Director Wayne Wang's "Chinese Box," a lovingly photographed, elegantly acted evocation of his native Hong Kong, is a film which practically declares itself an Important Cultural Experience. This must be good for us, viewers may repeat to themselves, as the lethargic film slides laboriously toward its conclusion. And, title be damned, there's no intricate puzzle to be solved.
Wang ("Smoke," "The Joy Luck Club") certainly loads "Chinese Box" with convincing performances and striking images. The setting -- Hong Kong on the eve of its 1997 handover to China -- boasts plenty of dramatic potential.
Jeremy Irons probes deeper into chilly self-absorption than in his usual performances as John, a dashing British journalist hopelessly in love with mainland refugee Vivian (Gong Li), a dazzlingly beautiful bar hostess with a tawdry past and a fascination with Marlene Dietrich. She's bound by an unspoken debt to her older, wealthy Chinese boyfriend, Chang (Michael Hui). John, who regularly soaks his world-weary soul with booze, is also intrigued by Jean (Maggie Cheung), a native street vendor and con artist who covers her badly scarred face with a scarf.
John, after learning he has only six months to live, gradually abandons his work and intensifies his pursuit of Vivian. He drifts around Hong Kong, video camera in hand, capturing vivid, unsettling images. The city is in the throes of transition, thriving on a newfound consumerism and hurtling toward an uncertain future. That footage, along with cinematographer Vilko Filiac's gritty shots of several real-life events, add up to a rich visual style that effectively conveys the look and feel of the exotic setting.
So far so mesmerizing. Unfortunately Wang and co-writers Paul Theroux and Jean-Claude Carrière felt obligated to make every major character do double duty as a great, big symbol. John isn't only dying of disease and heartbreak, he's also the post-colonial British empire, doomed to a dignified retreat from a land never quite conquered. The supposed expert on Hong Kong politics and economics somehow fails to capture its soul. Vivian, glamorous, troubled and known to many men but owned by none, represents China. Jean, elusive, youthful and always on a quest for the perfect shortcut to survival, is Hong Kong. To match her physical condition, she bears a heart scarred by a long-ago passion for a British schoolmate.
"Chinese Box" is imbued with a palpable emotional resonance. It's easy to connect with the overwhelming melancholy exuded by every frame of Wang's most ambitious effort yet. There's a sense of loss that seems as deeply felt as the concluding burst of lyrical exhilaration over Hong Kong's rebirth. On those terms, the film succeeds. Lazy pacing, though, and a certain incompleteness doom this thoughtful meditation to the category of beautifully flawed.