The Director's Chair Interviews
Wanders through Hong Kong's "Chinese Box"
by Anthony Kaufman
Wayne Wang is a bit insecure about his new movie, "Chinese Box", marketed heavily as the Chinese-American's return to his native Hong Kong. With this perhaps most personal and experimental film, Wang, who was born and raised in the city until age 18 and now mostly known for his Brooklyn doublebill, "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face," goes out on a stylistic limb, shooting in sequence, handheld, and packing a hell of a lot into this story about an English journalist (Jeremy Irons) in love with a woman (Chinese superstar Gong-li) on the verge of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule on June 30, 1997. "It is what it is, in the end," he remarks, "Some of it works, some of it didn't work, but it's definitely an interesting film."
The Trimark film (opening this Friday) was filmed on location in Hong Kong during the very six months leading up to the British expulsion. Also starring Maggie Cheung ("Irma Vep"), and Ruben Blades ("The Devil's Own"), and written by Jean-Claude Carriere ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being") and Larry Gross ("48 HRS" and "Another 48 HRS"), with a Slovenian D.P. and a team of Chinese, American and French producers, Wang's latest is truly a chinese box of filmmaking efforts.
indieWIRE: You had a very international crew, a French producer and writer, some Chinese crew, some Americans, and of course, you -- overlapping these boundaries. And you're shooting in Hong Kong during a time that is filled with transition. What were the problems and benefits you had?
Wayne Wang: There weren't a lot of problems, honestly. I consciously wanted to assemble really talented people from around the world and see what mistakes we'd make (laughs) and see what would happen. Basically, when you're making a movie, you can become a microcosm. You're kind of like a little family and you sort of live and die by each other and you just try to make a movie. I knew this movie would be difficult to make because shooting on the streets of Hong Kong and shooting the way I wanted to shoot, which was in sequence, and shooting by incorporating things happening in Hong Kong, I knew would be very difficult. But this was a crew that was very used to surviving around the world. This was a crew that came off of "Kama Sutra" mostly. This was a crew that worked with Emir Kusterica ("Underground"); this was a Hong Kong crew that was used to a lot of foreign crews working with them. In a way, it's like different bands of gypsies getting together and kind of going on this crazy journey. We didn't have a lot of problems. Obviously, there were some day to day problems on a personal level, but overall it was really fun, really scary, but really interesting.
iW: What was scary?
Wang: Not knowing what we were doing, that's what was scary. Most of the time we had a script, sometimes it needed work. And we were trying also to do things that we're going on and be open to changing the script. And trying to at least, subconsciously or in the subtext, incorporate what was going on in Hong Kong. And that was very difficult and very scary. I didn't know what to do everyday when I woke up. That was scary. But I also really thrived on it; it gave me the adrenaline to get pumped up and go. It's like playing jazz. You have a structure, you have a melody, but everyday, you're playing jazz.
iW: Tell me about your choice to shoot in sequence?
Wang: I insisted to shoot in sequence, because I wanted to feel the movie from a day to day level on one hand. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and look at the headline in the Hong Kong newspaper and either just clip the headline out and make it part of the movie or put in on the wall behind Jeremy Irons or take a TV broadcast and incorporate it into the movie. On another level, sometimes we'd create a scene around what was going on that day. If their were protests, we'd go out and shoot it. Other times, it was more subtextual and more self-conscious. I would look at the revoking of 16 human rights laws and how can I make that part of the subtext of the different options to play a love scene between Jeremy Irons and Gong-Li. Or Gong-Li and her boyfriend. It functioned on all those levels. That was really interesting. I enjoyed working that way. It's a different way of determining how you approach a scene.
iW: I had heard that the film, after the festival screenings, took on a new shape?
Wang: We recut it. We took out about ten minutes, we added more narration, and we put in a new scene with Maggie Cheung's character, which is the ending scene.
iW: Tell me about the choices and how they came about. Were you not satisfied with the first cut?
Wang: I was happy with the first cut, personally, because it's more elliptical, more abstract, and a little indulgent -- which I didn't mind in this case. It doesn't have as much narration also. For most of the audience concern, they were having a tough time with it. So I said, Okay, I have a chance to reshape it differently, and not compromise too much. I put in more narration with Jeremy, and cut it tighter, which I didn't mind, it was good to cut it tighter. And then ultimately, the ending scene with Maggie is what I'm really happy about.
iW: Most people identify you with "Smoke", maybe "The Joy Luck Club." Do you think the audience is expecting something different when they see the new Wayne Wang movie?
Wang: What would they expect? (Laughs)
iW: I don't know. I think it's more interesting, but I think it's more difficult.
Wang: I don't know what people expect. I try not to think about that. I know why I did the film the way I did it. I just. . . I really liked "Smoke", but honestly I was a little bored making "Smoke." That's why I made "Blue in the Face" because it was pure adrenaline, so to speak, on an improvisational level, again, it's like playing jazz. And I wanted to combine the two -- I wanted both. I don't want just to improvise, because there's not enough substantial information there. So "Chinese Box" is predictable for me in the sense that it's stylistically "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face," and content-wise, it's both "Smoke" and "The Joy Luck Club" because it's about an English journalist trying to understand the Chinese world, in that sense, I think it's quite predictable. Although stylistically it's more experimental, it's more stylized than the films I've done.
iW: Hong Kong as a milieu is almost the whole movie. That's all you need, right? The changeover. You have such a powerful environment. So, how did the actual city of Hong Kong create your movie?
Wang: If I didn't have to deal with certain realities such as having characters or having stars in the movie, I would have made "Le Soleil," the Chris Marker movie, in a very impressionistic style and just focused on the city. That would have been a more interesting movie, but I may not get distributed, it would probably just show in film festivals. That, in itself, is a really wonderful, broad, interesting framework already. In a way, there are aspects of "Le Soleil", a lot of the video stuff that Jeremy's character was filming about the city itself, things like that, were very much inspired by that.
iW: So do you feel you have a better understanding of where you come from now?
Wang: A little bit more. I think there's a part of me that subconsciously suppressed how much I was a colonial citizen. . .
iW: When your alter-ego is Jeremy Irons. . .
Wang: Yeah, right. So, I think what I found out is that I have to accept the fact that actually, I'm very influenced by the English and that's very much part of my growing up. In a way that came even before the Americanization of myself, and that's something that was rekindled in this whole process. I also found that the city of Hong Kong will forever be different. With that lowering of the flag, with that midnight and the hand over, the city will forever be different, the city that I grew up in, the city that I know, will forever be different. That's what the movie is about for me.
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