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Instead of Chinese Box, I’d like to order solid two hours of Gong Li smoking and pantomiming to Marlene Dietrich.

Well, the scene with Gong Li wondrously mimicking Marlene Dietrich shows you what kind of roles Gong Li should be doing, rather than this one, as an ex-prostitute from the mainland come to make her way in Hong Kong. Her character exists as nothing more than a symbol (of the new Chinese-governed Hong Kong), as does Jeremy Irons’ dying Brit (the English era soon to be finished), and Maggie Cheung’s wild, frenetic, unpredictable street vendor (as the wild, frenetic, unpredictable Hong Kong in transition, with a strained past with the British and an uncertain future with the Chinese). The characters themselves are so burdened by their symbolism that the drama never has a chance to stand on its own.

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Jeremy Irons and Maggie Cheung as British Hong Kong past and Chinese Hong Kong present.

Unfortunately, Wayne Wang’s film rates for me overall as a chore to watch. Lighter points? Ruben Blades sings a nice US/Mexican border song that translates well to Hong Kong, and Maggie Cheung plays out her intensity here as unhinged, markedly different from the intensity she showed in In the Mood for Love (simmering and frustrated) or Hero (vengeful and furious). In fact, waiting for her scenes was probably the only reason I made it to the end of this film. What a disappointing eulogy for British Hong Kong!

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Hong Kong, like Maggie Cheung’s character, is a beautiful mess. Will China clean up the mess but wipe away the beauty?