The Beating Box

Mitch Storar

In Chinese Box, director Wayne Wang creates a lens for us to examine romanticized ��outsider�� conceptions of orientalism, but also gives us an incite [insight] into the nature of our perception of cultural identity in general.
Wang adopts an apparently post-modernist understanding of what it means to be a nation. Throughout the film, we follow John in his attempts to understand (and, thus, validate) life in Hong Kong, specifically in terms of the people who live there. He is driven by his impending mortality, which compels him to seek a tangible sense of meaning or purpose in Hong Kong, the place where he has invested a great deal of his time, and only too late realizes it's utter ��foreignness�� to him.
Although there is plenty to be said for Jeanie's gratification of John's exotic expectations (these preconceived notions being a product of the ��oriental mythological narrative�� marketed and proliferated to westerners), we realize very quickly that this is merely another layer of the ��Chinese box�� which contains the answers that John seeks. The quest is thus released from the confines of Hong Kong identity, and is expanded to the meaning of ��nationhood�� in general. John's ��foreignness�� to the land he is attempting to disassemble and understand serves merely to emphasize the existential predicament of seeking validation in contingencies such as a nation.
This is, perhaps, the concept most central to the film. Throughout the narrative, we are constantly made aware of the steam shovel, pounding away beside John's apartment. This image appears, to me, two-fold. In a sense, the shovel, digging further and further into Hong Kong's soil, can be paralleled with John's search for its (and his) purpose and identity. However, Wang is also careful to associate the sound of the shovel with the beating of a heart. In this light, the shovel is a pulse, the very symbol of existence as an undeniable fact. When these two interpretations are considered together, one may put forth the conclusion that, unlike the hopelessness of many former existential treatises, Wang is suggesting that the purpose of existence is, in fact, to seek the purpose of existence. In any event, the film draws to a close with a blend of subtly opposing elements, there is simultaneously redemption and loss; death and rebirth, leaving one with mixed feelings as to John's state at the time of his death. Did he really find what he was looking for?

Buddhism in A Box

Shanna Wolthuis

Chinese Box leaves a viewer craving meaning when the meaning is all there in the title. Hong Kong spreads itself out in layers, and once somebody thinks they have gotten to the root of what it all means and is, there is only more, and, in the end, nothing.
The British are leaving, that is the first layer. But even all the reporters chatting in the bar know that it means very little, equating it to the change of CEOs. That brings us to the next layer, which is money. In the bar, they all talked about statistics and quotes and stocks, things that John knew well in his job that he had been doing his whole time there. Hong Kong, they were all sure, was all in the economics, but the fainting spell by John makes that belief come crashing down.
John turns to love, to Vivian, for meaning. But she shrugs him off, even when she recants and goes to John, all that took place was one night of romance. John was dying, so it, that underlying spirit, could not be love for Vivian, for Hong Kong. After love, we see the layer of hope for a vibrant Hong Kong culture pulled out of a striving for Western acceptance in the character of Jean. Even though she was rejected and forgotten by the West, represented in her affair with the British boy who became a man and had no recollection of her, she was sprightly and hard edged, ready to take on the world. But, upon examination of this layer, she gives John a video that lacks any kind of sincerity or credibility.
Layer upon layer unravels, and we are left with no definite picture of Hong Kong as a place, or trajectory, or meaning. And that is where we find the meaning. It comes down to the old Buddhist notion that everything is empty and everything is full. We ask a question of Hong Kong, what the future holds, what the present tastes like, and our response is silence; and that is the only thing that makes sense.

