Chinese Box — A Bit of a Puzzle

Gong Li and Jeremy Irons in Chinese Box

Chinese Box is a story of what happened when the British left Hong Kong in 1997. Technically, it’s not a historical film, since it was released that year. But it is centered around an historic event, so I decided to include it.

The film is definitely dated. It’s interesting to see a desk or shelf stuffed with papers or files that would be digital today, as well as a computer screen that is well, old-fashioned, to say the least. But on to the story.

Jeremy Irons, who doesn’t look terribly younger than he does today, plays the lead: John, a journalist in Hong Kong as it’s about to be handed over to the Chinese. The film is replete with images of students and demonstrators protesting this big event: to the point that one young person shoots himself at a New Year’s Eve celebration.

But Irons’ character is in love with Gong Li, who plays Vivian, a bar girl who “belongs” to a Chinese businessman, Wang. Wang won’t marry Vivian because she used to be a hooker, so John offers to marry her instead. At first, she refuses John’s offer.

Then John learns he has a deadly illness. This changes his perspective, and he begins to roam the city with a video camera in order to record the end of an era. During his attempt to interview people, he meets Jean, who one reviewer calls a “street sprite” — a good description. Jean wraps her face with a scarf to hide a terrible scar and attempts to sell things to people on the street, including cans of what she calls “colonial air.”

John is fascinated by her and wants to learn her story, so he lends her his video camera so she can record it. Eventually, he learns that her scar is the result of a suicide attempt, and she explains she tried to kill herself after she was separated from her teenage British boyfriend.

When the two confront each other and the boy, now a man, leaves her, it’s a comment on how the British treat the residents of Hong Kong.

John and Vivian’s relationship,, or lack thereof, is a bit more murky. It’s a somewhat predictable ending, but overall an interesting look at a few relationships and an historic event.

Chinese Box is available on Netflix DVD.


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