Man in a Suitcase review

by Sally Blundell / 01 September, 2012
<em>Man in a Suitcase</em> is a bleak, black, darkly funny study in dislocation, says Sally Blundell.
Helene Wong, Ji Zhou and Stan Chan star in Lynda Chanwai-Earle's 'Man in a Suitcase', directed by Joseph Graves


It was brutal, gruesome and darkly absurd: the 2006 killing of Chinese language student Wan Biao, whose semi-decapitated body was found strangled, knifed and stuff ed in a suitcase in the Waitemata Harbour. In the subsequent trial, Justice Priestley told the jury not to let any views about Chinese students and immigration “cloud their judgment of the facts”. In Man in a Suitcase, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander, explores these views through a fictionalised account of this wildly inept extortion attempt set within the wider context of the “Asian” diaspora.

The annual intake of young language students, the so-called “little emperors” marched across the world for a double immersion in adulthood and English, is represented by doomed Chinese exchange student Wen Lin (Ji Zhou). Young and shy (and gay), he swings convincingly between teenage bravado and boyish reserve. In contrast is fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander Amy Tung (JJ Fong). Engaged to Wen Lin’s homestay “brother” Stuart (well-meaning yet culturally oblivious, as finely played by Harry McNaughton), Tung is confident, feisty, straining against her parents’ disapproval of her relationship with a “gweilo” (foreign devil). Framing the story is Myanmar refugee Kauki-paw, a would-be journalist, now a hotel cleaner. Brilliantly performed by Katlyn Wong, Kauki-paw moves from cutesy smiling “Asian” girl to appreciative refugee (“No frogs, no crickets, no guns”), exposing the deep-set insecurity behind the easy stereotypes: the cash-cow English language student, the worried but ambitious parents, the street criminals as presented here by Shi Li’s drug dealing Pete and Zhiwen Zhao’s sexually insecure Kim.

This sense of displacement is conveyed through the minimal set by Gu Minwen and the pooled lighting by Joe Hayes. Characters appear often fleetingly, disengaged, isolated on the wide stage. The use of subtitles, projected onto a plain black panel in English and Mandarin, endorses this sense of cultural isolation. After a run of certain crowdpleasers, Christchurch’s Court Theatre has pulled off an impressive coup in this collaboration with the Peking University Institute of World Theatre and Film in Beijing (three of the actors are from China). Although references to the Christchurch earthquakes are an unnecessary conceit, Man in a Suitcase, directed by Joseph Graves, artistic director of the Beijing institute, is a bleak, black, darkly funny study in dislocation.

MAN IN A SUITCASE, by Lynda Chanwai-Earle, directed by Joseph Graves, Court Theatre, Christchurch, until September 1.
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