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In 30 minutes Wong Kar-wai leads us through erotic, urban landscapes and silent, cigarette-smoke longings. All in a day's work for everyone's favorite art-house superstar.
Strangely, it is with the release of the short film “The Hand” -- as the first third of the omnibus film Eros -- that Wong Kar-wai has achieved the kind of superstar auteur status among American critics normally reserved for directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh -- the film’s other two contributors. When In the Mood for Love came out in 2001, there were still critics who knew Wong by reputation only. However, since then, there's been a glorious Criterion DVD, a DJ Shadow music video, a stunning BMW Films contribution, 2046 -- which was the talk of Cannes 2004 -- and suddenly, Wong wasn’t just Hong Kong’s notorious enfant terrible; he was a world master, a household name in every household that cared about Cinema with a capital C.
What’s most stunning about Wong’s short piece in Eros isn’t that it’s a great work (which it is); it’s how embarrassingly flimsy Soderbergh and Antonioni’s pieces look in comparison. As a result, all the big American reviewers have come to the same conclusion: that among the three, only Wong seems to know what he’s doing, while the other two are simply amateurs, an amazing thought given that Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Sex, Lies, and Videotape are modern classics and Antonioni’s L’Avventura and L’Eclisse would make any list of the greatest artworks -- let alone films -- of the 20th century. So it’s official: Wong Kar-wai has arrived.
I have to say though, the hoopla around Wong’s sudden critical embrace is more moving than “The Hand” itself, which, while impressive and emotional, is minor, coming off as a short riff off of familiar tunes -- an easy and obvious 30 minutes of greatest-hits Wong Kar-wai. Gong Li is a prostitute of sorts and Chang Chen is her young infatuated tailor. Glares of longing, nostalgia-inducing '30s Shanghai songs, wordless gestures, godlike-beautiful faces, glamorous Chris Doyle cinematography -- you know the drill: the film sets your heart a’ skipping and your blood a’ bubbling, and you’re left breathless. It all works, but it's just as you expect from the great world master. This time, the mesmerizing shots are of Chen and Li’s hands abstractly caressing each other, of the two pairs of eyes drifting awkwardly toward mirrors instead of to each other, and a scene of subtle erotica that steals the show. The issue of disease adds to the sensual restraint, no doubt derived from the on-location anxieties over SARS in 2003. Chen and Li’s emotional tango is classic Wong, and for that reason, somewhat disappointing.
I’m sure my reaction is pure backlash -- that grimy gut reaction whenever a favorite cult director is suddenly in the critical mainstream -- and I’m sure that after Wong surprises us with something utterly different (like that upcoming Nicole Kidman feature), I’ll better appreciate the merits of “The Hand.” While I doubt that I’d ever accuse the notoriously uncompromising Wong Kar-wai of selling out, maybe it’s a good thing that I can now get this gripe out of my system.
Date Posted: 4/14/2005