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[whitespace] Chinese Box
Chan Kam Tseun

Director Wayne Wang on the set.

Director Wayne Wang talks about his new film, 'Chinese Box'

By Richard von Busack

He has only a few months left of life as he knows it, and so does the city he lives in. In Wayne Wang's new film, Chinese Box, Jeremy Irons plays a leukemia case, an English journalist whose final days coincide with the final days of colonial Hong Kong before the Chinese takeover. Irons co-stars with Chinese actress Gong Li and Hong Kong luminary Maggie Cheung.

Since Wang's 1982 debut, Chan Is Missing, he has made an impressive number of films: the scarcely seen Hong Kong-set film that Wang says is his favorite, Life Is Cheap ... but Toilet Paper is Expensive (1990); the studio-butchered Slam Dance (1987); Dim Sum (1984); and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989). Wang has also made two films in collaboration with novelist Paul Auster, Blue in the Face and Smoke, but his best-known film is no doubt his adaptation of fellow San Franciscan Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club (1993).


Metroactive: The first time we see Maggie Cheung in Chinese Box, she's masked with a muffler. In Irma Vep, she was also masked. Is there something about Cheung that looks especially good masked?

Wang: I think all women look interesting if they're masked somewhat. Maggie has such distinguished features. I love the Chinese idea that the face is that map of your life, a visual map.

Metroactive: Cheung has a very strong scene confronting an old boyfriend, who seems very surprised at the intensity of her feelings. Was that scene improvised?

Wang: It was a very controlled improvisation, where everyone knows basically what they were supposed to do. Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies) does it a lot, but I learned the idea from Harvey Keitel from Blue in the Face, that style a la the Actor's Studio. The actors get specific information, but they don't know how the other actors will respond.

Metroactive: Had Jeremy Irons been to Hong Kong before?

Wang: No, he arrived there the first time, two weeks before we got there.

Metroactive: Was that kind of an advantage to have an actor who didn't know the city as well as you did--did it make him more pliable?

Wang: Yeah, that helped [laughs]. He's a fast learner. He reads; he digested everything. He picked out some specific detail, got to it very quickly. He started walking the streets as soon as he got there, instead of talking a limo around. It's part of his style. He can be very difficult; his mood changes every day. But all actors are like that, specifically good ones.

Metroactive: Chinese Box is the first Gong Li film in a long time where she doesn't die in the end. Did she come up with her scene of imitating Marlene Dietrich?

Wang: It was screenwriter Larry Gross' idea to have her pantomime to the Dietrich song "Black Market" from Billy Wilder's 1948 A Foreign Affair. I tried to get a childlike quality from Gong Li that usually doesn't get on screen.

Metroactive: You had five camera crews going during the People's Republic's takeover?

Wang: Some of what you see in Chinese Box was our own footage of the takeover, and some we picked up. We were able to shoot some scenes, like the tanks coming in. We couldn't get close enough to the reception for Prince Charles to shoot it, so we went to the press areas where there was a big TV broadcast of the prince. It was a better context in which to see him and take in the reporters' reactions.

One camera crew was at a political rally, one was at the border, shooting the tanks rolling in. I heard that the Hong Kong government was telling the Chinese that it wasn't cool for them to bring in the military, since every TV camera in the world was going to be in here. Supposedly that's exactly what the Chinese wanted: they wanted the world to see they were taking over. Interestingly enough, in Hong Kong [a few years ago], they were laughing at anyone from China--they were calling them "uncles." Now that's changed: it's like, "You're my brother, we love you guys, we're gonna do business."

Metroactive: Now that the British are gone from Hong Kong, can you appraise their legacy--was their anything good about their colonizing Hong Kong?

Wang: Towards the end of the British rule, the English started trying to introduce democracy to Hong Kong--that was kind of the game. In the '70s, the British really tried to end corruption. They did their best to stop it at all levels. I remember when I was really young in Hong Kong, it was very hard to even get a telephone [because of] all of the payoffs. And the British managed to stop that and established a clear rule of how things need to work: police, government officials. That's a strong thing they left for Hong Kong. Now that they're gone, it'll be back to the usual corruption--the family connections, who you know, all will be big time in Hong Kong.

Metroactive: You grew up in Hong Kong; did you include locations that you knew as a child?

Wang: My best memories of Hong Kong are when I was 7 to 10 years old. After 7 years of age, I was allowed to go out on my own. Those were the really strong memories, wandering through the street markets at night. The places I remember well are all slowly going to disappear, because the new government is taking them off the streets and putting them inside buildings. The street markets were the only kind of organic community, everything else is in high rises and glass buildings.

Metroactive: I've never been to Hong Kong myself, and I'll be disappointed if those night markets don't look like a Wong Kar-Wei film.

Wang: You won't be disappointed. One of the reasons Kar-Wei is so interesting is that he has a great director of photography, Chris Doyle, who shoots all of his stuff.

Metroactive: The scenes of the animals in Hong Kong's markets makes me wonder if you got there before the great slaughter of diseased chickens they had.

Wang: That wiped out a lot of chicken wholesale markets. It controlled the outbreak of disease--the idea was good, but the way Hong Kong implemented it, that was the problem. After all the chickens were killed, they were put out on the streets in plastic garbage bags, and the dogs started getting into the garbage bags ...

Hong Kong is big-time crowded--10 times worse than New York city, really noisy. You got to really like physical contact. And I was coughing through the whole shoot. The air is all exhaust, and then when you go inside, it's all artificial air: big-time artificial air. Somehow my pipes never adjusted, even though I was raised there. They kept telling me to drink horse piss for it.

Metroactive: Where do you get horse piss?

Wang: From a horse! From the Chinese herbalist. The art director was having the same trouble, and he drank horse piss and it worked. I'm not into horse piss, I have to drawn the line somewhere.

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Web extra to the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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