Thinking outside the "Chinese Box"

An interview with Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang.

By Liza Bear
Published April 17, 1998 7:36PM (EDT)

Wayne Wang has never shied away from the places to which he has emotional ties. In his earliest films, "Chan Is Missing" (1982) and the delectable comedy of manners "Dim Sum" (1989), the Hong Kong-born director took an unflinching look at the cultural dynamics of his adopted home, San Francisco's Chinatown. A versatile and fluent visual stylist, Wang's first big box office draw was the more mainstream "Joy Luck Club" (1993), an adaptation of Amy Tan's
novel, followed by the precisely crafted "Smoke" (1995) and "Blue in the Face" (1995), Paul Auster-derived character studies set in Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods.

The new "Chinese Box" -- written by Jean-Claude Carriere -- takes the
pulse of Wang's former homeland at a historical turning point, the return of
the former British colony to mainland China. Set during the six-month
period prior to June 30, 1997, Wang's fictional salute to the big
changeover evokes the complex, mysterious hybrid of Chinese and British
cultures that defines Hong Kong, and reveals his own ambivalence toward it in the process.

The film charts the turmoil of three Hong Kong denizens trying to tie up loose ends in an anxious climate. The legendary Gong Li ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "Temptress Moon") makes her English-language debut as Vivian, a Chinese immigrant
nightclub owner and former hostess. (It's also her first
role as a modern dame in blue jeans and shades.) Jeremy Irons ("Reversal of
Fortune," "M Butterfly") plays John, a dying English journalist with a family back home
who makes a last-ditch attempt to declare his passion for Vivian. He's also
shooting a Hi-8 documentary of Hong Kong street life during the last
months of British rule, in the course of which he meets hustler
Jean (Hong Kong's own superstar Maggie Cheung), who has her own troubled story. Ruben Blades plays photojournalist Jim, John's guitar-playing backup man.

Wayne Wang recently spoke with Salon about "Chinese Box," dog-eat-dog capitalism and the experience of loving something that you're destined to lose.

Tell me why you made "Chinese Box."

Well, I was born and raised in Hong Kong until I was 18, and
even after I emigrated to go to school in the U.S., I kept going back there
to work. My immediate family stayed until 1984. My wife and her family are
from there, too. So Hong Kong was still my home, at least the Hong Kong
before the Chinese took over last June. And I had done a little
film called "Life Is Cheap But Toilet Paper Is Expensive," a kind of angry,
instinctive film about Hong Kong, very small, a gesture. I felt like there
was unfinished business there. But I kept running away from doing
this film. Instead I tried to do a studio film. Finally by October 1996, I
knew that if I didn't do it, I would never do it, and I would hate myself.
So I jumped in there, got the financing together, got a script together and
just did it.

In this film you're registering the passing of an epoch --

Registering the passing of an epoch, and also how four people -- who are
somewhat representative of people in Hong Kong, and very different -- the
choices they have to make about their lives. That's really what the movie
is about. It's very much like a [Milan] Kundera novel. It's about people and their
relationships, set against a political backdrop.

How close were you to the changeover when you started production?

We started writing the script in October. We had something by
mid-January, and we just started shooting. So it was very quick. Everything was
very rough and a little bit off the cuff. I wanted to have something down
[on paper], but also to be free and instinctive with it. We went back during the
real changeover and shot for maybe a week to 10 days there.

So that's basically the process and why I did this film -- to
understand what it means to me to have Hong Kong be handed back to China. I
found that the best way to do that was through an English journalist who really knows quite a bit about Hong Kong, and yet is still, in a way, an outsider.

How much of the story did you have in broad strokes before you

Mmmm. Very little. Truthfully, all I knew was that I wanted a man dying
during this period. I was very interested in the idea of loss, and dealing
with loss, which is my feeling about Hong Kong. And I was interested in
death and how somebody would deal with love when he knows he's dying. I've
always been fascinated by that.

What are some of the things the British did in Hong Kong that you didn't like?

Well, first let me say what I liked. If there's anything the English
left Hong Kong with, it's this incredible dignity with which they do
things. The ritualistic ceremony of retreat was so wonderfully done, it's
quite moving. As a child growing up, their ceremonies and rituals were
some things that, combined with the Chinese rituals, were very important
to me.

The other thing that the British provided for Hong Kong was a structure, an
organization. They really stopped corruption in Hong Kong. They did a very
good job of that. I remember as a child growing up, you had to bribe the
postman, 'cause otherwise he wouldn't get your mail right. So that was a
180-degree change because of the British.

