Strangeness and Nostalgia:
Life in the Chinese Box
movie review by Wena Poon
Recent English-language filmmaking about doe-eyed Asian female superstars has developed to such a degree that the genre has already taken a life of its own. A canon is in the making; soon one will be able to order boxed sets from Time Life Videos of these prolific outpourings of giddying fin-de-siècle Orientalism. It is thus quite impossible to watch Chinese Box without noting its place as the latest among an (inadvertent) trilogy of international films specializing in the propulsion of Chinese-speaking actresses before English audiences.
Wayne Wang's latest film succeeds in what its "sister" films, Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book and Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep, failed to do as individual works. Chinese Box, possessing both the aesthetic fancies of Greenaway and the music video chic of Irma Vep, attains its own luminescence simply by realizing and sharpening the focus of an insatiable nostalgia: the loss of Hong Kong in July 1997, seen through the eyes of a dying British expatriate.
Nostos, the pain Odysseus felt sitting on the rock and looking across the sea towards an unseen Ithaca, has always been the flip side of voyages towards the exotic. Nostalgia and strangeness reverberate within these three films. In Greenaway, Nakiko's memories of her father and her childhood, encased in the lonely cheer of "Rose, Rose I Love You" from a cracked wireless in the background, and her subsequent self-exile in the giddying modernism of Hong Kong, are all elements of an incredibly rich and nostalgic Orientalist extravaganza on the part of Greenaway, as bold and thick and luxuriant as the calligraphic swathes that litter the film. In Assayas, the nostalgia of silent movies of the 20's, and the ludicrous strangeness of flying in real-life Maggie Cheung to substitute for a long-dead French actress, play against each other to terminate into a crazed, mutilating video montage in the last few tattered moments of the film as its thought (and originality) finally spins itself out.
Lonely, longing, gorgeous, emptying, these two prior films embody a tireless craving of their auteurs whose imaginations have somehow expired. We understand their longing, but for those of us who find it impossible to empathize with their fetishes, we remain unimpressed. Ethereal, beautiful, substanceless, Irma Vep and Pillow Book enchant and leave behind a vaporous trail in the cinema-goer's imagination. One rummages in the refrigerator after this spread, unsatisfied.
Chinese Box, however, scalds with it own thought-out intelligence; the steely undertone of the political agenda puts the brains back into these Orientalist cinematic excursions. The nostos exists, not simply as a cry from a Western director's aesthetic heart, but from the hearts of two nations who have been strange bedfellows on a tiny island nation for a hundred years. Here, director Wayne Wang says, we have something to really shed nostalgic tears about: the lowering of a rain-drenched Union Jack after one hundred years of misrule, the exodus of the last British expatriates on a vast ocean liner, like the final flush of the toilet; the traditional Scottish bagpipes of farewell played by Chinese faces, the last salutes of Her Majesty's services, the student demonstrations and suicides in fear of a new world without democracy; finally, the evidently insurmountable cultural barrier between mainland Chinese and the Cantonese-speaking, Westernized people of Hong Kong; the return of a fostered child to its strange-smelling mother. Here is the nostalgia and strangeness all mixed up in a heady brew and given the gravelly undertone of politics.
Chinese Box is a thinking picture; in contrast to Greenaway's riotous calligraphy and Assayas' fuzzy video-image scribbles, there is calculation, depth and sagacity before the ink hits the paper in Wayne Wang's film. However incapturable the emotions of an adulterated people in their celebrated return to an estranged parent, Wayne Wang has managed to convey some of its bittersweetness, without corresponding pedagogy or editorializing. Like the metatheatricality of Irma Vep, a film about a filming, Chinese Box opens out into a series of many little boxes, mini-films, about Hong Kong. Jeremy Irons plays John, a consumptive scarecrow of a British financial reporter, a man who feels deeply about the subterranean Hong Kong that most expatriates don't get to see, and who tries to capture the last days of British rule with a roving videocam. Like many of his compadres, he has a British wife and kids back in England but never returns their messages, choosing instead of fall in love with the ever-idolized Chinese über-doll, Gong Li.
That Wayne Wang's film fittingly comes after Pillow Book and Irma Vep, like a main course accented by familiar ingredients, can be illustrated by their overarching spiritual similarity. Strangely, "Rose, Rose I Love You," which permeated Greenaway's film, repeatedly plays throughout Chinese Box, and thus must be considered the most "Chinese" of all Chinese traditional songs, a sort of statutory anthem common to all filmmakers who want stock oriental-ness in the background. Greenaway's voyeuristic fascination with juxtaposing raw-looking, pallid European men with peachy bathrobed Asian women in a series of lovemaking montages lives on in Chinese Box, a gesture which, if one wanted to be generous, can be interpreted as illustrating the strangeness and pain of experiencing "the unknown", "the Other", et cetera; and which, if one weren't feeling particularly generous, would simply be adduced as evidence of the fact that sex sells foreign art house films (just look at the cover of any foreign videotape in the local videostore).
Nevertheless, John's relationship with the two Chinese lead actresses belong to a succinct and provocative allegory which crowns the film in a way that leaves Pillow Book and Irma Vep behind in the transient life of art house films. Maggie Cheung, reprising her jazzy, English-speaking personality in Irma Vep, plays a furtive gamin, Jean, the ultimate product of Hong Kong's gritty streets and narrow alleyways. Ten years ago, she attempted a biracial romance with a British classmate à la Cho Cho San and tried to commit suicide when his father broke them up. Gong Li, who makes up for her hesitant English with her usual incredible repertoire of facial expressivity, is Vivian, a prostitute from mainland China who waits in vain for her Hong Kong businessman boyfriend of many years to marry her.
If the characters are allegorical stand-ins for their respective countries, what the film shows us is that in its death, Britain forces Hong Kong to wake up from its long reliance of imaginary British support (John reunites Jean with her English boyfriend, who doesn't remember her at all). Yet all is not lost: what was good of the old Empire, despite having uttered its last breath (i.e. John), is enough to send the reborn Hong Kong off in a brave new direction free of its ancestral moorings and illusory obligations. (Vivian breaks up with her traditional-minded boyfriend, knowing that he will never marry her, and takes hope from John's death to strike out on her own). No death arias of Cho Cho San in this Madam Butterfly.
What distinguishes Wang's film from that of Greenaway or Assayas is that he is as interested in the Asian characters' relationship to other Asian characters as he is in their rapport with the European lead. For example, the relationship between Vivian and her boyfriend (admirably rendered by Michael Hui) exhibits a cultural subtlety and dimensionality that probably does not interest the Greenaways and Assayases of the film world.
As John's blood and life ebbs out of him in his last moments, the tide drains out of Hong Kong harbor and the Great Empire's sun sinks in the East. With this last scene in mind, it's easy to see how a motion picture about the Hong Kong takeover, with an international cast and sponsored by international budgets, could have been so clumsily-made, maudlin and didactic. Reflective, timely, encyclopedic, focused, Chinese Box rises above its cinematic predecessors and surprises with its tireless eloquence about a truly complex subject. Although it will be some time before Chinese-born actresses can truly enjoy great roles in English films, Wang at least gave his female leads a fair chance to play Chinese characters the way a Chinese audience would expect to see them, and not as dislocated, glittering sexual ornaments in a Western director's art house pastiche.