Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 2, May 1999

Wayne Wang

Chinese Box


        Wayne Wang
Country of origin
        France/USA/Hong Kong
        Jeremy Irons, Gong Li,
        Maggie Cheung, Michael Hui,
        Ruben Blades
        Jean-Claude Carriere, Larry Gross
        In English and Chinese,
        with English subtitle.

film reviewed by
Stephanie Donald

  1. I haven't seen Lolita yet. Not because I am frightened, as are some politicians in Queensland (Australia), of moral pollution, or of a sudden urge to go out and assault teenage girls, but because Jeremy Irons is in it. He is a talented and in a certain, languorous way, a charismatic actor, but he does have a penchant for somewhat unlikeable, slightly self-obsessed men in love. This comes to an unsavoury peak in Chinese Box. Irons plays a journalist, who is dying. In a vaguely insensitive parallelism his dying matches the timing of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. As the glamour and haughtiness of British rule rolls away, Irons mooches around Hong Kong after women. His main focus is a woman from the Mainland, played by Gong Li. She runs a successful nightclub, hobnobs with the glitziest, and wears some very glam frocks. In a long-standing relationship with an older, richer man, Li's character wants commitment. Her lover knew her as a migrant-prostitute and is only able to love her, not marry her. Irons says he will do both and they have a transitory and depressing affair. It ends with his death and with Gong Li donning jeans and moving back into the city to find her future. That is abruptly halted, as the final shot of the film is a slow pan up her legs and pelvis. They just couldn't resist it.
  2. The film was directed by the American Wayne Wang. His work is generally boxed up as Asian-American, because international film audiences and critics still insist on that kind of descriptive tag when talking about a film's primary meaning. Where Wang's work is explicitly interested in Asian-American experiences (The Joy Luck Club) that is not surprising, if rather limiting. With Blue in the Face, a filmed novella of everyday life in white New York, it doesn't 'help' much. With Chinese Box it is completely misleading. If we are going to talk up films in terms of race and place, this is an instance where race doesn't work and the place is incidental. Wang may be of Chinese ethnicity, but the constructed masculinity in this movie (Paul Theroux is cited on the credits) dominates the film. There is a racially organised divide in the film but it is dependent on gender for legibility. Two Chinese women are seen and, in different ways, known by one English male. Hong Kong the place is a backdrop to a fantasy of salvation in the throes of personal extinction. The dying empire of the British, the inadequate patriarchies of the Chinese and the invisible overseas family of the journalist (his wife gets a voice-over on the answerphone ( 'I heard you were dying, what shall I tell the children?'), are all plot devices, mugs in a boys' game. Not only Gong Li, but Maggie Cheung, the diva of Hong Kong film, has her story told through Irons' camera. Her character, a heartbroken girl (another prostitute apparently), with a badly scarred face, reluctantly agrees to his request to film herself telling her story. That is basically a melodrama, in which she tried to immolate herself having been jilted by a young British teenager (we 'meet' him in a later scene - and it is a great portrayal of absolutely disinterested arrogance combined with a lack of emotional responsibility - Irons without the soul).
  3. The journalist (Irons) then plays Cheung's tape, himself lying on a bed in front of her projected image on the wall of his flat. There is a play on eyes here, as the Chinese female face and the Anglo-Saxon male face merge. It's all so meaningful that the banality is almost interesting. Really intriguing, however, is the question raised by her scarred face. Why do film-makers outside Hong Kong try so hard to disfigure Cheung's beauty? There is a peculiar sequence in Irma Vep when the editor literally scratches the negative to make a cool version of a 1915 French detective flick. It is Cheung's face that gets 'scratched.'
  4. Shot after shot spells out the strangeness of the film-makers to the places and people whose stories they purport to tell. The dying journalist (Irons) has a singer-friend-photographer (Ruben Blades). At one point they ride his motorbike and look down on Hong Kong. 'No no that's not it' (or words to that effect) says the Irons character ... so they move into shanty land and move around taking authentic photographs of the crowded back streets. Some of the subjects look surprised at the intrusion. Is this clever extra-acting, or is it just another faux pas? Hard to tell, and I found it embarrassing to contemplate. What were those characters doing there? What were we doing there? What on earth was this film about anyway? The answer comes with Irons' death, on a ferry in the harbour, once again looking at Hong Kong, the tourist spectacle. He has his handicam with him and as he dies, the camera catches his face and we see the death on the miniature playback screen. It isn't very affecting but it sums up the film. We have been looking at him looking at himself all the way through.

    Afterword, 26 February, 2000

    It occurs to me that Chinese Box could also be read as a fantasy of murderous female freedom - a quasi-husband and a lover - both faintly lovable but ultimately unsatisfying. Both are requited so you are a good victim - and then both die leaving you free to go out and conquer.
    Stephanie Donald


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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