Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
Chinese Box (1997) is not a remarkable film. My expectations shrank when I found out the director Wayne Wang also directed Maid in Manhattan (2002). Rather, I found interest in the various elements of Jeremy Irons’ career, and how it distills and reflects them within the backdrop of Hong Kong. Set during the 6 months before Hong Kong’s turnover to China in 1997, the film explores Hong Kong, a “Chinese Box” as it were, a puzzle to solve, though the lives of John (Irons), a British journalist, his sometimes lover Vivian (Li Gong), and the charming yet mysterious stranger Jean (Maggie Cheung). The film juggles a lot of elements – John and Vivian’s affair and their struggle to reconcile their relationship, John’s fascination (and creepy obsession) with Jean – amidst the backdrop of Hong Kong in transition.
The thread that ostensibly ties the various plot points together is John’s ruminations on Hong Kong. As John recounts to Vivian, he desires something that isn’t “here today, gone tomorrow.” Vivian responds that “You won’t find that in Hong Kong.” The encounter mirrors their relationship of course, one held in indeterminacy as Vivian struggles with living in Hong Kong as an immigrant from the mainland. But by the end of the film, the “Chinese Box” of Hong Kong, its mysterious essence, is that it is always changing. Scenes throughout the film, between business hot shots, British commentators, and more highlight this fact, but it never ties together as a fully realized theme as other Last Generation filmmakers have explored before. In fact, the film presents Hong Kong as a place of constant change from the beginning, so the film’s exploration on the subject never feels like it reaches a proper maturation.
At the beginning of the film, we see CG images within a Chinese box pass by, including a watch with Chairman Mao. The arm jitters about, as if time struggles to move forward, a reflection on the anxieties of the changes to Hong Kong.
Much of this film echoes similar explorations in British Hong Kong’s ‘Last Generation’ cinema, film that reflected the anxiety around Hong Kong’s turnover to China, initially announced in 1984. Films such as Rouge (1987), C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri (‘Xin buliao qing’, 1993), and Chunking Express (1994) explore the transient nature of Hong Kong, and reflect on the changes to come. In fact, Chris Doyle, the director of photography for Chunking Express, was the DP 2nd unit for Chinese Box, and I suspect he may have lent his apartment for filming for Chinese Box as he did for Chunking Express. The film is also similar to the previous entry in this series, Stealing Beauty (1996). Both films use handheld consumer cameras to clearly situate the film in the 90s, both films also deal with Irons dying from a serious illness (AIDS in Stealing Beauty, leukaemia in Chinese Box).
Irons’ character, a Briton, begins to die as the British empire in Hong Kong withers away. The parallels are quite clear, despite how John distances himself from his more narrow-minded British compatriots. Irons’ character reflects a decaying British presence in Hong Kong. The question then becomes, does his absolutely perverse behaviour throughout the film (slut-shamming Vivian, stalking Jean, treating both as objects rather that human beings) supposed to be a reflection or even critique of the British gaze and rule of Hong Kong? While Jean initially rebukes his investigative advances (he films her without her consent, and she forcefully shoves the camera away), John’s creepy behaviour is rarely critiqued in the film. When Jean tells a story of her being raped by her father and a police office through camera footage (a lie, but not known at the time), John and his male friend do not react, but rather evaluate the footage for its artistic merit, and discuss whether they would have sex with her based on the damage she may have received from the abuse. Is the takeaway that John is a reflection of the colonial mindset? Perhaps. Throughout the film, John is linked to images and sounds of a beating heart, such as the beating hearts of freshly butchered fish in the market or the beat of the factory machinery nearby. In the end of the film, John sits and closes his eyes on a pier of Hong Kong, filming himself. Meanwhile, Vivian looks at a beating heart in the market, and the film cuts to credits. Does John finally succumb to his leukaemia and die, like the fading British empire? The film leaves it ambiguous, as we never see the heart stop beating, and the sound of the machinery only stops when the credits rise. In the end, if the film was critiquing the colonial gaze through the character of John, his arc would require much more criticism for his creepy, obsessive behaviour with the women in his life.
Of course, Irons playing a creepy stalker is well at home in his portfolio of playing perverse characters. The film’s attempt at reflection on a serious subject (the transfer of Hong Kong) fits right into his portfolio as well. At the very least, Chinese Box made me recognize again that Irons often narrates the films he stars in, a trend that started right from the beginning of his career in Brideshead Revisited (1981). Irons’ deep, weathered voice makes for excellent narration material, and many films capitalize on this asset.
Overall, this film is a somewhat forgettable entry into Irons’ career. While the main trio of actors are excellent, the material fails to give a compelling story.