US / 11 minutes / color / Mike Plante Dir & Scr: Nicholas McCarthy Pr: Sam Zuckerman Cine: Bridger Nielson Cast: Petra Wright, Sam Ball.
An odd little movie that seems almost pointless until you let its meaning sink in.
A wannabe writer (Ball) has fixed up a meeting in what appears to be a seaside café with a former girlfriend or possibly even ex-wife (Wright). We can tell he’s desperate to win her back because he’s spent what must have been a great deal of time lovingly transforming the corners of his copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a flip book: his countless little drawings show him embracing her and love resurging.
On the table in front of him is a brown paper bag with a Mystery Object inside it.
At first he tries to fascinate her by telling her that the light which was leaving the star Altair when they first met is only just now reaching the earth. Unfortunately, he’s misremembered the year of that first meeting, so the gambit falls flat.
The failure is in character. As they talk we begin to realize quite what a loser he is—and, as if she needed to be, she’s reminded of this very same fact. As she tries to show polite attentiveness toward his latest lame, stale idea for a writing project, we see her remembering why they’re no longer together.
His next attempt to reawaken her interest in him is to tell her a tall tale about this strange, grooved box he recently discovered in his back yard. That’s what’s in the paper bag: a box that has the power of speech and can predict the future. He’s brought it here to give to her.
Eyes brimming with sympathy for this terminal loser, she offers him money for it . . .
According to Mike Everleth in Underground Film Journal, this was one of a series of short movies, “Lunchfilms,” inspired by film journalist Mike Plante. The rules of the game that Plante invented were that he would buy a young moviemaker a lunch, and in return the moviemaker had to make him a movie on a budget equal to or less than the cost of the lunch. (If ever there was an incentive to choose from the high end of the menu . . .)
The movie’s quite beautifully made—astonishingly so, when you think about how minimal the budget must have been—and of course a great deal rides on the performances of its two actors, Wright and Ball. Both excel in conveying undercurrents of emotion through the slightest nuances of expression and gaze; while I might seem to have given a pretty full synopsis above, I’ve in reality hardly touched upon the movie’s story, almost all of which is conveyed through those glances, slight grimaces of resignation, forced smiles . . .
Chinese Box is short enough that it requires no great expenditure of time to watch it twice in a row, which is exactly what I did.
One of the movie’s stars, Sam Ball, has put a copy of it on YouTube here.