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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Eyes dealt a perfect 'Hand'


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Wong kar-wai, Stephen Soderbergh, Michelangelo Antonioni
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English, Mandarin
Opens April 16
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Spring is in the air, and those looking for a good date movie to set the mood may well find their eyes turning to "Eros," a trilogy of short films on the topic of desire by a trio of heavyweight directors: Wong Kar-wai, Stephen Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

News photo
Chang Chen and Gong Li in "The Hand" segment of "Eros"

That combo sounds almost too good to be true, and as is usually the case in such situations, the results don't live up to the expectations. The eroticism is conceptual in Soderbergh's bit, and ridiculous in Antonioni's. But -- and this is a mighty big "but" -- Wong turns in a rhapsodic piece of pure desire, an exquisite ode to longing that ranks with his best work.

Wong's segment, "The Hand," looks and feels like an out-take from his previous movie "2046," with its similar 1960s Hong Kong milieu of cheap hotels, bar-girls in curvy cheongsams, and carefully modulated lust. Surprisingly for an "outtake," it's also far, far better than anything in "2046"; there's a sense of direction and focus that its predecessor lacked.

No one does longing from afar (or all too painfully close) like Wong, and joining the ranks of his star-crossed couples in "Fallen Angels," and "In the Mood for Love," are Chang Chen and Gong Li in "The Hand." Chang plays a young dressmaker's assistant who caters to the whims of his boss's top client, a high-end prostitute played with trademark imperiousness by Gong Li. Chang, while secretly pining for the sultry bar-girl, is forced to endure the indignity of waiting outside her room as she noisily services clients.

Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle fashion a beautifully elliptical entrance for Gong. We hear her orgasms on the other side of the hotel lobby's walls, but when Chang goes to meet her, the camera hovers on a vase of red flowers in the lobby. The duo remain off-screen while shards of dialogue drop into the pregnant pauses bracketing them. Finally, the camera lands on Gong, with the sort of cinematic caress Doyle has practically trademarked. Leaning back in a black slip, she's a vision of pure carnality as she commands the helpless Chang to "Get undressed."

"The Hand" follows Chang as he sublimates his love for the bar-girl by putting it into the beauty and elegance of the dresses he makes for her. The bar-girl, for her part, turns on the tailor for a purpose: "If you remember this feeling, you'll always make beautiful clothes for me," she says. That he does, until one day her career hits the rocks and a moment of truth arrives for both of them . . .

The connection beneath fashion and lust is made clear in many scenes: Gong's feet, dangling off the edge of her bed, slowly kicking off her mules, or the slow-motion, languorous shots of Gong in her new outfits, preening haughtily in the mirror, as old Cantonese pop plays on the soundtrack.

As always, with Wong, the atmospherics are gorgeous, and you could linger in this world for hours. The film ends with cicadas chirping after the rain, as the camera slowly pans through the dark, empty halls and stairs of the bar-girl's hotel, reminding us what a sad, drab place this was without the passions to enliven it.

"Eros" takes a sudden turn into "comedy" with Soderbergh's "Equilibrium," which is rather disconcerting coming after Wong's lush romanticism, but also because 30-odd minutes later, you'll be wondering why you haven't laughed yet. The whole piece feels like a joke that's missing its punchline.

Robert Downey Jr. plays a businessman, presumably in the 1950s, who goes to see a shrink about a recurring Freudian dream he has about a woman in a blue dress. As Downey lies on the sofa, his eyes closed, the psychiatrist -- played by Alan Arkin -- pretends to listen, is scrambling round the room, using binoculars to peep at a woman in another building, and throwing paper airplanes. The Three Stooges might have made this work, but Soderbergh? Well, let's just say that comedy has never been his strong suit.

Finally, the maestro who originated this project, Antonioni, chimes in with "The Dangerous State of Things." All respect is due to this director, who gave us so many great works in the '60s and '70s -- "Blow Up," "The Passenger" -- and who continues to make films at age 92, even after suffering a stroke. But there's no way to be charitable here: This plays like a parody of classic European art-film, though that clearly was not the intent.

Christopher Buchholz and Regina Nemni play an idle rich couple in Tuscany whose relationship seems to be on the rocks; he never takes off his black Armani, even on the beach, while she never manages to keep her breasts covered, even in public. The dialogue is stilted to the extreme: "Why do we have to pollute the air with words," he asks, to the Euro-disco beat of an Enigma track. The two drive off in an expensive sports car -- before long, he turns around. Look, he's going down the wrong road! Dig the symbolism, man.

After many silly spats, he splits with her and goes to visit an even sexier woman who lives in a lighthouse (Luisa Ranieri, who left me picking up my eyeballs off the floor.) This being an especially sexist film, she immediately offers herself to this dour, unappealing guy she just met, and we get a full-frontal shot of her standing nude on the bed with her hands stuck between her legs. The following sex scene is cut to some truly cheesy music that can't help but recall the trashy Euro-softcore of the '70s.

I have tried to refrain from using the term "dirty old man" here, but I'm afraid I've failed. Yes, the actresses here are drop-dead, goddess-beautiful, but the leering way the camera regards them, and the sheer absence of any other raison d'e^tre for this film makes it all seem like an excuse to shoot lots of nekkid ladies. Far be it from me to decry cheap titillation, but coming from Antonioni, one expects a bit more.

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