Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Hand


THE HAND               B                                                                                                              Hong Kong  (Director’s cut 56 mi)  2004 d:  Wong Kar-wai 

Initially made as part of a three-film omnibus anthology entitled EROS by three different directors released at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, with the longest and most critically acclaimed section directed by Wong Kar-wai, the other two being Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni, each delivering a short film on an erotic mystique.  Wong Kar-wai expanded the film in a Director’s Cut to just under one hour, and is included in a larger retrospective of 7 newly restored films from Wong’s work entitled World of Wong Kar-wai, which will be followed by a Blu-Ray Criterion release in the spring.  Following the near unanimous praise for IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), arguably his most acclaimed film, the director explores the visual theme of Cheongsam and seduction, set again in Hong Kong during the 60’s, following with a similar theme of repressed love, but sex is not hidden, and though there are no explicit sex scenes, it’s a central thread to this film.  Starring a barely recognizable Gong Li as a sought after Hong Kong courtesan Miss Hua, who uses her beauty and sexual allure to attract wealthy patrons who shower her with luxurious gifts in order to maintain a lavish lifestyle, a brief window into her world is seen through Chang Chen as Xiao Zhang, a terribly shy yet discreet apprentice tailor who custom designs her own cheongsam dresses that fit her like a glove, working exclusively for her, delivering them personally, often seen waiting patiently, sitting alone at a nearby table to the sounds of passionate lovemaking or tempestuous arguments, with faceless men leaving in a hurry.  His first encounter sets the stage for what follows, aroused by the sounds he hears, as she notices under his clothes a more than avid interest, so she takes advantage of his innocence, taking control of the power dynamic by first humiliating him before slowly masturbating him with her hand, reminding him to remember the pleasure he feels now when he designs each dress for her.  From that moment on he’s under her spell, mesmerized by her all-encompassing sensuousness, like a fantasy woman of his dreams, even though she belongs to others more wealthy and powerful, yet she manipulates them to do what she wants.  His status as a lowly worker stands in stark contrast to her prestigious lifestyle, yet the duty he feels for her is absolute devotion, where he is utterly committed to designing the most extravagantly beautiful dresses, as she needs to maintain her unquestioned status as the woman all eyes turn to in every room.  But her fortunes turn, with her health and reputation slowly declining from contracting tuberculosis, with much of the film shown in flashback, or told out of time, yet when all others abandon her, Zhang sits at her bedside, where her hand once again rekindles former passions, this time more openly and passionately, releasing their deeply repressed feelings for one another. 

Shot by longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle, there are fewer wide-angle close-ups and less kinetic tracking than earlier films, slowing down the pace considerably, narrowing the focus between two characters, often seen together sitting still in a darkened room, feeling more subdued and detached from reality, as if living in their own secret world.  Frequent shots are shown of Zhang working alone sewing or hand-pressing the material, hunched over in an undershirt, where the degree of care and intimacy shown reveals the personal level of importance, where at times he may as well be making love to the dress.  Due to her changing health, her body size fluctuates as well, but he feels no need to measure, fully aware of her proportions, using only his hands to decipher exactly what’s needed.  Even within the same shot, much of what appears is fragmented, cut off from the whole, removing the head and feet while only accentuating the mid-section, creating a confusing choreography of fleeting moments or hands touching hands, existing only in the empty stillness, as few words are actually spoken.  What’s different than regular length Wong Kar-wai films are the transitions between scenes, feeling more abrupt here, not feeling nearly so seamless, where the editing can be jarring at times.  It’s hard not to think of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2018 Top Ten List #10 Phantom Thread (2017), another film expressing a unique sexual fetishism in the fashion industry between a high-end tailor and his leading model, yet that film exists in an exclusive income level, while this reveals a pronounced difference in class status between a luxurious high-end call girl and a lowly tailor working in a sweat shop with a talent for providing the precise clothing attire she needs.  The unique relationships in both films reveal the how the close proximity of working together leads to repressed feelings of sexual desire, where each in some unexpressed and undefined way has a way of getting under the other’s skin and never for one second do they ever lose sight of that sense of urgency, never finding that same intensity level in any other aspect of their lives.  Typically, in Wong Kar-wai films, this elusive moment is fleeting, perhaps existing only in one’s imagination, never acting upon it, which is the reality for IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, while in CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994), Faye Wong is so head over heels for a certain policeman, which is enthusiastically shared with viewers, yet the object of her affection remains clueless for a good duration of the film, where the moody developments of unrequited love have become the director’s signature trademark in most of his films, accentuating a haunting loneliness in missed connections. 

Among the director’s least-seen efforts, a murky and hypnotic tale of obsession, repression, and class divisions, set in a cramped and dark hotel room, Wong has revealed in interviews that he considers writing the script, shooting, and editing to be one process.  “I’m trying to make a film with my own language.  Every film should be experimental… The way of making films is not adding, but taking out things I don’t like.  It’s not clear what I want, but it’s clear what I don’t want.”  While many raved and gushed over this movie, much of it is a lesser version rehash of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, adding an underlayer of a more overtly sexualized topic, bringing to the foreground a sex worker for hire as a lead, which is simply not as intriguing a story, with less developed production design.  A central character in nearly all of Wong’s films is the city of Hong Kong, a vibrant city of commerce and transience, as reflected in the neon-lights, fast food restaurants, gambling houses, nightclubs, and in this case the Palace Hotel, Miss Hua’s residence, illuminated by a dimly lit signboard from a small street lamp, with the camera accentuating silhouettes walking up the stairway entrance, exposing the dim light of a narrow hallway corridor, where the furniture and wallpaper become etched into one’s memory.  After a screaming match with one of her suitors, Miss Hua can be seen primping in the mirror, coiffing her hair, regaining her composure, with the director emphasizing shadows and color as well as mood and loneliness.  Over time, Zhang watches her age, squander away opportunities with several benefactors, and gradually fade away as she passes her prime years and loses her glamor, eventually growing ill, where it’s Zhang himself paying her hotel bill, becoming her silent caretaker.  His own life reveals a man dedicated to his profession and little else, as he remains an isolated and unmarried man, harboring secret desires for a woman who remains out of his reach.  Both are confined by their class and gender differences, which reveals a very limited set of possibilities.  Both lives represent unfulfilled longings, filled with regrets over lost possibilities.  In Wong Kar-wai films, they are more about the memory of love, as romance is viewed as such a fleeting experience that quickly fades into memory.  There is real eroticism expressed in this film, but the characters never experience any real happiness from it, separated by time and space and distance, most of their time spent alone in despairing lives tinged with sadness.  Certainly one remarkable aspect of the film is the use of Fassbinder’s musical composer Peer Raben, who changes things up just a bit, foregoing the quiet poetic lyricism of his early films, writing instead swirling music for strings, ♫ Peer Raben - Concerto Alevta YouTube (3:55), with Wong adding Cantonese pop songs to the mix, like Gen ni kai wan xiao by Yao Li, 跟你开玩笑~(姚莉唱)~好歌听出好心情。 YouTube (2:56) and Hao Chun Xiao by Wu Yingyin Hao Chun Xiao - YouTube (2:33).

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