The Courage to Live On

Matt Kirk

The relationship between Hong Kong, Britain, and China has always been a very complex one. Chinese Box, a film directed by Wayne Wang uses a love triangle to demonstrate the nature of the relationship. Historically, Hong Kong has been the object of both Britain's and China's desire. As a result, Hong Kong has developed its own lifestyle and culture that is separate from those that have been an influential. The film takes place in the year 1997 when Hong Kong was about to be turned over to Chinese rule from the British. This time is so important to the identity of Hong Kong because no one knows what life will be like over after the transfer of power.
John, and English journalist, represents the British during the time of the take over. John's whole career is to write about and explain the identity of Hong Kong to the west. He realizes that after all the time he spent in the city he does not really understand anything about it, except that he loves it. This love is portrayed through the character of Vivian, John's one true love in life. John and Vivian have known each other for a long time, but he does not really understand her past. This is evident when John finds out that Vivian formerly worked as a prostitute. Prostitution not only represents the mysterious identity of Hong Kong, but also the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. It was thought that Hong Kong had a history of selling itself to the capitalism and culture of the west to benefit the Chinese. This introduces the third character of the love triangle, Mr. Chang, who Vivian is a mistress to. Mr. Chang is a successful businessman from mainland China. Mr. Chang is very controlling of Vivian, but refuses to marry her. This relationship portrays China��s desire to own Hong Kong without treating it as an equal.
John, still being in love with Vivian, proposes to her to offer her a life of stability. Vivian truly appreciates John's feelings for her, but cannot accept due to her relationship with Mr. Chang. On the allegorical level, the British value Hong Kong and want their ties to last, but Hong Kong cannot allow that to happen even though their ties have been beneficial, because of their growing relationship with mainland China. The age of imperialism has long since died by the year 1997, so it would be foolish for Hong Kong to pretend like its ties to the British would last forever.
Midway through the film, John finds out that he has leukemia, a terminal disease that represents the inevitable disappearance of British rule in Hong Kong. During the last days of John's life, after Vivian finds out the news about his illness, they spend all their time together as friends and lovers. With this fulfilling connecting to someone who truly cares, John is able to die peacefully. John's final days were fulfilling to Vivian as well. According to Vivian, John's death gave her the courage to go on living because John's love showed her what she was worth.
On a different level, when the time came for the British to finally leave Hong Kong, a popular sentiment was gratefulness towards the British and all the benefits they brought with them. Also, Hong Kong understood the worth of their identity as a result of their ties to Britain. This knowledge gives them the courage they need to live under Chinese rule in maintaining who they are as a people. As the fish shows in the last scene of the film; even though the body may die the heart will go on. Similarly, even though their rule has come to an end, the influence of the British will always be a part of Hong Kong's identity.

The Metaphorical Love Triangle of Power

Kiel Weber

A grimy city, ever-changing, represents the setting for the film Chinese Box. The movie examines the plight of Hong Kong as it transfers from Great Britain to China, using the allegorical love triangle of three people. John, the dapper English journalist, represents the colonial view toward the city. His book, dealing with becoming rich in the area, underlines the overwhelming desire to exploit their colonies for wealth. His role as an outsider and a representation of Great Britain solidifies when the film portrays his inability to complete the seduction of Vivian, the allegorical representation of Hong Kong. There is a love between the two of them, a connection not unlike that between England and Hong Kong, but its fruition is delayed because of the deep bonds that Vivian/Hong Kong has to Mr. Chang/China. John's vocation is the key indicator of his colonial identity. He is in Hong Kong to plot the political and economic progress of the area. As long as he is using the city, John remains guilty of being removed from the city. He cannot transform into a true Hong Kong citizen, because of this attachment to what is dear to the West. While still remaining true to the English goal of exploitation, he cannot become one with Vivian. She wants more than anything else to become a whole with Mr. Chang. This desire comes from the long history she has with him, this history mirrors that of Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong's colonial status under England dirties it in China's eyes, just like Vivian's ex-profession as a prostitute makes her an unacceptable bride to Mr. Chang. Vivian/Hong Kong has been used, sold it and become contaminated in Mr. Chang/China's opinion. The movie uses John's sickness as a metaphor for the failing English empire. His leukemia forces John to shatter his relationship with Vivian in a refutation of the values which Mr. Chang has placed upon her. John wants Vivian to realize her independence from Mr. Chang, and is powerless to break the bonds that hold her to her boyfriend. Mr. Chang also wants to claim her, but her past has put seeds of doubt in his mind. This dilemma continues as Vivian's place in Mr. Chang's eyes becomes clear to her. Her realization of his unwillingness to commit to her represents the apprehension that Hong Kong felt as the departure of the British and the arrival of China and it's final conquest. She has taken for granted the feelings of John and his unconditional love and friendship, just as Hong Kong took for granted the democracy and freedoms found underneath Great Britain's flag. The consummation of John and Vivian's love at the end of the film displays what Hong Kong received from its occupation. Vivian says that John's love has given her the ability to change; it gave her a fresh start. Hong Kong, because of its occupation, has the unique opportunity to be different from mainland China. There has been an infusion of an alien culture and these different ideas will be part of Hong Kong despite China's presence. In terms of Vivian, she is able to break the depressing attachment that she feels because of Mr. Chang's scorn, and change into someone who can be content.

