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Wang's World

[whitespace] Chinese Box
Collective Collaboration: On 'Chinese Box,' director Wayne Wang worked with Jeremy Irons (left) and writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Paul Theroux.

SF director shows off a new box of tricks

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 Chinese Box, Jeremy Irons plays a terminally ill English journalist whose life span coincides with the last days of Hong Kong before the Chinese takeover. Irons co-stars with Maggie Cheung and Gong Li (the latter in an uncharacteristic part as a playful, modern woman--and she doesn't die in the end!). San Francisco director Wayne Wang's new film, his best in years, comes from a collaboration not only with Irons, Cheung and Li, but also with eminent French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and novelist Paul Theroux.

Metropolitan: The first time we see Maggie Cheung in this film, she's masked with a muffler. Last time she was in a Western film, Irma Vep, she was masked there, too. Is there something about Maggie Cheung that makes her look 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.

Metropolitan: 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: A very controlled improvisation, where everyone knew basically what they were supposed to do. Mike Leigh does it a lot, but I learned the idea from Harvey Keitel from Blue in the Face. The actors get specific information, but they don't know how the other actors will respond.

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

Wang: In the '70s the British really tried to end corruption, which is generically Chinese and going on in China right now, as always. 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. There were all of these payoffs. And the British managed to stop that and established a clear rule of how things needed to work with police and government officials. That's a strong thing they left for Hong Kong. Now that they're gone, it'll be back to the usual--family connections, who you know.

Metropolitan: Had Jeremy Irons been to Hong Kong before?

Wang: No.

Metropolitan: 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). Once he got there, he's a fast learner, he reads, he digested everything. He started walking the streets as soon as he got there instead of taking a limo around. That's part of his style. He can be very difficult; his mood changes every day. But all actors are like that, specifically good ones.

Metropolitan: Are you much of a fan of director Wong Kar-Wei?

Wang: Yes. One of the reasons he's so interesting is that he has a great DP, Chris Doyle, who shoots all of his stuff.

Metropolitan: I love those night markets in Kar-Wei films. I'll be really disappointed if I go to Hong Kong and it doesn't look like that. You grew up in Hong Kong--did you manage to film some of the streets you knew?

Wang: When I was a kid, at night I'd go out and wander those streets. Those are my best memories of HK, when I was 7 to 10, wandering through the streets and the markets. The places I remember well are all slowly going to disappear, because the government is taking them off the streets and putting them inside buildings. These street markets were the only kind of organic community in Hong Kong; everything else is in high-rises and glass buildings.

Metropolitan: You seem to have got the footage of the animal markets right before the huge slaughter of chickens was ordered.

Wang: That wiped out a lot of chicken farmers. The idea is good, but the way HK implemented it wasn't. After all the chickens were killed, they went out on the street for garbage in bags, and the dogs started getting into the garbage bags. ... Hong Kong is 10 times worse than New York City. You have to really like physical contact if you're there. 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.

Metropolitan: Where do you get horse piss?

Wang: From a horse! From a 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 draw the line somewhere.

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From the April 20-May 3, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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