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Lions Gate presents
Chinese Box (1998)

"I need something that's not here today and gone tomorrow."
- John (Jeremy Irons)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: January 29, 2004

Stars: Jeremy Irons, Gong Li
Other Stars: Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui, Ruben Blades, Jared Harris
Director: Wayne Wang

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (contains language and some sexual content)
Run Time: 01h:38m:48s
Release Date: September 09, 2003
UPC: 031398831723
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BB+B A-

DVD Review

John (Jeremy Irons) wanders through the streets of Hong Kong with a small video camera and documents images of the changing metropolis. During the early months of 1997 prior to the end of British rule, he observes people going their daily routines and thinks about his own troubled life. A British import living in a foreign land, he has fallen in love with the stunning Vivian (Gong Li), a club owner attached to an important Hong Kong businessman named Chang (Michael Hui). Their relationship has only been platonic thus far, and he fails to understand her reluctance to follow her heart. Perhaps there is no place for him in this new Hong Kong, but she also faces a complex past that will keep her from success within this frenetic world.

Wayne Wang's Chinese Box use the love-story foundation to explore the Hong Kong environment within a specific time period. Beginning on New Year's Eve in 1996, this tale deftly combines real-life aspects and a fictional story into an engaging product. Wang (Smoke, The Joy Luck Club) grew up in Hong Kong, and his experiences help the film to feel more intimate than the typical foreign entry. John has lived there for a significant time, but he remains an outsider learning about an entirely different culture. His associates discuss everything in terms of money, which also creates alienation for him. John's only solace lies in his unrequited love for Vivian and the friendship of Jim (Ruben Blades)a witty, guitar-playing photographer also curious about the area's cultural intricacies. Their friendship is more developed than the other key relationships and actually reveals a warm nature rarely existent in the characters depicted.

A separate, surprisingly involving story involves Jean (Maggie Cheung), a vibrant young woman disfigured by a nasty scar across one side of her face. John becomes obsessed with her story, and even lets her borrow his video camera to record her experiences. We eventually learn that her past involves a rich British boy who broke her heart, which caused disastrous ramifications. Wang is obviously stating a larger point about Britain's effect on the area, but it never becomes too heavy-handed. Cheung makes Jean an intriguing character during limited screen time, which makes John's fascination easily understandable. These scenes have little in common with the primary love story, but they help to paint a broader picture of the area. In one sense, this tale actually harms the John/Vivian story arc because it distracts us from their relationship. But it also reveals a compelling individual who represents a saddening aspect of the British rule.

John spends considerable time pining over Vivian, which is understandable due to Gong Li's charming appearance. However, her character is a cold, nearly emotionless figure hopelessly in love with Chang. Vivian's questionable past eliminates the possibility of marriage, but she still hopes it will occur. This character could become pitiable, but Li keeps her actions understandable by showcasing the inherent sadness inside her heart. Michael Hui also does a solid job in portraying Chang as more than just a typical villain. He does care for Vivian immensely, but his financial trappings prevent him from taking the right path.

Chinese Box falls short in the plot department and could easily be dismissed by viewers alienated by its slow-moving, rambling pace. Wang takes a chance by not making the lead characters more emotionally accessible, but this indirect tone matches the city's overall atmosphere. Irons' character also suffers from a serious illness, which contributes to his pale visage, but this appearance also stems from his reactions to the environment. This film isn't able to retain a fascinating tone throughout its running time, but it incorporates some key ideas that stay with you for a while afterwards. The deliberate tempo is not for everyone, but a unique style makes this story a worthwhile viewing.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Wayne Wang's films all utilize his signature visual style, which makes the inclusion of a solid transfer more essential. This 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer generally provides an impressive picture, with a few minor exceptions. The nighttime scenes are a bit hazy, and certain scenes lack the crisp nature of the better digital transfers. However, the overall transfer is very effective and barely distracts from the presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The sound effects of Hong Kong act as a separate character in this picture. This 2.0-channel Dolby Surround track nicely brings these sounds through the front speakers, but it lacks the complexity to really immerse us into the film. The dialogue is clear and easily understandable, and there are no significant problems, but a 5.1-channel transfer would have offered a worthwhile enhancement.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, English (Chinese Translation) with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Dierctor Wayne Wang
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Bonus Film: Life is Cheap... But Toilet Paper is Expensive, including director's commentary, 24 chapter cues, and subtitles
  2. Home Movie: Hong Kong 97
Extras Review: This two-disc set provides the completely separate 1989 Wayne Wang film Life is Cheap . . . But Toilet Paper is Expensive, which also takes place in Hong Kong. This tale offers a much crazier look at the city through the eyes of an overseas guy who takes a job from gangsters but never finds them. Dragging along a suitcase handcuffed to his arm, the fellow explores many of Hong Kong's seedier areas. This movie has some compelling moments, but it is definitely not for squeamish viewers. It does give us an interesting counterpoint to Chinese Box. Wayne Wang offers a commentary track to this picture, which helps to explain his intentions for the notable scenes.

Wang also gives a feature-length commentary for Chinese Box and provides a wealth of noteworthy information. A film critic joins him and asks some questions, which bring a smoother flow to the track. Wang grew up in Hong Kong and knows the city well, which leads him to discuss the real-life elements included within the story. This commentary is definitely worth a listen for fans and audiences interested in the culture's background.

The final supplement is Home Movie: Hong Kong 97, a collection of images shot by Wang and director of photography Vilko Filac prior to production. The footage is split into five sections and contains specific moments connected to the actual film. They run for about 35 minutes and provide nothing groundbreaking, but it does give an interesting perspective of Hong Kong. Wang also discusses the trip during a five-minute introduction that places the home movies in context.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

When I first viewed Chinese Box several years ago, I found it to be generally slow and boring. The love story was uninvolving, and the deliberate pace had me looking at my watch several times. However, this second viewing provided a surprising revelation of interesting elements that I missed within my original impression. Perhaps this time the plot became less essential, which allowed me to understand Wang's larger aims. If you initially disliked this picture, I would suggest giving it a second look. It still rambles a bit and falls short of Wang's best pictures, but it provides an interesting observation of Hong Kong in a state of upheaval.


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