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Case Number 00159

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The Chinese Box

Trimark // 1997 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // October 24th, 1999

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All Rise...

The Charge

Dying of love, and cancer, in Hong Kong, while the Chinese come marching home.

Opening Statement

This is a favorite film of mine, which shows once again that all you need is a good story, a few good actors, and some cameras, to make a great film that is moving and relevant. This one is a great mix of eastern and western values, acting, and politics, which comes over very well to me.

The Evidence

The story line covers a year in Hong Kong, starting on New Years Eve of 1997 and ending early in 1998 after the Chinese have taken control of the island. The main character, John, played by Jeremy Irons (Stealing Beauty, Lolita, Kafka), is an economic reporter for an English news agency who has been in Hong Kong for many years. He's just drifting along in his life until he has a fainting spell at the New Years party. After some tests, he finds that he has a rare form of cancer and probably has less than half a year to live.

John pretty quickly decides that financial news isn't terribly interesting anymore, and quits his job. He begins filming the street life of Hong Kong and trying to come to terms with his situation. He does not tell his estranged family, back in England, or his close friend, Jim, who is a photographer, recently arrived in town, played by Ruben Blades (The Devil's Own, Mo' Better Blues.) He also does not tell the girl who he has always loved from afar, Vivian, who is living a life of expedience with a wealthy bar owner who will never really love or marry her.

Vivian is played by the beautiful, Gong Li. If you don't watch much Chinese cinema, you might not know that there is a trade treaty between China and the U.S., which requires that Gong Li be in all imported Chinese movies. She is in Shanghai Triad, Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell, my Concubine, and about a hundred others. Not that I'm complaining, since I find her hauntingly beautiful and a great actress. Her performance here is somewhat limited because it's mostly in English, and I believe that this is her first English language performance.

One of the people that John meets on the street is Jean, played by Maggie Cheung. Maggie of course is the star of about 2.428 million Hong Kong action movies, and is a superstar there. She is also the star of a very small but interesting French film, Irma Vep. In this film she plays a quirky sort of street urchin with a prominent facial scar, who John gets close to only find out that she is even more tragically messed up than would seem obvious. She gives a performance that is both funny and extremely touching.

The video quality is good enough to get the job done. The audio, though just Dolby Surround, is actually pretty good, particularly the atmospheric Asian music that accompanies the visuals.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

As mentioned, the sound is only in Dolby Surround, and the surrounds don't get worked too hard. Also, there are no extras. This one was a pretty low budget affair, so I assume that they didn't have the bucks to get much more than the movie done.

The running time is a bit short as well, at only 99 minutes. Once again, probably a limitation of the budget I guess.

Closing Statement

Once more, I'm proving that I'm a pathetic romantic. So sue me, but I think that this film is beautifully done, and really strikes a nerve. It deals with the death of a lonely and mostly unloved man, without ever getting sappy. In the end, it is actually quite life affirming, though it literally ends with his death. Jeremy Irons proves that he's got the chops to do this kind of deep and subtle work and really carry the film. This should be no surprise given the high quality of his other efforts.

The Verdict

I must administer a slap on the wrist for the lack of extras and 5.1 sound track. But, I acquit the film for its other very admirable characteristics.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 70
Extras: 10
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 73

Perp Profile

Studio: Trimark
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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