My Blueberry Nights

(HK/China/France - 2007)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman
Genre: Romance/Drama
Director: Kar Wai Wong
Screenplay: Kar Wai Wong & Lawrence Block
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Composer: William Chang

I’ve yet to see a Kar Wai Wong film that wasn’t overrated, but early indications are that My Blueberry Nights will reverse that trend. Wong’s first English language feature may be far from a masterpiece, but even though Wong isn’t at his best when he’s pressed for time and thus sticking to a script, it’s by no means a mess. It’s Kar Wai Wong through and through, both exquisite and flawed. The imperfections are apparently noticeable now that the language and environment are more familiar, but Wong’s true character becoming more obvious doesn’t change the fact he’s a talented and intriguing filmmaker.

Wong’s films are successful because they sweep the audience away in the romantic mood. They are films taking place in the mind’s eye where everything is filtered through a longing, aching, or broken heart. Memory, especially the passionate feelings Wong’s romances deal with, tends to push emotion to the ends of the spectrum, causing characters to either be wholly idealized visions or the devil’s spawn. Wong’s cinematic manipulation such as richly saturating color, applying filters, and altering frame rate and film stock simply visualizes these conceptions.

Though Christopher Doyle isn’t behind the camera, what Doyle has said about filming the style of the director rather than bringing his own style proves to be accurate. No one would rate Darius Khondji as highly as Doyle, yet Khondji gives Wong the precise and beautiful compositions everyone has come to expect from a Wong film. It’s dreamily atmospheric with neon lights, utilizing shallow focus to elaborate interior shots through glass or whatever can possibly come between the actors and the camera. Khondji isn’t as restless as Doyle, but if anything that’s a positive.

The stylization of Wong’s dialogue may not be as apparent as his visuals, but it’s always been a projection of the character’s point view, particularly their memories and desires. It has never been naturalistic, though this isn’t as obvious when you are largely processing it through subtitles. Even in Cantonese, dialogue was never a strongpoint of Wong’s films. His narratives are rather aimless, as he’s better at circling around what he’s trying to say, and that makes for more interesting cinema than condescending preaching anyway. My Blueberry Nights is obviously going to be less successful since Wong isn’t working in his first language. That being said, I feel it’s more that it strikes us as inferior because we excuse awkward dialogue to translation problems and liabilities. Similarly, while there’s an exactness to Wong’s set design, he’s never strived for it to be in the department of realism. If this is suddenly an issue, it’s because having lived or spent time in these places the film isn’t meeting our perceptions of them. We see New York City in a different light than Hong Kong, startled by it being so calm and empty it’s disquieting, but this alteration has no particular impact on the film.

My Blueberry Nights is disappointing in that Wong continues to repeat himself. One might hope he could be more than a director of melancholic romances of unrequited love creating broken hearts who eventually start over, but Wong’s themes don’t change, which is perhaps as it should be given his excellence in the subject. Wong adds to his body of work largely by altering time and place. His last film set in contemporary Hong Kong was 1995’s Fallen Angels. In the Mood for Love and The Hand took place in the 1960’s, 2046 in said futuristic year, while Happy Together was set in Argentina and now My Blueberry Nights in the USA.

Wong’s preoccupation is what makes the human heart tick, and his films are capable of succeeding at any time or in any place because that’s fairly universal, especially in the fairy tale manner he deals with it. Where My Blueberry Nights clearly fails to reach the heights of Wong’s best Hong Kong films is in the acting department. The dialogue of those films was also diversionary and insignificant, but he had Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, who are among the best at expressing the unexpressed. Certainly a large part of the emotion in any Wong film is created by the visual style, which remains the same, but the best actors took it to another level through their ability to subtly express emotions such as desire, longing, and regret. My Blueberry Nights still doesn’t play events as being of increased significance, but it’s much talkier than Wong’s Hong Kong movies, sometimes bogged down to the point we wonder if Lawrence Block intended the script to be a play. The real problem though is while the feelings are thankfully still expressed through interest rather than declaration, the Hollywood actors are typically too focused on dialogue, and thus don’t do as good a job at surfacing the interior.

Wong had more success pairing an actor (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) with a well known singer (Faye Wong) in Chungking Express (partially because he also had Brigitte Lin to rely upon), but Norah Jones does fine in her acting debut. She’ll never be a great thespian, but keep in mind her role is simply to be a passive witness to the unfulfilled dreams and unrequited love of desperate hardened addicts. Her two encounters with Jeremy (Jude Law) bookend three short stories of rocky relationships, with Elizabeth (Jones) learning from the failure of others. There’s never much doubt she’ll start a relationship with fellow hopeful innocent Jeremy, the diner owner she meets at the outset when she’s trying to reconnect with her longtime boyfriend who recently left her for another woman. The slight wistful film is her 300 day road trip to purge the pain and heartbreak of the failed relationship before beginning anew with Jeremy, who she writes to from her various stops but never provides with a return address.

By far the best segment has Arnie (David Strathairn) and Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) as a couple who rip each other to shreds. Arnie is an alcoholic cop obsessed with wife Sue to the point he shows no interest in any other person despite the fact Sue has left him long ago for survival rather than indifference. He drags her back in every time he sees her, which is something she doesn’t try to hard to avoid given she frequents the same bar (Elizabeth funds her trip through short lived waitress jobs).

The only advancement for Wong is the story of Leslie (Natalie Portman looking about bad as she’s capable of as a bleach bland with short curls), as her problems are with her father rather than a lover. Further differentiation comes from the fact Leslie’s father never actually makes an appearance. Unfortunately, cast against type, normally naturalistic Portman fails to pull off her jaded all knowing gambling addict role, always seeming very much in a movie.

If Wong remakes The Lady From Shanghai, a near masterpiece from a better director that’s at least arguably better than any film on Wong’s resume, especially doing so with Nikoru Kidoman, that’ll be his first sellout. In the meantime, while this English language debut veers closer to an introduction for those with subtitlephobia than the bold faced entry in his filmography we always hope for, it does add a little to his resume, is interesting and pleasurable enough, and most importantly is clearly still a film by Kar Wai Wong.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *