My Blueberry Nights
Friday, April 18, 2008
My Blueberry Nights was originally supposed to open on Valentine's Day (which would have been perfect), and I did a retrospective on Wong's work on February 14 in anticipation of the film's opening. But fears about how the film would do in the U.S. prompted The Weinstein Company to move the opening date around. The film is finally opening now and while it is not Wong's best work, it still delivers moments of rapturous romance. And a flawed Wong film is still head and shoulders above anything else out in theaters.
My Blueberry Nights opens in New York with Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones) in the midst of a traumatic break up. She's cooling down in a small diner run by Jeremy (Jude Law at his appealing best). He seems to be a wise soul when it comes to romantic break ups. He has a bowl full of keys left by lovers who have just terminated a relationship. In fact one set of those keys are from his failed romance. Elizabeth leaves her keys as well and soon heads off on a journey across the U.S., trying to learn to let go of her relationship. She sends Jeremy postcards from each of her stops and he begins to grow attached to her.
Rachel Weisz in My Blueberry Nights (The Weinstein Company)
Along her journey, she meets up with other lost souls. In Memphis, Arnie (David Strathairn) agonizes over his wife (Rachel Weisz) who has left him for another. In Vegas, a gambler (Natalie Portman) acts as if she needs no one and resists the attempts of her father to get her to come back home. Meanwhile back in New York, Jeremy tries to resolve his past relationship with Katya (Catpower's Chan Marshall).
As I mentioned, plot is not very important. If you want plot, look somewhere else. But if you want to be swept up by a romantic mood or if you are charmed by moments of cinematic perfection, than Wong is the filmmaker for you. My Blueberry Nights doesn't have the richness of In the Mood for Love or the goofy charm of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, but it is gorgeous to look at and it has a sweet, endearing soul. At one point, Jeremy, in an attempt to explain why he's still at the same diner, explains that his mother once told him that if he were ever to get lost, to just stay in one place and she would find him. Jeremy has remained in this place because he still harbors hope that his lost love will come and find him. It's a beautiful concept.
Similarly, he explains that every night all the other pies are consumed but there is always one lonely blueberry pie untouched. Elizabeth, expressing concern for the pie, asks why. Jeremy says there is nor explanation and it's not the pie's fault that no one wants it. That seems to summarize the way Wong's characters sometimes end up. It's not their fault that no one has chosen them.
Jeremy also explains how he watched the security camera video of Elizabeth's last visit to his diner, a visit that ended with Jeremy giving her a delicate kiss as she slept. He explains that he watched the tape so many times that it lost its color. Again this is such a perfect way to convey a sweet and aching longing, and to show how a character's obsession can be played out. So while My Blueberry Nights doesn't deliver as strong a film as Wong's earlier works, it has enough of these exquisite moments to satisfy me.
Working with cinematographer Darius Khondji, rather than his usual collaborator of Christopher Doyle, Wong delivers a film of neon radiance. Khondji has done a lot of unimpressive mainstream Hollywood fare but has also racked up some lovely art house hits such as Delicatessen and City of Lost Children , as well as some edgy work on films such as Seven. In My Blueberry Nights , he delivers a film of aching beauty and seductive colors.
Norah Jones and Natalie Portman about to hit the road in My Blueberry Nights (TWC)
Jones has been much criticized for her lack of charisma as Elizabeth. Although I she doesn't bring a lot to the film, she doesn't really hurt it either. She is something of a blank slate meant to reflect the characters around her so her blandness was somehow appropriate. But her presence is nothing like Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love . Cheung had depth, Jones hits only the surface. Similarly, Law is charming as Jeremy but he doesn't convey the kind of complexity that Tony Leung did in either In the Mood for Love or Chungking Express . Maybe America just struck Wong as a simpler, more direct place and his characters reflected that.
My Blueberry Nights (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violence, drinking and smoking) is yet another chapter in Wong's ever expanding cinematic book. It's a minor chapter but one that plays on familiar themes in fresh ways. If you're a fan of Wong's you have to see it just as you wouldn't skip a chapter in a book by your favorite writer. Each film reflects what came before and hints at what's to come. If you've never seen a film by Wong before, this isn't a bad one to start with since it is a bit more accessible and linear than his work generally tends to be.
I had a chance to speak with Wong earlier this month by phone. Here's what he had to say about his first English language film.
BETH ACOMANDO: "This is your first time shooting in the U.S. Was there anything in the American landscape that interested you in particular?"
WONG KAR-WAI: "Basically America is a big country and there are so many varieties, and I know them only through films and photographs and other works. I have worked in New York and Los Angeles before but for the rest of the country, it is for me the first time. So before we shot the film, we took three trips with my director of photography across the country because I have to understand the landscape. I have to understand the journey of Elizabeth. But it's very hard because there are so many interesting locations and each city has its own historical background and accent. So in the end we have to decide to choose what is essential for the film and for myself. So we decide to shoot in the South because I think there are certain elements like the music and like Tennessee Williams is my favorite writer. So I wanted to have one chapter happening in the South.
BA: "When you shot in Buenos Aires for
you ended up making Buenos Aires look like Hong Kong is terms of the cramped quarters. Some of your New York shots look like they could also be from Hong Kong as well. Was that your intention?
WKW: "Not really because the two characters in Happy Together, they are Chinese, they are from Hong Kong, and are trying to have a new life in Buenos Aires. In the end you realize that they are just trying to create their own world out of this foreign city. But for My Blueberry Nights it's different. The characters are not Chinese. It's an American girl living in New York and having a problem. I choose New York is because it's the town that I'm most familiar with in the U.S. It reminds me of Hong Kong and mostly the scenes happen inside a diner and this diner can be anywhere, right? I think this is the only connection. I think this is a universal thing, all diners look the same everywhere."
