Chinese Box (1997)




Director: Wayne Wang.

Starring:  Jeremy Irons (John), Li Gong (Vivian), Maggie Cheung (Jean), Michael Hui (Chang), Rubn Blades (Jim), Jared Harris (William), Chaplin Chang (Homeless Man), Noel Rands (John's Friend at New Year's Party), Emma Lucia (Amanda Everheart), Ken Bennett (Rick), Russell Cawthorne (New Year's Party MC), Emotion Cheung (William Wong), Harvey Stockwin (Weeks), Jonathan Midgley (Jonathan), Bruce Walker (Bruce).

a love story set against the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

In the news in Hong Kong is the announcement that the Chinese will repeal 16 Hong Kong laws.  British people are leaving Hong Kong on the ship Oriana before mainland China takes over the island of Hong Kong from them. 

December 31, 1996.  At a new year's eve party, John Spencer makes small talk with the very rich and influential Chang and his mistress Vivian.  John fell in love with Vivian, the one woman he can't have.  At the party a student activist gets on stage and shoots himself in a suicide protest of the coming Chinese take-over.  He was supported by the Theatre of Assisted Suicide. 

John faints for unknown reasons.  He comments to Vivian that their time has slipped away.  Vivian is a bar tender at a local club.  He tells her that he has quit his job and wants Vivian to come away with him. She tells him that she can't.  She is waiting for Chan to marry her. 

The doctor tells John that he is suffering from leukemia and that it is spreading quickly.  He only has from three to six months to live.  He decides not to tell Mary and the kids, nor anyone else for that matter.  He tries to continue with his normal routine.  He loves photographing a young Chinese woman named Jean because she is so different from any other Chinese person he has met in Hong Kong. 

John's friend Jim moves in with him for a couple of days.  The two of them tour Hong Kong taking pictures.  John sees Jean again and they talk.  John finds out that she has very bad facial scarring on the left side of her face.  He asks her to do a videotaped  interview with him.  She rejects the idea.

John learns that Vivian had once been a "hostess" at the Black Moon club.  She had escaped from the mainland and met the then not-so-rich Chang.  She supported Chang through her work at the club when they were just getting started.  John resents Vivian's refusal to go away with him and he takes the photograph he found of her when she worked at the Black Moon club and shows it to Chang in the bar where Vivian works.  Vivian says: "Give it to me John, please."  John finally gives the photo to Vivian..

Vivian asks Chang if they can start a family.  Chang says not right now which causes Vivian to cry. 

Jean seeks out John.  She has decided to do the interview.  She was born in 1970 in China and has two sisters.  All the sisters were a victim of their father's pedophilia.  She made ends meet in Hong Kong by running a scam.  A pimp would recruit some tourists as customers for sex; the tourists would give him money; and then he would bring them to Jean, whose facial scarring would scare them away without their money.

John sees Vivian again.  He tells her that could they at least be friends.  She tells him: "I don't want a friend like you."  The stigma from her past prevents her from ever being seen as an acceptable wife. 

Jean again.  She tells John that as a jilted teenager she attempted suicide.  Her boyfriend was a white youngster named William.  He broke off the relationship and she drank poison. 

Vivian visits John.  She tells him: "I want to leave Hong Kong."  John says "I don't believe you.  You play with people."  The relationship looks as if it is ending, but they come together and make love.  Chang reappears in her life with flowers and tells her that she knows that she can come home any time. 

The political atmosphere heats up as the mainland Chinese take-over of Hong Kong approaches.  A 19-year old college student sets himself on fire in protest. 

John sets up a meeting with Jean and her former boy friend, William.  She is shocked to see him, but he says he doesn't recognize her.  She is very angry about this and he walks away from her. 

John's friend Jim learns from hearing a telephone call on the answering machine that John is dying.  He tells Vivian.  Vivian seeks John out and they spend his last days being together and making love. 

June 30, 1997.  China arrives with huge tanks and troops.  John dies.  The saddened Vivian says: "like the city, I have to start over again."


A good love story.  I wish there was more attention paid to the political situation, but there was enough to include the movie in this collection of historical movies.  That Gong Li (Li is the last name which the Chinese place before the first name) is really very stunning.  It's a sad movie, but we are emotionally prepared by the events in the movie  for the ending and that blunts the pain.       

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

See Last Emperor (Bertolucci) (1987)



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