Wayne Wang talks about his seductively political yet intensely personal film, Chinese
Box, as "my Hong Kong story". Triggered by the handover of Hong Kong to China,
the film is nevertheless less thought out than others. "It’s my least polished
film and the most instinctive," he says. "It’s from my gut."
"I knew I had to do my Hong Kong story."
Wang (christened Wayne by his engineer father who was a fan of the late John Wayne)
says "it’s about the change that is taking place in Hong Kong, but it’s
also about the relationship of four people who represent various aspects of Hong Kong. I
was born and raised in Hong Kong. I’ve made many films about the Chinese in America,
my adopted home, but I haven’t really made one about Hong Kong, my birth home. When
the 1997 takeover of Hong Kong by China was announced, I knew I had to do my Hong Kong
Set in the months before the last days of colonial Hong Kong, English journalist John
(Jeremy Irons) tries to come to terms with his infatuation for Chinese resident Vivian
(Gong Li), who has been supporting her Chinese lover Chang (Michael Hui) for some years.
Now a leading figure in the business community, Chang is unwilling to legitimise their
relationship, as Vivian's past as a pricey prostitute would not be accepted – in his
circle of important businessmen. John's compulsive desire to record the last months of a
quickly disappearing Hong Kong is encouraged by his friend Jim (Ruben Blades), and he
meets Jean (Maggie Cheung), a streetwise young woman who has learned the skills of
survival. He wants her personal testimony to reveal the real Hong Kong. But her story,
like Hong Kong’s own, is a patchwork of truths and lies; knowing how to separate them
is like knowing how a Chinese Box works.
The film begins with a wonderful title sequence exploring how such a Chinese Box
actually works. It leads into a satisfying, complex film that never disillusions, never
condescends and never fails to illuminate its subject matter with insights as complex as
the box in the opening credits. But it remains eminently accessible and soars with
intelligence as well as emotion. It’s a sublime and provocative film, always engaging
and singularly fresh. The individual characters symbolise elements of the larger players
in the backdrop (China, Hong Kong, England) to their emotional story.
"some scenes have been dropped, because of Gong
But, says Wang, this happened automatically and is not the focal point. "One of
the criticisms about the film is that these are easy metaphors – yes, they are,"
he says, "but there is more." Even in the midst of making an overtly political
film, it was always the characters who came first. And that’s where Wang’s only
disappointment in the film comes from: some scenes have been dropped, because of Gong Li.
"(Screenplay writer) Jean-Paul Carričre, who as a writer has a fascination with
prostitutes – he wrote Belle de Jour – had written some complicated and
interesting scenes which Gong Li wouldn’t do. She said they weren’t Chinese.
But Wang holds no grudges. Gong Li, he says, has such an "organic process as an
actress" she was able to convey her character even though she spoke virtually no
English when she started.
"I think Jeremy practically taught her all the
"I think Jeremy practically taught her all the English," he says. "I
always felt Jeremy Irons was not just a great actor but he could have been living in Hong
Kong – he has that travelled face. When I first met him, I had just a pne page
outline about his character and I asked him if he’d be prepared to make the journey
to find out more about this character and what he would do. He was very interested in the
relationship with Gong Li’s character…."
When they began writing the screenplay, Wang had the basics of an idea for a love
story. Carričre casually related an incident he remembered about director Luis Bunuel,
who had head over heels in love with a virginal looking young actress on a movie set. He
treated her very properly, but became quite obsessed with her. One day, he overheard a
conversation between the grips on the set and eventually discovered that virtually
everyone had slept with the actress at one time or another. Bunuel was amused to realise
he was the only one who hadn’t. Wang was fascinated by this story, and it became the
seed for the love story between John (Irons) and Vivian (Li); this was the aspect that
So the story grew, around an English journalist, an immigrant woman from China, a young
street wise Hong Kong born woman, and a businessman whose family escaped the communist
regime in 1949 – coincidentally the year Wang was born, after his family escaped from
"There are some things that are calculated, some quite
"I went in not knowing exactly what would happen and how. In that sense I feel
Chinese Box is powerful and interesting. There are some things that are calculated, some
quite accidental. For example, visually, it captures a lot of details about Hong Kong,
elements over which we don’t have control. That’s important – especially
some of the video footage we use. In Hollywood, everything has to be controlled, every
little sign has to be cleared by a lawyer, everythin paid for. It you look at studio
pictures, they’re completely homogenised. So this film is full of life and things
arent always there for a purpose. The details are real to life. This lends it an air of
documentary. But then this film needed to be alive," he says enthusiastically.
"As did the actors. They were given the freedom to be their characters at a
Irons knew this and was excited by it: "I knew it was going to be an improvisation
and, in a way, I was committing to the unkown and that was exciting. The more you do as an
actor the easier it is to take risks and I’m always looking for things that I think
may be difficult. This seemed to fit the bill."
It was difficult, too, for Gong Li, says Wang. "The fact she spoke virtually no
English was difficult, but her character would have had the same difficulty, so it was
"Hong Kong tends to be too passive."
One of the scenes that is not ‘real’ in Chinese Box is a tragic moment when a
young man kills himself publicly in political protest. "Political youth suicide
didn’t happen in Hong Kong," Wang says, "but I wish it had in a way –
Hong Kong tends to be too passive."
When Wang went to Hong Kong to make Chinse Box, he was pessimistic – about
"everything" Now, he says, he is even more so. "When I was shooting there
people asked me why is it so grey and pessimistic – but that’s how I felt."
With its ‘experimental’ approach, Chinese Box shows another side to this
versatile filmmaker and also helps resolve something personal for him; "I grew up
influenced by but anti the English colonial culture. So I was able to resolve some of
those contradictory feelings."