to forgo showing the usual beauty of Hong Kong and instead presents the underbelly, so to speak. Utilizing a great deal of documentary style lens work from Vilko "Shakes" Filac (we've added the middle name for the constantly moving and shifting camera) and showing tiresome bits of grainy video footage, the picture still comes off as less than spectacular. Only in one scene, where Jim projects Jean's videotaped face onto John's face -- which creates a somewhat eerie effect -- does the film take on an interesting dimension.

    Otherwise, we're left with light performances as well as characters and a story that never evoke any empathy when they should be generating just that. To make matters worse, whenever one hears the main character in voice over narration (used to express feelings and provide plot details) it's usually a dead giveaway that something's wrong with the movie, and Wang's finished product is a "good" example. Although some moviegoers may find the proceedings intriguing and perhaps even moving, everyone else will find nearly all aspects of the picture dull and listless. That's how we felt and thus we give "Chinese Box" a 3 out of 10.

    It's doubtful many kids will want to see this film, but here's quick look at the content. Profanity is extreme with 20 "f" words and an assortment of others, and we hear some sexually related conversations. The two lead characters assumedly have sex after we see a brief and mildly steamy encounter between the two. We also see several topless (and near bottomless) dancers in a men's club. A character commits suicide with a gun (not gory or entirely seen), and there's a moderate amount of drinking and some smoking. If you or someone in your home wishes to see this film, you may want to take a closer look at the content to determine if it's appropriate.

  • John drinks (liquor, wine, beer) quite often in many different scenes.
  • Vivian works as a bartender where people drink, such as Chang and John.
  • People celebrate with champagne at a New Year's eve party.
  • Jim brings wine over for John and himself, and we see them drinking in several scenes.
  • Chang, Vivian, and others drink wine with dinner.
  • People drink at parties.
  • We occasionally see some cut open fish (in a street market) and see their still beating hearts (and some blood). We also see a butcher holding a large knife to a chicken's neck, but don't see him cut off its head.
  • We see brief TV footage of the stiffened and charred body of a person who set himself on fire.
  • Some may see Vivian's past of being a hooker, or the fact that Chang won't marry her because of that, as having both. Chang is also embarrassed about Vivian and introduces her as his business partner to others.
  • We briefly see videotape footage of men who train dogs to fight (we don't see any actual fighting).
  • John tells Chang the joke, "Do you know why Chinese people like blonds? So they can see they're not being reminded of their wives."
  • Jean comments that she remembers her father coming home drunk in the past and having sex with "the three of us -- in turn."
  • Several drunk guys are sexually demeaning to Vivian and one even comments that he could buy her.
  • Jean smacks a guy she believes to be her old boyfriend from school (who's acting like he doesn't know her -- which may or may not be true).
  • A distraught student activist, upset about the pending Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, interrupts a New Year's party by swinging a handgun around. He then puts the gun in his mouth and commits suicide (not entirely seen and not bloody).
  • Handgun: Used by a student activist to commit suicide.
  • Rifles/Tanks: Seen in TV footage of Chinese soldiers.
  • Phrases (most in English subtitles): "F*ck off," "Pissed," "Shut up," "Chick" (for a woman), "Whore," "Jerk" and "Scum."
  • A student activist commits suicide with a gun, and there's talk that Jean tried to kill herself over losing a boyfriend in the past. We also see brief TV footage of the stiffened and charred body of a person who set himself on fire.
  • None.
  • None.
  • We briefly hear a song that has the lyrics, "Let me be your underwear, so I can touch you there, and there."
  • Some of the following occur in English subtitles:
  • At least 20 "f" words (5 used sexually, some in subtitles), 4 "s" words (some in subtitles), 2 slang terms for male genitals (the "d" word), 1 slang term for breasts (the "t" word in subtitles), 1 ass (used with "hole" in subtitles), 1 S.O.B., 1 damn, and 1 use each of "Jesus," "Swear to God," "For God's sakes," "Jesus Christ" and "Oh my God" as exclamations.
  • Vivian's outfits show a little cleavage in several scenes.
  • Taking photographs, Jim opens a curtain and he, and we, briefly see a woman doing something while seated or squatted on the floor (or someone). Whatever it is (again just a split second glimpse), Jim embarrassedly and quickly closes the curtain.
  • Talking about Vivian, Jim asks John, "You mean to tell me after all of these years, you never made it with her?" Later, he asks him (about Jean), "Did you f*ck her?"
  • When Jean says that she wants $1400 for her interview, John says that he could get a hooker for that.
  • Jean comments that she remembers her father coming home drunk in the past and having sex with "the three of us -- in turn." She then says that when she got older she couldn't have sex for love, so she did it for financial reasons. She adds, "Thanks to my scar (on her face), my private parts didn't get too sore." She then comments that there was a cop "who really wanted to do it with me," who used an object from a sex crime scene to have sex with her for hours, but she grabbed a knife "...and cut his d*ck off."
  • A drunk man says that "...chicks (referring to Vivian) really know how to spread their legs..."
  • We see three topless "exotic dancers" (bare breasts and most of their bare butts in their thong- like bottoms) in a men's club serviced by high-priced prostitutes. Having received a note to show up there, John is met by several hookers, as well as Vivian who assumes another name and asks if he wants to leave with just her, or with her and another woman (he leaves with just Vivian).
  • Vivian and John go to a motel room where she unbuttons his shirt, hikes up her skirt, and sits on his clothed lap. After some heavy breathing, she wants to have sex, but he's reluctant. She then says, "Problem? I fix" and puts her hand on his clothed crotch but he stops her. Eventually, however, it's implied that they do have sex.
  • Vivian smokes a few times, while John and Chang smoke once.
  • Others, in the background of scenes and on TV, also smoke.
  • Jean comments that she remembers her father coming home drunk in the past and having sex with "the three of us -- in turn" and that he used her as a prostitute for visiting tourists.
  • The recent hand-over of Hong Kong from Britain to China (and why Britain had "ownership" in the first place).
  • Leukemia -- John has a quick spreading form of it.
  • What one would do if told they only had a few months left to live.
  • That Jean is self-conscious about the large scar on one side of her face.
  • A student activist commits suicide with a gun.
  • Jean walks up and slaps John's video camera while he's taping her.
  • A worker forcibly removes John from the bar where Vivian works.
  • Chang hits a belligerent and drunken man on the head with a bottle after the guy states that he could buy Vivian.
  • Jean smacks a guy she believes to be her old boyfriend from school (who's acting like he doesn't know her -- which may or may not be true).
  • We see brief TV footage of the stiffened and charred body of a person who set himself on fire.

  • Reviewed May 13, 1998

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