Hong Kong- The Chinese Box City

Nelson Canario

A Chinese Box is a box within a box, within a box; and as this movie shows, so is Hong Kong. There are many different stories to be told in Hong Kong, and many different ways to look at each story. First we have the story of John, whose story is that of the British who ��rule�� Hong Kong. John is dying of leukemia throughout the movie, just as the rule of the British is ��dying�� (as they are about to hand control back to China). John is a typical British person, a journalist living and working in Hong Kong. He seems to be interested in everything (but most especially Vivian). Throughout the movie John looks at everything except himself; the same way in which the British seem to look down on the Chinese as inferior, but don't see their own faults. At the end of the movie John's live [life] ends while he lays on a boat, just after British rule ends in Hong Kong, and as John dies, his video camera (which has been examining everything) finally turns on him and leaves us with an image of his face. Perhaps as a suggestion of what the British might do with the time that they are not spending running Hong Kong.
Next we have the story of Vivian, whose story is that of the poor Mainlander population of Hong Kong. She represents all the people from the Mainland who came to Hong Kong to have a better life, get a better job and earn more money. In the end [she] is freed from Mr. Chang by John, when he helps her realize that Mr. Chang will not marry her, and decides to be with John, who truly loves her. Just before John dies, he leaves her a note telling her to start her life anew. And she learns (as with all who immigrate to Hong Kong) that you need to start fresh, and work for what you want.
The story of Jean is the story of those who were born and raised in Hong Kong. Those who live in Hong Kong are possibly the most like a Chinese Box, having many layers. She makes a living selling miscellaneous things on the street. However, when John gets her to agree to tell him her story, she weaves an intricate fantasy about her childhood, which she believes is what John wants to hear. (Oriental's Orientalism) Then tells another story that is never completely clear whether it is true or not. Those of Hong Kong are living in the West that happens to be located in the East. Therefore they must be many things that people of the Mainland do not. In order to be successful in Hong Kong you must speak good English, and live in a manner that is similar to that of the English. This poses a special problem for those who live in Hong Kong. As they are Chinese, but also have to speak and act English; a new identity is made by fusing the two. Those of Hong Kong are not really of China, nor are they from England, they are from Hong Kong. And now with the relinquishment of the British control, those of Hong Kong will need to re-establish their place.
Mr. Chang is the business world of Hong Kong; those people there to make money. It seems that all Mr. Chang cares about is making money. As it is said in the movie, a few times, Hong Kong is all about making money, that's why they're there, and that's why people go there. He is so concerned about things that impact his professional live, he refuses to marry Vivian because she used to be a prostitute, and that would not be good for a public figure such as him.
The movie leaves many questions unanswered: How will all those of Hong Kong adapt to the new way of live they will have to live? Will the British, in fact, take a closer look at themselves? How will this change of control affect the lives of both the Chinese (and Hong Kongese) and the British? We will have to wait and see how everything turns out.

