WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Chinese Box is a blandly symbolic examination of Hong Kong during the time period just before Great Britain pulled up stakes and handed over rule to the Chinese. Early 1997 was a momentous time in Hong Kong, weighty with emotional tension and cultural shift. Unfortunately, although director Wayne Wang (Smoke, The Center of the World) seems to have his intentions in the right place, the film can't overcome the heavy-handedness of its symbolism and the dour nature of its tone to provide a fitting tribute to the time.
As the movie begins, and the date of the change in power inevitably approaches, Hong Kong is restless with uncertainty. The tone of the city is symbolized by troubled and unhealthy British photojournalist John (Jeremy Irons), who seems to have adopted Hong Kong as his city and who endlessly pines for the love of Vivian (Gong Li). John is so grave and unhappy that he's difficult to root for as he makes desperate lunges toward Vivian, and in fact, you can completely understand why Vivian avoids him. The film, without any real conviction or suspense, follows John as he discovers shocking aspects of Vivian's past and befriends an unlikely street urchin in the form of Jean (Maggie Cheung), who is the opposite of composed Vivian and, in her own way, represents the future of the newly young Hong Kong. All this is anchored by a dreary, intrusive, and completely unnecessary voiceover by Irons.
Despite the seeming gravity of these characters' lives, I never felt a great deal of compassion. John is a bit of a cypher, and so I found myself not particularly caring as he gets a major bit of bad news and as he relentlessly pursues the object of his affections. Chinese Box pays too much attention to the way its characters and plot devices symbolize the outward nonfiction of Hong Kong's predicament, and so we're left with narrative devices that seem forced and scenarios that seem rooted on the page of a screenplay rather than in life. I wanted to learn more about the implications of the political changeover, but the details of that are maddeningly sparse in the face of the film's soap-opera story.
On the plus side, the two Chinese actresses in this film are fantastically naturalistic—particularly Maggie Cheung (Jean), who brightens every scene she's in. Also, if you're into Ruben Blades' music, he offers a little serenade here that, although out-of-place, is fun. Interestingly, John's frequent digital filmmaking scenes foreshadow Wang's all-digital The Center of the World four years later.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Lions Gate presents Chinese Box in a disappointing nonanamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. To me, any modern transfer that ain't enhanced for widescreen TVs is a waste of time and money, so automatically, this one drops two full grades. That being said, for a nonanamorphic effort, the image isn't terrible. I've seen a few anamorphic efforts that are worse than this.
Detail is mediocre but watchable, and the color palette comes across as murky and drab, even when the colors are trying to impress you. Colors tend to bleed, especially reds. Flesh tones are grayish. I noticed abundant aliasing and shimmering, but surprisingly no edge halos. Shadow detail is poor, and blacks suffer from the lack of widescreen enhancement.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The Dolby Surround track gets the job done, with accurate and clean dialog, as well as good separation across the front. The occasional bursts of music have a rare depth and a full low end.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
You get the film's Trailer, a biography section called Artists, and an easter egg trailer for Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The lack of extras and the very disappointing non-enhanced video presentation leave me no choice but to recommend skipping this title...at least until the just-announced Signature Series edition arrives.