PHOTO: JEREMY IRONS ... Stars in Chinese Box, set as Hong Kong prepared for the end of British rule. -- Chris Wahl, SUN

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Wednesday, September 10, 1997

Irons mining Chinese history

Toronto Sun

 Actor Jeremy Irons, usually a meticulous craftsman, found himself thrust into the void making the film Chinese Box, which premiered last night at the Toronto International Film Festival.
 Directed by Chinese-American Wayne Wang, it was shot on location and set specifically in Hong Kong during the final six months of British rule in the colony. Chinese Box is a unique film that relied on real-life events to shape the performances of the key actors telling their fictional story.
 Irons said yesterday he was excited by making a movie set within a historical reality that was happening on the streets at precisely the same time, "because I was getting to know Hong Kong -- I'd never been there -- and I was excited being part of a story that unfolded as we shot it."
 Except that things did not work out as Wang and his actors expected, leaving the film, says Irons, "imperfect -- because life is imperfect."
 Irons co-stars with Chinese superstar Gong Li, Hong Kong's hip martial arts actress Maggie Cheung and Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui.
 "I think one of the problems," Irons says, "was that very little dramatically happened on the change-over." The filmmakers were waiting for upheavals in the weeks prior to the turnover on the night of June 30.
 "Wayne thought more would happen, more unrest, more unhappiness. It was amazing. Now I learn even now the only things that are different are the flags that are flying."
 Even the arrival of the military in armored cars, trucks and tanks did little to Hong Kong, despite media coverage.
 "They moved in very quietly," Irons remembers. "They stationed on the fringe, on the other side of the island. We had to go a long way to get that shot (in the film) of the tanks moving in. In the central area itself, there's no sign of it at all."
 The paradox is that the lack of upheaval dampened the spirit and energy of the film, yet that is "a very good thing" for the citizens of Hong Kong, says Irons.
 Much of Chinese Box was improvised, even though the film has credited screenwriters Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross. "We were all living in the situation -- the characters and the actors," Irons says. "We all sort of knew in the beginning what the characters would be and each day we tried to unfold the story further, influenced as we were by what was happening, or not happening."
 It was a difficult process for Gong Li, whom Irons agrees is a throwback to the kind of radiant, larger-than-life movie stars of Hollywood's golden era. The improv was awkward, especially because she can not speak English and usually works in a rigid, non-Western style. Yet her power and radiance on the screen are remarkable, Irons says.
 "She would come to work and she would be without her makeup, her glasses on, and she would look like a little Tiananmen Square protester, a student. Then she would disappear for 10 minutes and I'd go in and she would have her makeup on and -- suddenly! -- she would be this iconic figure with an age anywhere between eight and 8,000 years. I was very, very happy working with her!"