Like a Change of Management in A Department Store

Dan Griffin

"Chinese Box" is the story of an end, and a beginning, and a search for what is real in the new, post-colonial Hong Kong. Obviously, at the forefront of this film is the overriding theme of Great Britain turning rule of their colony Hong Kong over to China. This theme is used by Wayne Wang on another level through the relationships that exist between John (who represents Great Britain) and Jeannie (representing Hong Kong) to emphasize his view that the British never really understood Hong Kong, and it had come time for this changing, modern city (for better or for worse) to be handed over to China.
John has lived in China for many years, but yet still searches for the "real" China, as he walks the streets with the camcorder. His claim to fame is a book he authored entitled "How to Make Money in Asia." He is in love with Vivian and intrigued by Jeannie, and after he finds that he has only 6 months to live, he quickly seeks to find some sort of resolution with both of these relationships. John (like the British) has come to Hong Kong principally to make money, and in reality has no idea what the city is truly about. He continues to go out nightly and search for "faces" (real Hong Kong) with his camcorder and ends up finding Jeannie whose face and story intrigues him.
Jeannie was born and raised in Hong Kong and represents a new tougher, stronger Chinese generation, hardened by the events of the recent past. She is the most unpredictable character of the film, but believes strongly in the idea that if she uses her mind and stays strong she will eventually succeed in Hong Kong. She recognizes that the English have been a significant part of her life, but in the end see that her greatest disappointment (not being "remembered" by her long-time former English boy friend) has come, and it is time for her to move on with her life. Notice that it is an Englishman that Jeannie has been waiting on for many years, and an Englishman that eventually causes her heartbreak.
As the film continues, the audience beings [begins] to think more and more of John being more of Hong Kong's past and Jeannie being more of Hong Kong's future. We already know that John's fate is to die, but the fate of Jeannie is left uncertain. This parallels the overarching cultural theme of Great Britain being in Hong Kong's past and the uncertainty of Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule.
I read online that Wayne Wang said the he was surprised by his sense of loss when the British left Hong Kong, feeling his heart drop to his stomach in uncertainty as the British flag was lowered for the last time. We do not get a chance to see how the characters of this film react to the departure of the British, nor do we see how they will react when they hear that John has passed away. This ending was left open on purpose, as it illustrates very well the uncertainty (as well as opportunity) that Hong Kong's future faces without the British.

A Chinese Soap Opera

Jack Spence

Although ��Chinese Box�� strives to be a serious film it fails, and plays much more like an American soap opera. The elements and themes in this film play out much more like a soap opera rather than a typical chinese film. ��Chinese Box�� is very melodramatic and loses its seriousness as a film as a result of this.
The character of John is very reminiscent of a typical character in an American soap opera. First of all he is an American which is uncommon for a character in a Chinese film. John is in love with a Chinese woman named Vivian, of course this love can never come to be. Just like in American soap operas when ��Mark�� loves ��Susan�� but ��Mark�� is suffering from a rare and incurable disease and therefore cannot fulfill his love, this film has a similar angle. John loves Vivian, but he is dying of Leukemia, and therefore cannot live happily ever after with his love. This theme of love failing because of a life threatening disease is common to American soap operas and makes ��Chinese Box�� very melodramatic.
The character of Vivian is also like a typical character in a soap opera. Vivian is loved by John, but at first does not real this and stays as the mistress to Mr. Chang. In American soap operas, the woman never realizes she is loved by the man until it is too late. By the time Vivian understands about love, John is dying, and the can never have a permanent relationship. Vivian gets courage from John and vows to start her life anew after his death. This aspect of the movie is very melodramatic and over the top. Things like that never happen as dramatically in real life and that just adds to the melodramatic rather than serious feel of the film.
This film plays out like a soap opera rather than an example of Chinese cinema. Granted, the movie has tragedy and a sad ending typical of many Chinese films, but it is much more like an American soap opera. The melodrama, and typical soap opera story of man loves woman, but man is dying, and woman does not love man until its too late make this particular film seem like a great example of American soap opera rather than Chinese cinema.

May I Speak With Hong Kong Please?

