Like In the Mood for Love, The Hand is set in the hazy Hong Kong of the 1960s, but its characters couldn’t be more different from the earlier film’s restrained, haunted lovers. Originally conceived for the omnibus film Eros, the film—presented in this retrospective for the first time in its extended cut—tells the tale of Zhang (Chang Chen), a shy tailor’s assistant enraptured by a mysterious client, Miss Hua (Gong Li). A hypnotic tale of obsession, repression, and class divisions, The Hand finds Wong Kar Wai continuing to transition from the frenetic, energized style of his earlier films into a register that is lush with romantic grandeur.
The Hand (2004) film notes by Tova Gannana for Far Away Entertainment
Every body part has importance. Hands are the workers, caretakers, teachers, givers. Hands create and destroy; make noise and silence. Rita Hayworth was known for her exquisite hands. Immanuel Kant wrote, “The hand is the visible part of the brain.” Hands are expressionless but hard to hide. They become symbols of one’s profession. Sunburnt, dry from washing, lotioned, manicured. A tailor’s hand must be deft. The hand is no unskilled laborer, a term used in order to pay less. Everything learned and put to use is an asset. Hands are tools in the world’s oldest professions, bringing pleasure and unleashing pain. The sound of a tailor’s scissors is sharp, distinct with purpose and place, hands sewing with needle and thread, massaging hands relieving ailment.
The Hand (2004), set in 1960’s Hong Kong, begins with a well-dressed man asking, “How are you feeling today?” Xiao Zhang (Chang Chen) is a skilled tailor concerned about a wealthy call girl who has transitioned to a sex worker living in a flop house. The short film is one third of a full length feature; Wong Kar Wai one of three directors. Each frame in The Hand is like a still life, with characters looking into the camera or into a mirror. Their gaze is meant to pierce. Their words reveal little.
When she was on top, Ms. Hua (Gong Li) had an apartment with floral wall paper, flowers on the table, a maid, men who made house calls, and a man who wanted to buy her an apartment and keep her himself. Ms. Hua’s hands were smooth, her nails polished; she wore rings. She made dumplings, gently folding the banana leaf wrapper around the meat. She used her body to make a living so she could live her version of a beautiful life. In the end Ms. Hua uses her body to simply live. She goes back to the flop house with men from the wharf. Every night she stands outside, even in rain. When she lived in her apartment she was visited; she didn’t bring her visitors. In the apartment the camera focused on her hands. In the flophouse the focus is on her feet.
The stairway to Ms. Hua’s apartment is split by a landing with colored glass. The floors are white marble. Zhang climbs them in anticipation of bringing something of pleasure. He sews her garments with the memory of her measurements that he has taken with his hands. They don’t make love, but between them there is love.
Ms. Hua begins to spiral. Her clients are fickle, unpredictable. For them sex is a game. Ms. Hua needs a steady income. She flirts on the telephone; her banter becomes desperate. She gains weight and loses work. She can’t pay Zhang’s employer Master Jin (Feng Tien). Ms. Hua gives her clothes to Zheng and tells him to sell them. Instead he irons each garment and stores them in a suitcase. She plans a fake trip to Europe in order to not lose face.
On the radio we hear about the arrival of Typhon Kate on Hong Kong. Ms. Hua makes her way up the flophouse staircase. Her arrival will become her departure. She has caught a disease.
Zheng makes Ms. Hua’s clothes but he can’t make her his wife. They can’t change their societal roles. He shows her kindness not out of pity but out of concern. Zheng is her friend when she has none. Men in high places and in low used Ms. Hua’s body for their pleasure til her body wore out. Zheng will keep her clothes the way one keeps memories. Her measurements are in his dresses.
Tova Gannana writes for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock.
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