Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Chinese Box

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 19, 1999

Of course it isn’t just the deals. Sometimes you just fall in love with a place.

Special features

Cast Information6

Jeremy Irons and Gong Li star in this Hong Kong love story set during the changeover from British rule to Chinese rule in 1997. Very good acting by all involved, especially Jeremy Irons.

DirectorWayne Wang
Movie Rating6
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating5
  • Letterbox

John Spencer (Jeremy Irons) has only a few months to live. He has a rare form of leukemia which allows him to lead a relatively normal life right up until the moment the cancer eats the wrong brain cell and he dies.

Rubén Blade plays Jim, a photographer who took lots of money from some magazine to film the crisis in Hong Kong as the Chinese take over. His problem: there is no crisis. Everything is going to stay pretty much exactly the same. John describes it as no more than a change in management at a department store. Jim needs more: until people start dying, he hasn’t got a story. “I’m not going to give back the money, I’d rather give up a kidney.” Fortunately for him, anti-Chinese activists up the level of their protesting to the point of dramatic public suicides.

Gong Li plays Vivian, a Chinese emigré in love with both John and a rich businessman who loves her but won’t marry her. Maggie Cheung plays “Jean”, a street hustler with a scarred face living in the past.

The film begins on December 31, New Year’s Eve, the beginning of the year 1997—for the British at any rate. The Chinese celebrate a different date, although this isn’t covered in the movie. Over the next seven months life plays out for John and Vivian and Jim; John discovers “Jean” and tries to do a documentary on her, treating her life as symbolic of Hong Kong itself.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the story because part of the movie’s charm is the way the story works. While there’s nothing especially surprising, the movie will be better if you only know the basics.

Where the movie loses is in some of the miscellaneous things going on. John lives in a poor section of Hong Kong, but has thousands of dollars to give for an interview. He has cancer eating at his brain and suffers approximately two dizzy spells throughout the entire movie. One of them is fairly serious, but still, this is an awfully kind deadly disease.

The acting is all understated; the performances are all very good. I thought that Irons and Cheung did the best jobs, but it was a close race. Rubén Blades and Gong Li also had good, simple, believable performances. If you’re a fan of any of them, you’ll probably want to see this movie just for that.

The DVD is pretty sparse. The cast information is pretty standard. It has some nice graphics leading up to the cast menu and each cast member. Its interesting and good, but also takes time. Fortunately, the menu fluff only plays the first time you enter each menu. Afterwards, you get the menu instantly. I’m afraid the jury is still out on whether these intricate ‘pre-menu’ animations are a good thing. They’re often fascinating and generally have even better video quality than the movie itself, but the better they are, usually the more time they take to finish. When I ask for a menu, I want the menu now. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge the attempt to make menu selection cooler. I do like the compromise on this DVD, which is to only show the animation once.

Besides the cast information and the trailer, there are no other extras. As far as I can tell, there isn’t even an English subtitling option: just Spanish and French. The letterbox transfer is fairly good on my cheap television. The menu animation made for the DVD, however, is clearly better. The movie, however, has three different styles of film: the standard (and quite good) “real world” on the one end, and John Spencer’s video camera on the other. In between is a television-quality, which I’m not quite sure if it’s supposed to be actually on television, or is just real footage from the time spliced into the movie. It might also be simply that it’s supposed to be footage from John’s video camera, and his camera is getting extremely varied quality. (Or, some really was filmed on a video camera, and some was filmed on normal film stock and then filtered to look like video.)

Chinese Box” is a very good movie with some significant flaws. I recommend seeing it, but unless you’re a huge fan of one of the principals (Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, or Rubén Blades), you’ll probably want to rent it rather than purchase.

Recommendation: Rent

DirectorWayne Wang
ActorJeremy Irons
Spoken languageEnglish
SubtitlesFrench, Spanish
Special FeaturesCast Information, Trailer
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