Judge Aaron Bossig thought this was an instructional video on making paper take-out containers.
Hong Kong, under new management.
If a filmmaker cares deeply enough about his or her material, watching the end result is seldom a waste. I'll point out a few things I consider to be flaws, but we should all be thankful that Wayne Wang had his movie camera in Hong Kong all that time. This DVD set will serve as a wonderful time capsule.
Facts of the Case
For over 100 years, Hong Kong had been under control of the British Empire. The Chinese government leased the land to Britain in the mid-19th Century, a move forced by the First and Second Opium Wars. In 1997, the lease was scheduled to expire, and the land would return to Chinese rule, which meant that finally Hong Kong could be ruled by a government that shared its culture. The only problem was, after a century and a half, the British had as much influence in Hong Kong as the Chinese did. The language and food may be Eastern, but the attitudes and economics of Hong Kong were undoubtedly Western in nature. Returning Hong Kong to Chinese rule wouldn't be as simple as returning a people to their own culture; many citizens felt that the transition would bring Communism and cost them their civil liberties.
Imagine, for a moment, that you knew the world would end, and everything you know about your way of life would be over in one month. Feel, for just a moment, what that must be like: to know that everything will change on one specific date. Then, imagine your doctor telling you that you were expected to die even sooner than that. Would you still care?
This is the question surrounding Chinese Box. John (Jeremy Irons, M. Butterfly, Kingdom of Heaven) is from Britain, and has been living in Hong Kong for years, long enough to appreciate its unique charms, but not nearly long enough to understand them. John learns that he has leukemia, and has only six months to live. He will pass away close to when China is scheduled to reclaim Hong Kong, so the last few months of his life will be spent coming to terms with his host country. The country itself, at least as he knew it, will die with him.
What must he to come to terms with? A beautiful woman, for starters. John is madly in love with Vivian (Li Gong, The Assassin), Hong Kong woman acting as hostess in a local karaoke bar. Like a sizable number of Hong Kong women, Vivian has worked as a prostitute in the past. Her current "respectable" job is a gift from her lover, a successful Chinese businessman. To him, Vivian's tawdry past makes her unfit to be the wife of someone as successful as himself, though giving her the hostess job apparently makes her respectable enough to fool around with. John loves Vivian, and though she loves her sham husband, Vivian knows she will always remain his hidden secret. The love triangle created is a fairly obvious parallel to the political changes happening all around them. It's not forced. Irons and Gong create a very believable tension between themselves, which mirrors the loss Britain felt when Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese. The British want Hong Kong, but the truth is, Hong Kong belongs to the Chinese, and always has.
Still, John struggles to gain Vivian's favor, even while he struggles to stand up. Director Wayne Wang works extra hard to reinforce both John's emotional anguish and his physical fatigue. Almost the entire movie is shot using a "hand-held" technique, which adds just a little bit of camera shake throughout the scenes. The effect gives each scene a chaotic and fatigued feel, which reflects what is going on in John's head. Want to see how well it works? The few moments of clarity he'll experience are shot on a tripod or other form of Steadicam. After looking at the mild shake throughout the movie, the suddenly stable image will stick right out to you.
Perception is a big part of Chinese Box. It's not just the viewer's shaking perception of John, or his perception of Hong Kong. So many things in the movie work on the idea of presenting a person or idea in a new way. For example, when examining the lives of Hong Kong's lower class, he becomes enchanted with a street girl named Jean (Maggie Cheung, Hero), and he convinces her to interview herself on tape. Jean explains what it's like to grow up in a violent, area, and she tells the story behind a huge, disfiguring scar on her face. And yes, the stories involve her being forced into abusive sex acts at a young age (Hong Kong's attitude toward sex will be a constant theme across both discs of the Chinese Box set).
When John plays back the tape and becomes engrossed in Jean's confession, he doesn't merely watch it on his TV. He uses a small handheld projector and puts Jean's confession on the ceiling, upside down, across the way, and so on. He plays with the projector as if contorting the image onto another surface will finally force the material to make sense to his ears. Jean is altering John's perception of Hong Kong, so John tries to adapt by altering his perception of Jean. Don't be afraid to just admire the odd effect of the projected image sliding across the ceiling, or getting a little annoyed at the constant picture jitter. If you feel it affecting you, it just means that you've joined into the experiment in perception.
Although the DVD is titled Chinese Box, the Signature Series edition is actually a set of three movies. Life is Cheap…but Toilet Paper is Expensive provides a nice contrast to Chinese Box. Made several years earlier, Live is Cheap… is the story of a Chinese-American who travels to Hong Kong, only to end up being a courier for the mob. The importance of the plot of the movie is somewhat debatable. The entire piece is used to create a series of "portraits" of the people of Hong Kong, showing their quirks, values, and lifestyle. Whereas Chinese Box was more about capturing Hong Kong the moment before it changed forever, Life is Cheap… strives to describe Hong Kong as a people.
