Among the revelers at a Hong Kong New Year's Eve bash is John (Jeremy Irons), a British journalist who covers the financial and political aspects of this city without ever really understanding what makes it tick.
While the countdown to 1997 merrily progresses (they're following the Western calendar, not the Chinese), another approaching date clouds the celebration: July 1, when the former British crown colony reverts to China. But John's concerns that night are primarily personal. He banters with his photojournalist friend Jim (Ruben Blades) while eyeing Vivian (Gong Li), the woman he desperately loves, who unfortunately is in attendance with her boyfriend Chang (Michael Hui), a prominent businessman.
Then a young Chinese man with a gun takes center stage. In a soft, determined voice, he says his actions are a personal protest against the upcoming loss of personal and cultural freedom and shoots himself. While this public suicide is followed by others, pollsters reveal that most Hong Kong residents feel that business will continue unabated after July 1.
Chinese Box is about the paradoxes -- social, political, cultural, economic -- that shape Hong Kong, and these co-existing contradictions are at the heart of director Wayne Wang's ambitious portrait of his birthplace. The San Francisco-based Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke) returned to Hong Kong in the months prior to the handover, and incorporated the unfolding events into his fictional film.
Jittery hand-held camerawork, generous doses of documentary footage, television broadcasts and personal video diaries give Chinese Box a sense of urgency and immediacy. But Wang is undone by an uninspired fictional construct, a tired melodrama of unrequited love and conveniently timed fatal illness.
The characters are more archetypes than people: Irons is the dissipated expatriate Brit; Li embodies an "honest whore"; Hui shows the face of ambitious commerce; Blades typifies the nomadic thrill-seeker.
In the moments when she's on screen, Maggie Cheung (playing a decidedly quirky and tireless hustler) brings Chinese Box vibrantly to life. Cheung fuses Hong Kong's scarred Anglo-Asian history with its relentless, propulsive life force, creating a defiant iconoclast for the city's uncertain future.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.