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Thrill of the still: How an image from Wong Kar-wai's art-house hit keeps you gazing

Before Wong Kar-wai's 2046 opened here last month, it was heralded by a still of Zhang Ziyi espousing the kind of tantalizing erotic mystery that movies themselves seldom project these days. It might prove the most iconic image to have appeared since Marlene Dietrich was photographed leaning back on a beer barrel—to display a meaty thigh and her dreamy detachment from the febrile desire she elicits—during the winter 1929–30 UFA production of Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.

Though it offers an invitation that cannot be fulfilled, the great Dietrich shot is, if anything, friendlier and more forgiving than that of Zhang's nightclub escort Bai Ling, who aims her scornful stare at anyone with the gall to ogle or proposition her. Taken out of context, Bai's defiance, its power enhanced by the low angle, could be invoked as a contemptuous post-feminist dismissal of the "controlling male gaze" identified by Laura Mulvey 30 years ago, though the movie itself reveals that Bai unconsciously desires to be trapped by her sadomasochistic longings for embittered playboy Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung).

There she stands then, in a spangled black cheongsam, a noirish totem of sexual aloofness, in her room, 2046, at Hong Kong's Oriental Hotel. Her upper lip is cast in shadow as it separates provocatively from its neighbor. Her neatly coiffed head is cocked slightly to her left at an angle that would seem quizzical if it didn't seem she knows all the damn answers (in fact, she has none). She has, meanwhile, arrayed herself in insolent contrapposto: Her right hand is spread on her right hip in such a way that it crooks the arm at a 90-degree angle at the elbow; her left hand caresses her abdomen with the scarlet-tipped fingers at 10 o'clock (much too early for bed in mid-'60s Hong Kong). This accentuates not the curve of her back, as the New York Times review headline euphemistically put it, but the prominence of her bust, which must be pressing painfully against her too tight sheath—a clear mark of masochism. The pose echoes Dietrich's akimbo stances in The Blue Angel and especially Sternberg's 1932 Blonde Venus. It's an advertisement, a challenge, and a taunt.

Like the Dietrich photo, the Zhang still is not a film frame but a production shot. Taken by Wing Shya, the celebrated Hong Kong photographer and graphic artist who works on most of Wong's movies, it was published in the Voice, the Daily News (a decision I was involved in as an editor there), and the Times, where it took up a whopping 115 inches of prime real estate on the first page of the August 5 Weekend Arts. It also graced the cover of the July–August issue of Film Comment and is one of 13 images collaged on the U.S. film poster, where it was reproduced in a panoramic version that shows more of room 2046 than that version offered to the press on the Sony Classics website. On the poster, it sits above another image of Bai looking out at the viewer, but this time lying naked in bed and looking suitably vulnerable after her seduction by Chow: The latter image delivers a sadistic lash to the Zhang fancier, but her haughty expression and fetishizing clothes in the top still draw the eye more than her glowing skin in the lower.

Bai's shrouded eyes, announced by scimitar brows, stare imperiously down at . . . who or what? Chow, who in the movie peeps at her through a hole in the thin wall that separates their rooms? Wong? Wing? Us? All of the above, but most urgently herself. During the mesmerizing 27-second, eight-shot slo-mo sequence in the film (at the start of which Wing probably took the photo), Bai flits around her room getting ready to go out and earn her living. She adjusts the constricting collar of her dress, sips from a glass, puts on earrings, and assesses herself before mirrors. Her rapt narcissism, born of insecurity, and her na doom her to fall unrequitedly in love with Chow. An ominous counterpoint to her proud self-appraisal of her allure is Connie Francis's aching 1960 rendition of the rumba "Siboney" that ushers in the sequence: Written in 1929 by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and also heard in Fellini's Amarcord, the song is a lament for a departed lover— "If you do not come back I will die of love"—that augurs Bai's journey into romantic torment.

Take a bullet train to the year 2046, or even to the next five minutes, to recover the movie memories you've mislaid, and you may find yourself hurtling into a morass of self-deception. In cinema, as in life, the velvet light trap of the mind imperfectly recalls the images that flickered by at 24 frames per second so that we re member nothing we saw on-screen the same way twice, any more than we exactly remember experiences. As Mary Ann Doane wrote, interpreting Freud, in Femme Fatales (1991), "Memory is a palimpsest—the sum total of its various rewritings through time. The 'event' which is remembered is never really accessible as such." We are our own Rashomons, our own Wong Kar-wais.

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