For the something different crowd, Chinese Box is a brooding and elusive love story, as literal as a smear of dark purple lipstick on the starched collar of a white linen shirt and as puzzling as the exquisitely constructed, meticulous, delicate and fragile layers of a Chinese box that hides the mysteries of the human heart. It stars Jeremy Irons and Gong Li, the Bette Davis of China, as star-crossed lovers caught up in the dangerous and tension-torched final days before the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. As 156 years of British rule draw to an end, director Wayne Wang returns for one last look at the city of his birth and finds apprehension, exhilaration and change in every shadow. It’s riveting stuff.
Mr. Irons is John, a British journalist who has lived in Hong Kong for a decade and is madly obsessed with the city, the people and especially Vivian (Gong Li), an illegal immigrant and former prostitute from mainland China who runs a karaoke bar. Their relationship has always been turbulent, since he has a wife back in London and she is the mistress of a businessman she cannot leave. Now, in the panic that grips the city, when everyone fears a loss of democratic human rights and the future is uncertain, the students revolt, the capitalists talk about financial ruin, and John is diagnosed with a fatal illness. Facing his own mortality and fighting off a miasmic depression, John switches obsessions to Jean (Maggie Cheung), an eccentric street hustler who lives by her wits to survive.
As John wanders the streets of the city he loves but never learns to understand, Mr. Wang conducts us on a beautifully photographed but far from stereotypical tour of Hong Kong’s sights and sounds. Noise, chaos and eternal gridlock mix with the ancient custom of animal slaughter in the open-air markets of Kowloon, the bustling neon night life and floating restaurants of Aberdeen Harbor, and the warrens of brothels that show the contrast between the city of hedonism and the rigid social and political upheaval to come.
Desperately trying to outlive the British, John also knows the city will outlast him, while the secret pasts of both Vivian and Jean unravel as unexpectedly as the city itself, in violent contrasts, both realizing in the end they must, like Hong Kong, reinvent themselves to move into the approaching millennium. Mr. Wang is telling a story about lives in dilemma at a historic moment in time, but the fascinating thing about the film is the way he juxtaposes the trajectory of their tragedies with documentary footage of the actual news events between New Year’s Eve, 1996, when the story begins, and June 30, 1997, when Hong Kong returned to the feudal, primitive past. It’s the same mix of fictional melodrama and in-your-face journalism Haskell Wexler used in Medium Cool .
Rubén Blades, recently sprung from the ill-fated Capeman on Broadway, adds immediacy and accuracy as a wild and crazy photojournalist. Mr. Irons, looking as consumptive and anemic as a dying poet, is a cross between his role as a naïve British diplomat in love with a cross-dressing Chinese opera star in M. Butterfly and the horny, cancer-ridden painter he played in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty . Normal people are apparently beyond his boredom threshold. As for the luscious Gong Li, I’m happy to report she is proving there is life after her ex-husband, the director Zhang Yimou, after all.
They are all upstaged by Hong Kong, a place that changes faster than its politics or currency, but for a film that makes us all outsiders. Chinese Box is a work of haunting, exotic contrasts-as baffling and sensual as the Orient itself.
Too Big for His Co-Star
Billy Crystal may be “king of the world” on Oscar night, but this sharp clown isn’t having much luck finding movie vehicles that are likely to win him a statuette of his own. In My Giant , a treacley mixture of contrived laughs and embarrassing sentimentality, he describes himself in the opening narration as “a leech, a parasite, a scum-sucking pig-no, I’m not a lawyer.” It’s worse. He’s a New York agent.
