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"To describe a so-called love scene, or intercourse, is very boring," Wong says, reluctant even to use the word sex. "There must be a point to your focus. In Eros, it's about the hand, not the actual act."
The Hand, his contribution to the three-part Eros (the other parts are by Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh), has no nudity; all sex is suggestive. But the film is called Eros, not Sex; and his episode is throbbingly erotic, as well as a fable about love, lust, loyalty and the ravages of ego in a beautiful young woman who will not always be young or beautiful.
In 1963, a tailor's apprentice named Zhang (Chang Chen) is called to the apartment of a notorious courtesan, Miss Hua (Gong Li, again). As he waits for his audience the sounds of lovemaking trouble and arouse him. Miss Hua, when she greets him, notices his excitement, orders him to remove his trousers and caresses him with her expert hand. It could be said that Hua is merely extending Zhang a professional courtesy. But she is also humiliating the young man—and, she must know, earning a new devotee with a sexual gesture that means little to her, everything to him.
Over the years, Hua's web of erotic and financial alliances unravels. Wealthy lovers tire of her imperiousness; the gigolo she supported (and whose exertions Zhang overheard that first day) has found younger flesh to exploit. She can't pay the tailor bills, yet Zhang remains her faithful couturier and courtier, flattering Hua on her waist size, whispering compliments to a woman in need of them and, finally, secretly, paying for the dingy hotel room she's forced to move into. Gratitude, or desperation, leads her to ask, "Do you have a wife yet?" "No." "How about me?" It is an eloquent three words with at least three meanings: an expression of noblesse oblige, an admission of defeat and an acknowledgment of how much this tradesman has meant to her.
Their last meeting reprises, as in a symphony, the motifs of the first movement but with a new gravity and tenderness. A touch of the hand, a kiss on the face, a few tears and their time is over. In this cinematic short story—as delicate as Guy de Maupassant's, as terse and acute as Raymond Carver's—Wong touches on his old themes of romance and remorse. Chang Chen, looking like a younger Tony Leung in mustache and '60s clothing, gives a mature performance; but Gong Li is the eye magnet. As Hua the regal manipulator, she ages and diminishes, allowing the viewer to escort her on her appointment with tragedy. Give the lady a big hand.
Wong is not perpetually stuck in the 1960s, though his past three films reside there. He had planned to set The Hand in 1930s Shanghai, and shoot it in that city, but the SARS outbreak restricted travel around Asia, forcing him to film in Hong Kong. As fears of an epidemic intensified, the entire production was disrupted, with some Taiwan crew members having difficulty getting to Hong Kong. "Their wives just went crazy," Wong says. "They couldn't accept their husbands working on such a dangerous film, in such a dangerous city. But the men still came."