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NewCityNet Accidental Purist

Open the "Chinese Box."

By Ray Pride

MAY 4, 1998:  A specter swept over Hong Kong last year-communists who may be better capitalists than the capitalists themselves.

Hong Kong-born filmmaker Wayne Wang decided to build a romance against the backdrop of the July 1997 handover of the longtime British colony to mainland China. The result, the mournful yet delicious "Chinese Box," stars Jeremy Irons as John, a British journalist long besotted with both the territory and bar hostess Vivian (Gong Li). (There's also a subplot with Maggie Cheung as a streetwise con artist captured on video by Irons, and he has a photographer sidekick played by a wry Ruben Blades). Wang's film, written with Jean-Claude Carrière, Paul Theroux and Larry Gross, is lyrical and haunting in a manner that resists plot summary and descriptive language. Its weight and poetry are sweet mysteries, the triumph of densely realized image and sound, contained in a lyrical, sensual sweep that is never less than dazzling.

Wang's Hong Kong is city as found object, evoking the texture of a society the surface frenzy of which obscures other meanings, elusive to the characters, elusive to us. Shot in mostly hand-held fashion by Vilko Filac, Emir Kustirica's customary cameraman, there is always a sliver of sea, a glimpse of sky, a hint of elsewhere in the frame. And the stirring, hiccupy editing leaves not a wasted frame in any splice. The world-weary characters speak like world-weary characters who have reread their favored Graham Greene novels again and again, and the tract-cum-fiction of Theroux, at least once. "Oh fuck, I can't bear this fucking city," the tired, ill Irons grumbles. His words often have the brass of stolid cant: "I wonder if I can hold out longer than the British. But I'm not an empire. Besides, Hong Kong won't die, it'll change." Yet the city blooms alongside the bromides.

Wang trained as a painter, and "Chinese Box" is his most gorgeous, most painterly film. One exquisite example among dozens: in a transition, Wang captures explosions of neon kanji-Chinese ideograms-then matches that with a cascade of sparks of welding in a construction site at night. "Hong Kong is, in the end," says Wang, "so full of colors that it was impossible to even say what would pop out. I just thought, let it pop all over the damn place. In all of my other films, there was so much discipline and control about colors and camerawork, and this one, it's really about the lack of the control, the explosion of colors."

Remarkably, some viewers have found the film cold and over-intellectual. "I agree there are some very blunt metaphors there," Wang counters. "But if you go beyond it, there's a lot more. Maybe they're too subtle. There are things that may be too personal and interesting to me and not to other people. Oh, Englishman dying, woman from China, so what? It's like dealing with stereotypes. You start with them and then you break them down."

One cliché that's banished is how his lead actress is portrayed: we should be grateful just to watch Gong Li smoke. "People didn't want to see her smoking!" he says. "They don't want to see her in shades and jeans. But that's very much part of a modern woman in Hong Kong or China, for that matter."

Wang had shot films in Hong Kong before, and was always frustrated by the impossibility of control on its crowded streets. Rewriting as they shot to reflect the daily news and discoveries made on the street, the crew captured small moments they might not have otherwise. "There are certain things about this film that are cinematic that no one cares about that I really love," Wang says with enthusiasm. "There's one sequence. Jeremy and Ruben are in their apartment looking at Maggie Cheung on the video projection. She's in a close-up and she turns and her hair fills the screen. Then we cut to a pan from left to right of the city with a lot of buildings. Then it pans right to left as Ruben's motorcycle comes up the side of Victoria Peak, then it pans right to left of this beautiful shot of Hong Kong down below, and all the while, the sound is bleeding from one to another. I find this fascinating, keeping the momentum of the image yet letting them bleed together. I love that stuff."

Sometimes it seems that the greatest hope for the survival of cinema as an art is the judicious arraying of accidents. "I think there's a part of me that's inspired by accidents," he says. "More and more so these days. I started out as a painter and when I was a painter I was very, very intrigued by abstract expressionism-it's almost all working with accidents. A drip happens by accident, you have to work with that drip. I'm very inspired by that."

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