Then the bad part about the English is they're colonialists and they're really racist. They won't say it out loud, but they're really bad with the Chinese. The court system is a
good example. It's old-fashioned, it's all done in English. A Chinese
who might be completely innocent but doesn't speak a word of English is
assigned an English lawyer and has no idea of what's going on, and they
don't care. As a child growing up, there were so many incidents where I
felt the British were just treating the Chinese like shit. For me, that's
reflected in the film through the Jean character and her traumatic past
with the parents of the boyfriend, who basically destroyed their very
innocent love for each other.


The story is mainly told from the perspective of a British person,
rather than from a Hong Kong person, so that you're focusing on the
passage of the old -- because we don't know what's coming next, is that it?

Right. And because I really wanted to make the main character a bit of
my own alter ego. The English journalist [emigrating from Hong Kong] is probably closer to who
I am.

Than an incoming Hong Kong entrepreneur?

Yes. I have no interest or relationship with that kind of person,
except as an outsider. I'm not a Hong Kong person anymore. I'm much more
American now, and I don't pretend that I could completely understand Hong
Kong. So I chose to do it from the Jeremy Irons [character's] perspective.
Although I did put in a Hong Kong character, Vivian's boyfriend, as a main character, I
felt more comfortable talking about the film from the Jeremy Irons

If I were living and breathing in Hong Kong and a Hong Kong
filmmaker, I would have chosen another route. But I am an ex-Hong Kong
person, brought up by the English. I went to a British public school -- a
Jesuit school, very strict, very religious, very Catholic. When I grew up I
wanted to be -- for a while, I wanted to be English. Some of my friends were
English, and it was also hip to be English. The culture was very pervasive,
and we were very influenced by it. I listened mostly to English rock 'n'
roll. And even after I left Hong Kong and went back, I was still hanging
out with the hip colonial crowd, and in a way I know that world very well.


Oh yeah. Bowling, horse riding, racing, cucumber sandwiches, sandwiches
with a lot of butter and the crusts cut off, little triangles, Ovaltine,
Ribena. I still love Ribena. You can get it in Chinatown. So I know that
world, and I love it and hate it.

Both at once?

Of course. I'm supposed to be Chinese and in a way I don't know my
Chinese side as well. And these [British] people are also racist. And I was
racist along with them. I would say, "Look at those stupid Chinese, they
spit on the street, no culture at all."

How did you come to terms with your heritage? Was America the
big window opener for you?

Yes. I came to Oakland to study art. My mother encouraged me. I
was living with a very liberal American family. They were involved with
every movement possible, anti-draft, Black Panthers, and all of a sudden my world and my
window to it opened up. This was '68 through the
early '70s. The revolution. The whole world opened up to me. I saw how
narrow the colonial world was, how narrow the Hong Kong Chinese world was,
and that's when I changed -- a lot.

What do you feel will happen to Hong Kong now that capitalism can't have
unlimited sway?

What's happening is very deep-rooted and may not be visible
immediately. Things like, for example, education. There's a definite shift
from teaching English to teaching more Mandarin. That was already made a
law, right after the changeover. Teaching more Chinese, more Mandarin and
more emphasis on singing the Chinese national anthem.

China is becoming much more consumer-oriented. Is it the new China
that's going to affect Hong Kong rather than the old Communist regime?

Yes. The new China. Now you walk down the street or go into the
subway, half the people you see are non-Hong Kong born residents, they're
new immigrants from China. That's changing the texture of the population.
The education is changing because they're teaching more about China. But
there's a lot of self-censorship. Hong Kong is so reliant on China and also
needs to kiss China's ass about everything, whether it's business or
government issues or whatever, that the newspapers, the movie exhibitors,
are basically censoring themselves.


Why? Because, for example, the South China Morning Post used to be an English
paper, English-owned. Now it's owned by some Southeast Asian businessmen
who have strong businesses in China. So if you're a journalist and you
write a story about Tibet, it'll get put on Page 10 rather than on Page 1.
That's what happens. Three movies -- "Kundun," "Seven Days in Tibet," "Red Corner" --
will probably not get shown in Hong Kong. And not because of censorship, but
because of self-censorship.

The invisible enemy.

Which is more dangerous and very pervasive. Everything is connected to
China and Hong Kong is worried about alienating China. In the end, it's a very dog-eat-dog
capitalistic society. Because unless you can make it, nobody's going to
care. That's what Hong Kong is.

Liza Bear

Liza Bear is a contributing editor for Bomb magazine. She has written about film for the New York Times and Newsday.


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