In this movie, you'll have more kinky sex confessions: this time, from a prostitute offering services to the camera. You'll see a goofy old man answer every question with a song and dance routine. Then, our hero travels into high society and witnesses the political value of an arranged marriage. A butcher will explain the value of life in Hong Kong. It's a lot to take in, and most of the characters are written and acted very well, but the storytelling in Life is Cheap… soon ends up feeling like mingling at a huge party. It's nothing but introductions upon introductions. After a while, you just wonder where the movie is steering itself.
Making Life is Cheap… even more difficult to watch are some of the symbols used in the movie, specifically, ducks being killed for food and dogs training for dogfights. The ducks are hung upside down and bled to death while still alive, a cooking technique that's certainly unsettling to watch. Now, having eaten more than my fair share of duck, I'm not calling for widespread vegetarianism, but my Western mindset does desire a more humane way to dispose of the animal. I tried to chalk it up to cultural differences. The fighting dog scene is what truly upsets me: you have to watch a dog running on a treadmill for hours out of every day, only knowing that he's just going to be tossed into a ring with another dog and get torn to pieces. This is a level of cruelty I can't bring myself to excuse because of a cultural difference. There may be valid reasons to take the life of an animal, but sadistic entertainment is not one of those reasons.
So, as you can imagine, I was upset by that. I was upset by the imagery, I felt that it had been thrown into my face, and I lamented that the rest of the movie wasn't interesting enough to balance the feeling out. Then, I listened to the commentary track, and Wang explains his rationale behind including these scenes. The ducks, flapping and struggling while they bleed to death, expresses a powerful resistance to fate. Wang uses the shot because he feels the image of such beautiful creatures flapping in unison, with their resistance only hastening their demise, to be a morbidly beautiful image of the will to live in spite of death. On that point, I must swallow my pride and agree with him. Though I don't like what I see, I admit he describes the moment perfectly. The dog, too, is a metaphor for the working class: trained to work hard, only to be killed by his own labors. Again, I ignore my personal feelings and admit Wang's images do, in fact, convey the message he wishes to send. Truth be told, he doesn't like what he's seeing either.
I'll give credit to Wayne Wang, both metaphors could be inferred without listening to his commentaries. He established the parallels in the movies themselves, a great accomplishment for such an abstract idea. The commentary explanations only served to give me more to ponder, and I wonder, what is the value of this movie? I had strong moral objections to what I saw, but I tried to excuse them in order to see life through Hong Kong's eyes. Then I find out that Wang is doing this intentionally, pushing my disgust so that I could be equally outraged at the lifestyle of Hong Kong's middle class. The imagery works, but only because it disgusts me so much I don't want to watch the movie again. Granted, if the images are still haunting me, a week after I saw the movie, then the artist did a great job in crafting those images. Yet, if the movie itself is driving me away, isn't that a bad thing? Where is the fine line between "Unsettling, yet brilliant" and "Just frickin' gross?"
Not wanting to get tied up in only the unpleasant things, I must admit that Life is Cheap… actually does offer some stunning photography. The camera angles kept a great deal of energy in each scene, making ordinary items such as hood ornaments and dinner plates into harbingers of doom. The "portrait" scenes would please any still photographer, capturing each character at their best. Unfortunately, I noticed most of this stuff because the movie itself was getting way too tedious. Lots of scenes, notably the chase scene and some of the interviews, just go on too long. Both Life is Cheap… and Chinese Box end up digging themselves into the same rut, though. The movies do an excellent job of conveying the confusion a foreigner would feel in the land, but never really establish enough sympathy with the main character to make us care. We get lots of scenery and portraits, but little character development until the very end. The protagonist becomes little more than a tour guide through a country that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary, often illogical—and never predictable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The third movie in the set is titled Home Movies: Hong Kong 97 and is, quite literally, a collage of video footage taken shortly before the British/Chinese transition. It makes every attempt to capture the city at that moment in time, recording for posterity things which may no longer exist even now.
Frankly, it gets dull in places. Home Movies is a perfect example of a universal truth in photography: when taking a shot, either still or a movie, you can only take with you what the lens sees. The scenery may feel exciting to the photographer, but when taking a picture, that photographer needs to remember that you can only capture the image, not the feeling of dirt beneath your feet, or the smell of the flowers, or the sound of the wind, or anything else that will romanticize a photo opportunity. A good photographer asks him/herself if the picture is worth taking, seeing only what the lens sees. So many of the scenes in Home Movies were probably very interesting when they were shot, but that excitement didn't transfer over to the finished product.
Chinese Box, Life is Cheap…, and Home Movies: Hong Kong 97 aren't terrible movies, per se. They're very enjoyable for someone looking to get a strong flavor of a very different culture. However, I don't foresee anyone watching these movies just for entertainment, without the historical context. If you just want to watch a movie for a good cinematic experience, you'd probably want to pick something else. Duck blood and popcorn aren't a good combination.
Chinese Box and its accomplices are found guilty of three counts of tedium. As this is a fairly minor offense, they are each sentenced to 1000 hours of community service in the DVD collections of anyone with an interest in Hong Kong.
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