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MOVIE REVIEW : Sleek 'Mary of Beijing' Raises Questions of Cultural Identity


"Mary of Beijing" is a sleek contemporary love story that takes on a larger dimension because its writer-director, Sylvia Chang, identifies its heroine and the uncertainties that confront her with those of Hong Kong as China's 1997 takeover of the British crown colony draws ever closer.

Chang could not be more fortunate to have as her star the beautiful and talented Gong Li, China's most internationally renowned film actress, the star of a remarkable series of collaborations with Zhang Yimou (who is this film's associate producer) and the leading lady of the current "Farewell My Concubine."

When we meet Ma Lei, whose name is often mistakenly thought to be Mary in westernized Hong Kong, she has been there eight or nine months. She has become the lover of a boyish, carefree scion (Wilson Lam) of a family owning a luxe jewelry store--think Harry Winston. On the one hand, she worries that he keeps putting off introducing her to his parents, and, on the other, she's caught up in the frustrations of trying to get a Hong Kong identity card that would allow her to get a job.

Just as her despair escalates, however, she encounters a likable, good-looking new neighbor, Ken (Kenny Bee), and they discover they are both at crossroads in their lives. Both were born in Hong Kong, but while Ma Lei, now in her mid-20s, was raised in Beijing, Ken grew up in London, the son of a business tycoon. In his mid-30s, Ken finds himself longing to return to Hong Kong and to invest in its future as well as that of mainland China, a plan his wife is so fearful of that she says she intends to divorce him and return to London.

"Mary of Beijing" is a fine example of how a concerned, thoughtful filmmaker can raise serious questions of destiny and cultural identity with a wide range of social, political, economic and moral implications within the genre of the conventional woman's film. Indeed, Chang makes the luxurious settings of escapist romance a comment on the values of the glittery, ultra-materialistic, competitive world of Hong Kong. Yet "Mary of Beijing" winds up a fervent expression of faith both in two reflective individuals to join their lives and in the impending union of Hong Kong and China.

'Mary of Beijing'

Gong Li: Ma Lei (Mary)

Kenny Bee: Ken, the new neighbor

Wilson Lam: Mary's boyfriend

A Rim Films release of a Golden Harvest Ltd./A&T Enterprises production. Writer-director Sylvia Chang. Producer Han Pei-Chu. Cinematographer To Hor-Fung. Editors Yu Shun, Kwong Chi-Leung. Music Music Factory; theme song composed by Law Tai-Yo. Production designer William Cheung. Sound Chow Siu-Lung. In Cantonese, Mandarin and English, with English and Chinese subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It features complex adult themes, though its content is suitable for all ages. * Playing at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd Street, Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.

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