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World of Wong Kar-wai: The Hand

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[On November 25th in NYC, Janus Films began presenting a slate of 4K remasters for legendary director Wong Kar-wai’s catalog of films. Set to run for the next few weeks, we at Flixist will be taking a look back at each of these films and explaining what makes them so important to cinema as a whole. Join us as we enter into “The World of Wong Kar-wai.”]

Originally premiered as one of three shorts comprising the 2004 feature Eros, The Hand was Wong Kar-wai’s sub-60 minute contribution to the anthology, which also featured films by Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. Talk about a titanic trio! The films in Eros tie in with their titular Greek god of love, making The Hand‘s sexuality and intensity par for the course for Wong while complimenting the works of his fellow directors. Extended and presented on its own, The Hand asserts itself as every bit the romantic, tragic, and formally-gorgeous work that Wong has built a reputation on producing, all under the unspoken connotation of this being a “minor” work.

Working in period detail, The Hand is set in 1960’s Hong Kong. A quiet, diligent tailor, Xiao Zhang (Chang Chen) is dispatched to work on the clothes of Miss Hua (Gong Li), a disarmingly-beautiful, commanding, and mysterious aristocrat. After a demasculatingly-intimate first encounter, a rapport develops between Zhang and Miss Hua, who frequently will have him wait upon arrival while she finishes work with her clients. Hua’s sexuality is, from the very start, prominent in The Hand, her work seemingly that of a high-class escort. Though Hua doesn’t move for anyone: men come to her.
Gong Li The Hand

It’s despite her frequent and detached lovemaking that a genuine relationship develops with Zhang, whose meticulous work on her clothes enhances their relationship to levels unfathomable in her line of work. What struck me so instantly with The Hand, having been submerging myself in the earlier works of Wong recently, is how sedate the camera feels in contrast to, say, Fallen Angels. While Wong’s earlier work with cinematographer Christopher Doyle can be characterized by wide-angle close-ups and kinetic tracking, The Hand revels in stillness. It seems the ten-year gap and space for development for Wong gave this filmmaker plenty of time to change.

Not entirely static are the frames, but rather than glue us to characters or movement, Wong allows subjects to enter and exit the frame. A particular encounter between Hua and Zhang is shot only at the hip, their passionate embrace framing only their mid-sections: the body in love, rather than the faces of the couple. Wong, ever romantic and passionate in his subjects, captures the purely emotional aspect of the relationship. Later, Zhang is met with some surprising news, with Wong cutting to him leaning over, then standing up into frame, revealing his expression at the news.

The Hand feels almost more detached in its camerawork than some of Wong and Doyle’s earlier collaborations, which perhaps subdues the intense sexuality the film captures. The Hand isn’t explicit or graphic, but it certainly doesn’t leave much to the imagination. While its technical merit feels a slight change in Wong’s direction (less kinetic than past work), The Hand‘s romantic content, its story of two people from vastly different walks of life connecting, rings as true to the director’s MO as any of his other films.

Zhang, though he can dress the part when out to meet his clients and take their measurements, works in a dingy, warmly-lit tailor’s shop, hunched over in an undershirt. Miss Hua, of course, revels in luxury. Zhang’s physical transformation from sharply-dressed to sweating and working, and vice-versa, jabs at the societal separation of the two. This, of course, makes their intimacy all the more interesting, and eventually, we start to learn that all isn’t as well as Miss Hua’s costly facade would indicate.

But more than simply connecting two disparate lovers, The Hand tells a love story bound by the inexplicable and purely-visceral things that channel romance. In this case, clothing.

On a basic level, it reminds me of what Paul Thomas Anderson did with Phantom Thread in 2017, that film focusing on a world-class tailor, his muse, and the volatile relationship they shared. Like in Thread, Wong connects Zhang and Hua through non-sexual, inanimate means. They engage on a physical level as well, but the spark of their relationship lies in Zhang’s craft. Doyle and Wong lovingly capture scenes of Zhang, played by Chang Chen, laboring over Hua’s clothes as if he were handling her himself, then and there. The imposition of a human being in an object, longing for someone and projecting them onto a set of clothes, is very much in keeping with Wong’s hopeless, melancholic romance that manages to crop up in nearly all of his films.

The Hand acts as a terrific bridge between In the Mood for Love and 2046 in Wong’s catalog. Though he would set his films in the past as far back as Days of Being Wild, the slightly more sedate technical work of his “new era” of films allows us to truly pore over the period detail on display. In the Mood for Love is also set in the ’60s, of course, but 2046‘s futuristic Chinese state is every bit as meticulous as a film that captures the past.

Wong and his production designer, William Chang, with whom Wong has worked on all of his films, understand perfectly that you don’t need calendars or news bulletins to convey an era. A beautiful suit, pressed in an old-style, or a manual sewing machine can convey more than on-screen text. Nostalgia, like human bonds, is a motif captured beautifully throughout Wong’s work.

I won’t boldly assert The Hand to be the best or even top-tier Wong Kar-wai, because in a world with films like Happy Together, how could The Hand, an exercise for the filmmaker, practically compare? What this film does convey, however, is the outright mastery of the form by Wong. That this smaller-scale project, originally presented as a segment to compliment and be bolstered by two other great filmmakers, is indicative of something interesting.

Seeing The Hand as a singular, shorter feature reveals what was likely clear to an audience seeing it in Eros years ago: Even at his least-ambitious, Wong Kar-wai can make beautiful art.