Akhil Banthia

Wayne Wang's Chinese Box (1997) is a movie that portrays the displacement of identity of Hong Kong people as the British hand over Hong Kong to the Chinese in the year 1997. Hong Kong has always had problems defining its identity. Colonized by the British in 1842 (the beginning of modern Chinese history) Hong Kong flourished under the colonial rule, while China witnessed many social upheavals. As it stands Hong Kong is a melting pot for all kinds of people looking for a better life. This diversity creates problems of identity more so in 1997 as Hong Kong is handed back to the Chinese.
The movie starts on 1997 New Year's Eve, symbolic of a new beginning, as many people gather to celebrate this landmark year in Hong Kong��s history. However, not everyone is pleased with the turnover and one of the first scenes is a public suicide in protest of Hong Kong's turn over to the Chinese. Death plays a very big role in the movie often symbolizing the death of identity, or death of a way of life. John is a British journalist who represents the colonial power in Hong Kong. He views Hong Kong through the eyes of a colonizer and his fascination with Vivian (symbolic of mainland China) and Jeannie (symbolic of Hong Kong) helps the story move on the abstract level. The lives of these three characters documents the three main attitudes of Hong Kong people, that is, the English, the Chinese mainlander in search of better life and economic prosperity and the bona fide Hong Kong resident whose true identity cannot be determined.
Vivian represents the mainlander who has come to Hong Kong in search of fame and fortune. In a sense, she is in love with what the English have brought to the orient - economic prosperity. Her love for John is symbolic of this affair. However, she ends up as a mistress, the price for her ��economic prosperity��. John on the other hand is in love with Vivian, and fascinated by Jeannie, but never able to obtain either due to his position as a colonizer. He wants Jeannie's personal story, but Jeannie only gives him the sensational stuff that she thinks he wants. Diagnosed with Leukemia, his death symbolizes the death of British rule in Hong Kong. Jeannie exemplifies the confusion experienced by the typical Hong Kong resident. The glamour brought by the west makes people fabricate their lives, just so that they can be part of this vanishing dream - Hong Kong.
Chinese Box lives up to its name on many counts. Like a box within a box within a box, the movie relies on the interplay between the identities of the three main characters. Director Wayne brings into question Hong Kong's real identity in the months just before the handover. However, while there is meat to his story it remains uncooked. The acting is barely satisfactory, and the chemistry between the actors is terrible. All in all even though Chinese Box is a movie with tremendous potential, it never amounts to anything more than a sorry attempt at good cinema. A good movie is always the product of director's brain and the actors�� heart, something Chinese Box failed to realize.

China Is All Grown Up

Julie Blodgett

The Movie Chinese box takes place before and during the beginnings of the handover of Hong Kong back into the hands of the Chinese government. The handover would affect everyone in Hong Kong, and the final outcome as to how successful the transition would be was anyone's guess. The movie focuses on many people at this moment in time, but there are three main characters that represent a wider, more global scenario. Mainland China is represented by the woman, Vivian, who sees Hong Kong as a place of opportunity and goes there to start a new life. Her boyfriend, Mr. Chang, a powerful businessman represents the wealth of Hong Kong, and refuses to marry Vivian so as not to be tied down by responsibilities. John, a Brit, is an older man dying of cancer (obviously representing the old British rule about to be taken over) who is trying to capture the reality of what Hong Kong is through visual media. The Vivian has to literally choose between Hong Kong and Britain. The white man dies of leukemia just as the Brits are marching out of the city. Obviously, we have our choice made for us, and though there was a sort of love-affair between the people of Hong Kong and Britain, it was destined to end and the inevitability of it was weighing on everyone's mind and could not be forgotten. It could also be considered to be a type of love/hate relationship. Although foreigners had taken over a part of the country for 150 years, the city turned into a blossoming metropolis filled with all the ��first-world�� necessities.
The cameras used as are also significant in this film. John feels the need to see through a camera in order to document the city he sees before him in an effort to gain a greater understanding of what it means to live there. However, he completely fails, and after filming the city and being unable to really feel or understand and appreciate the city, he turns the camera to himself to record the last few moments of his dying life - the end of British colonialism and a China growing into an adult that cannot be lead through the complications of westernization and modernity.
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