BA: "In the past, most of your films have been about the impossibility of love. This seems to be the first time you really allow for the possibility of love."
WKW: "We shot the first three chapters in seven weeks in the summer and the last chapter in one week in New York. So by the time we finish all the summer sessions we haven't decided how the film should end. There are two options: either there's a reunion or when Elizabeth is finally back in New York, Jeremy's gone already. So we cut the picture during the break and I'll say it is the characters of Jeremy and Elizabeth that convince me that the reunion is the most satisfying answer."
BA: "A friend of mine is a fan of your films and he described them as & 'a dream of watching the person you love through a doorway, it's watching someone you love through a doorway almost dreaming of them. Watching them through windows, at a distance.' Would you agree with that?"
WKW: "I think your friend, he's a romantic person and he put it in a beautiful way. For me it's more like practical reasons. It's like when we're shooting in New York, basically this caf e is extremely small and the reason I like this caf e is that it has a very nice window and doors, which allow me to look at this space from outside. It reminds me of a painting of Edward Hopper, Nighthawks. So for this reason I choose this caf e."
Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks (center) and Wong looking through the diner windows in My Blueberry Nights (TWC)
BA: "But it seems like even if it's practical reasons that push you to those decisions, they are the artistically and aesthetically correct choices, they work effectively toward your themes and mood."
WKW: "Luckily we manage."
BA: "You always seem to chock these things up to luck and don't seem to want to take credit for what works well in your films."
WKW: [laughs] "Well sometimes I just feel like I got to be honest because I don't think about this during shooting and basically it's by instinct that we do it this way. I don't want to put too much emphasis on this. I think this is only technical side of making a film."
BA: "Well I wish everyone had those kinds of instincts. And speaking of instincts, there's a shot where Elizabeth is looking up at her ex-boyfriend's apartment and the word & 'One' from the One-Way sign is framed into the shot. It that one of those instinctual moments? One of those improvs?"
WKW: "It is basically the location. I didn't pay any special attention to this. I do something. I do some tricks. If you pay attention you will notice the numbers on the doors of the building for the boyfriend's place is 2047. [Wong recently made a film titled 2046 .]"
BA: "Food frequently plays a part in your films, whether it's the fast food place in
or the noodle stand in
In the Mood for Love
, or the lonely blueberry pie that is left untouched every night in Jeremy's diner.
WKW: [laughs] "I spend a lot of time as a writer in cafes and coffee shops to write. So I notice a lot of behaviors in cafes. So you will see a lot of eating scenes in my movies. I realized that when people go to coffee shops or restaurants, it's not only for food. Sometimes it's only an excuse. You can see all this chemistry. Maybe you want to go and have a lunch with someone not because of the food but because you just want to spend some time with them. And sometimes you go to a place you order something, it doesn't mean that you really enjoyed it because you just wanted an excuse to hang around. So I think for Elizabeth in this film, it's like the blueberry pie is her excuse to hang around in this place and to find someone to talk to who happens to be a stranger so she could go home and sleep well. And no one knows about her problems. I think this is the whole point about their communication because it's not two-way communication. That's why she just sends postcards. People ask me why does she send postcards, it's so old school. Today people send emails and text messages. But I say she doesn't expect any response. She just wants to say something to someone to get rid of her problem."
BA: "That's a bit like Tony Leung at the end of
In the Mood for Love,
he whispers something into a hole, and it's like he doesn't expect a response but he has to get it out. Jude Law also has a wonderful scene in
My Blueberry Nights
where he calls someone with Elizabeth's name and talks to her as if she were Elizabeth, even though he knows it's not really her."
WKW: "It is very silly right?"
BA: "No it works, it's about creating that illusion in your head and getting satisfaction from it. I also like the story Jude's character tells about his mother telling him that if he ever gets lost to just stay in one place and someone will come and find him."
WKW: "It's from Jude himself. I asked him to improvise something for that scene. I ask him, just imagine yourself not being Jude Law, just be this diner owner. He said fine. I did a lot of waitering before I became famous so I know this world pretty well. So he improvised a lot of things, like talking to his staff and making all these jokes. It's basically what I got from Jude in this whole chapter that it makes this character so real."
BA: "Music is always important in your films, tell me how you picked some of the music in this film?"
WKW: "The soundtrack for the film was decided during the trips that we took before shooting. We had to drive 15 hours a day and we realized that from one state to the other the sound is different because the only thing we can listen to is the radio. And the music and the songs are very different. For instance, when we get to Memphis, it was very late at night and we just drop by a bar and once you get in a bar you hear Otis Redding. So I think this is a very good reference for this space for the audience. The film has four chapters and I just want to make sure they realize each time Elizabeth is in a different town now."
BA: "Do you still feel that you are making one long movie?"
WKW: "Yes. I really think this is a very special experience because it allows me to express myself in a different context and a different language, and at a certain point I see this film as like a personal documentary because it is, like the characters in the film, a reflection of my personal mindset at that point. In some ways this film is about letting go and it can also be seen as my feelings about my previous work. It's something I've been doing and I want to see what will be the difference if I put it in a different context and in a different language. I don't see it like the others coming back. This is kind of a different interpretation. I've shot these scenes before but the feeling is quite different
BA: "So if you go back to Hong Kong will those things change back?"
WKW: "No. Then I will be like Elizabeth trying to find this counter and pretend to sleep you know, waiting for the kiss."
Companion viewing: Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and for an antidote to Wong's lush romanticism check out Jude Law in Closer
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