Far from Times Square, he finds himself broke, separated from his neglected wife and kid, and constipated from so much cheese in Romania, where his only client, who is starring in a medieval epic that looks like Conan the Barbarian , fires him on arrival. Rescued from a near-fatal car crash by *-foot-tall giant named Maximus, he sees a new star in the making and drags the poor creature from a peaceful life in a monastery all the way to Las Vegas to play a hideous villain in a terrorist flick with Steven Seagal, who has trouble even playing himself with any conviction that requires more than one facial expression. After a humiliating series of trials, Maximus proves to be the nicest person in the picture. A grotesque hulk to the outside world, he’s really a gentle soul with a heart of gold who is along for the ride just to see his childhood girlfriend, who has lived for the past 23 years in Gallup, N.M.
Mr. Crystal’s character stops at nothing to keep his new client before the camera, including coercing his estranged wife (Kathleen Quinlan) into impersonating Maximus’ long-lost love. The film turns black when Maximus turns out to have a bad heart and a limited time to live. The moral conflict centers on the big last-reel decision: Put him to work for big bucks in a Hollywood potboiler or return him to Romania to prolong his life before time runs out?
The agony could make you croak. Gheorghe Muresan, a Romanian basketball player who speaks English phonetically, is the best thing in the picture. The rest you can dump in downtown Bucharest.
Gershwinized Via Feinstein
Michael Feinstein has joined the celebration of George Gershwin’s centennial year, and why not? After all the years he worked for George’s brother Ira out in the Hills of Beverly, plus a lifetime of dedication studying the Gershwin repertoire, who is better qualified? In his charming, music-filled act at Rainbow & Stars (through April 25), Mr. Feinstein examines myriad ways to breathe new life into as many of Gershwin’s 800 songs as time allows. You go away, by George, Gershwinized.
The accent is on the more familiar nucleus of the songbook, from a mellow “Who Cares?” to a rhythmic juxtaposition of “They All Laughed” and “I Got Rhythm.” But Mr. Feinstein has a few surprises up his Armani sleeves, too. Amiably brushing through a medley of very early songs so awful they challenge the false image of Gershwin as a boy genius, Mr. Feinstein provides valuable clues to the master’s evolution as a prodigy, then tackles a complicated “Embraceable You” which, like Al Hirschfeld’s hidden Ninas, contains 14 clandestine snippets of Gershwin countermelodies, including “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “Summertime.” The audience is asked to identify them, but relax. There’s no test.
Another unexpected treat is an obscure delight co-authored by the witty wordsmith P.G. Wodehouse, “Oh Gee Oh Joy,” which was new to my ears. In addition to his own polished grand piano, Mr. Feinstein introduces a digitally interactive Baldwin Concert Master that reproduces the original Gershwin piano rolls, allowing the performer to “duet” with the composer on “Sweet and Low Down” and “Swanee,” with the most rudimentary bang-it-out period flourishes. Technology thus brings us all closer to the Gershwin of the 1920’s. The sensation is eerie, and it’s a nice gimmick, but in all honesty I prefer Mr. Feinstein’s own unique interpretations of Gershwin, embellished with his own jazzy, modern chords.
Throw him just about any curve, and he’ll play it or drop dead trying. I requested a lovely but rarely performed gem, “Changing My Tune,” a posthumous Gershwin tune written for Betty Grable with lyrics Ira set to an unfinished melody found in George’s piano bench, and Mr. Feinstein tackled it without batting an eye. “Home,” with Ira’s nostalgic lyrics set to one of the blues themes from the midsection of the American in Paris ballet, was another highlight. From the particularly musical arrangement of “Of Thee I Sing,” with its exciting tempo changes and dramatic emphasis, to a stand-up turn away from the mike on “Slap That Bass” accompanied by the excellent bass lines of David Finck, ace drummer Joe Cocuzzo and guitarist Jay Azzolina, this mini-concert in an intimate setting has just about everything a Gershwin enthusiast could ask for.
Mr. Feinstein exudes the naïve, golly-gee flourish of an exuberant choirboy who is really in love with this music, and that joy and ebullience spills over. It’s contagious. Somewhere high above the skyline of the town he adored and wrote about, George Gershwin must be a happy man indeed. His legacy is in very able hands at Rainbow & Stars.