A story behind a scar, a fissure between a couple, a disease carried by a foreigner, and a video camera that probes the inner secrets of people and the outer ambiguities of their city make up the subject of Chinese Box, director Wayne Wang's loose, complex take on contemporary Hong Kong. Reflecting the tenuous political status of the port city, and shot on a schedule that was planned to include public reaction to Hong Kong's 1997 changeover to mainland rule, Chinese Box follows the trajectories of four characters, but avoids coming to conclusions. What counts in the film are their journeys, diagnoses, and outreach to each other. None of the people depicted may be riding at the helm of history, but, in their own small and symbolic way, they stitch past and present together, and portray how destiny can be put in the hands of individuals.
John Spencer (Jeremy Irons) is a British business reporter with no strong political opinions, but a high level of engagement in the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. Not really an adventurer, his attraction to the city stems from his adaptability. His colleagues prefer clubby, Western hangouts, but John is equally at ease in neighborhood cafes. He's long been smitten by Vivian (Gong Li), a transplant from China and the proprietor of a swank bar: Like him, she's become a part of the swirl of Hong Kong life, yet her roots, like his, lie in a more reserved culture.
John is accommodating to his surroundings; Vivian, though, is adrift. She's unable to convince her longtime boyfriend Chang (Michael Hui) to marry her, because he suspects something tawdry in a past she does her best to conceal. When John learns he has a fatal blood disease, his journalistic inquisitiveness erupts, and he begins to pry open secrets that up to now he's learned to leave alone. He works furiously to pursuade Vivian that life with her nouveau riche businessman lover would be a sham. He turns a camcorder on her relationship to Chang, and also on the streets of Hong Kong, hoping in the latter to find a mirror to his own desperation and solitude. But shooting the city from a distance doesn't bring him close to its pulse. He runs across Jean (Maggie Cheung), a street hawker whose scarred face portends mystery. Sensing he can trust her, he lends her his video camera, asking her to record her life story. Jean's tape, played back at John's apartment, at last provides John with the links he's been looking for. Like him, she's suffered a debilitating love affair and a physical tragedy; and her story contains dilemmas particular to Hong Kong's mix of two civilizations.
On one level, Chinese Box works as a metaphor for the state of Hong Kong, insinuating some of its social conditions without resorting to clumsy symbols. The West can observe and learn about China, but its understanding is limited. The industrial world, however, brings in an enormous influx of money that inevitably has a corrupting influence on the local culture. Hong Kong's face is ever-changing, and the West's hold on the place is tentative.
On another level, it's impossible not to slip occasionally into a stargazing mode, and marvel at the unique gathering of glamorous figures here, representing Hollywood, Hong Kong and China. Part of Wang's strategy is to use these high-profile actors as icons of their respective film businesses, thus allowing the three systems to commingle in one film. Cheung, a veteran of countless Hong Kong action pics, convincingly plays a woman as split within as the outside of her face, which is half-beautiful and half-deformed. Irons once again turns in a notable performance as a steady, collected professional man on the brink of losing everything he cherishes, and Gong Li proves once more she is as adept playing savvy social climbers as she is timid virgins. In one resonant scene, Vivian cleans shop while watching Marlene Dietrich on her television: Wang imparts a sense not only of two love goddesses colliding, but also of the ephemeralness of glamour-queen beauty.
Some of the script's sophistication is attributable to Jean-Claude Carriere, the former screenwriter for Luis Bunuel, and the cinematography's poetic rawness to Vilko Filac, who lent the gritty look to Underground. But Wang, whose career has had its share of sentimental hits (Eat a Bowl of Tea, The Joy Luck Club), has lately taken risks with both his new film and Smoke, by inspecting unblinkingly the elusiveness of characters' motivations. His vision has become colder, but also more astute. If these films are an indication, Wang is moving toward a clearer objectivity.