I fell in love with Chungking Express. There are no other words to describe it. I fell for the world writer-director Wong Kar-Wai created in the 1994 film, and I couldn’t wait to return. Chungking Express combined the comforting reassurance of the familiar with the exhilaration of the new. Wong is unmistakably a French New Wave baby, one of Jean Luc-Godard’s far-flung creative progeny. For countless filmmakers, Godard is the fountainhead. Filmmakers take from him what they need: Quentin Tarantino gravitated toward the Godard who obsessed over American genre films and macho tough-guy posturing. Hal Hartley embraced Godard the formalist and game-player.
Wong Kar-Wai, on the other hand, has embraced Godard’s romanticism and fetish for everything American. And unlike the Godard disciples who’ve held onto a need for structure, Wong tends to assemble his movies on the fly, through improvisation and dialogue sometimes crafted the morning of shooting or the night before, as Godard did with most of his ’60s films. The script is but a blueprint. This lends an exhilarating element of spontaneity to his films, and scares the holy living bejeesus out of studio executives.
Wong has conducted his career without a safety net. He finds his films while making them; they exist forever in the moment. Audacity has been the cornerstone of his career. He regularly takes chances that border on professional suicide, whether that means following up the much-loved Chungking Express (which super-fan Tarantino distributed domestically through his Rolling Thunder distribution company) and its semi-sequel Fallen Angels with an intense, erotic exploration of a crumbling gay relationship in 1997’s Happy Together—which won the Best Director prize at Cannes—or following up his rapturously received 2000 tale of unrequited love (In The Mood For Love) with 2046, a famously troubled, years-in-the-making sequel that implemented science-fiction elements.
For years, there was talk that 2046 would be Wong’s undoing, that he’d gotten in over his head and was taking years to deliver a movie that was rumored to be a borderline-incoherent mess. Wong proved the naysayers wrong. 2046 received a mixed-to-ecstatic reception from critics largely blown away by the intricacy and depth of the world the filmmaker had created. Wong did the seemingly impossible: He made a sequel to an almost universally beloved masterpiece that was worthy of the original.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Wong made his English-language debut with 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, which he shot in the United States. Wong Kar-Wai’s American debut was a moment I’d been anticipating since I first saw Chungking Express. It’s always fascinating seeing our nation reflected through outsiders’ eyes. There’s something incredibly flattering about the idea that artists like Vladimir Nabokov, Jean Luc-Godard, and Wong Kar-Wai can fall in love with an American culture that involves Pat Boone and Hee Haw as well as the novels of William Faulkner and the music of George Gershwin.
When Wong Kar-Wai made The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” the musical centerpiece of Chungking Express, he was reflecting our pop culture back to us through the filter of a French New Wave that morphed and mutated our literature, music, and film into dizzying new shapes.
So the prospect of Wong finally making an American film was tantalizing. Yet the cultural reaction that greeted 2007’s My Blueberry Nights barely qualified as a mild yawn of disappointment. The film wasn’t panned, derided, or viciously mocked. It was not perceived as a terrible embarrassment. It was barely perceived at all. In fact, it was barely released. One of our most important international filmmakers made his English-language debut with Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, and Rachel Weisz, and nobody seems to have even noticed.
That’s both unfortunate and understandable. My Blueberry Nights is about as inconsequential a film a major filmmaker can make that isn’t called Midnight In Paris. The defiantly minor My Blueberry Nights screams its smallness and lack of ambition from the mountaintops, though after pushing 2046 up a mountain for four years, it’s understandable that Kar-Wai might gravitate toward a project that didn’t require endless exertion.
My Blueberry Nights opens with the sexy smoke of Norah Jones’ crooning accompanied by sensual images of colors and textures joining in a steamy rush. It isn’t until later that we realize that what we’re watching is a blueberry pie à la mode slowly congealing. Only Wong Kar-Wai can transform something as borderline gross as food congealing into a feast for the senses.
In case the sensual opening wasn’t enough of a tip-off, we know we’re safely ensconced in the romantic realm of Wong Kar-Wai when British bartender Jude Law picks up the phone at his cozy little New York eatery—like all bars and restaurants in the director’s films, it exists primarily as a photogenic way-station for dreamers, romantics, and lost souls—and explains that he doesn’t remember his customers by their names, but rather by what they eat. That’s actually one of the less precious conceits involving Law’s character, and a very Wong idea; people have more intensely romantic relationships with inanimate objects—in My Blueberry Nights, Law has an achingly tender bond with the keys patrons leave behind, and with his beloved security footage—in his films than in any other filmmakers’. In Wong Kar-Wai movies, even non-sentient objects get in on the love.
In her film debut, Norah Jones stumbles into Law’s café and life seeking the whereabouts of a man who ordered pork chops with her the last time she was there, and is devastated to discover that her cheating boyfriend has been masticating, and more, with another woman. Or at least Jones is supposed to be devastated; instead, she barely seems peeved. When an actor utters a line like “I hope you both drop dead,” it should contain at least a slight hint of disdain, if not outright contempt. Instead, Jones delivers the line in a flat, affectless monotone that robs what should be a key moment of its potency.
That’s a shame, since Jones eventually relaxes into a perfectly acceptable performance. Jones is aces when the script calls upon her to do nothing more than look pretty and sad in the background. She’s less an actor than a reactor, but My Blueberry Nights fucks her by giving her a big dramatic scene right off the bat.
My Blueberry Nights feels unmistakably like a Wong Kar-Wai movie. The problem is that in the rough early going, it feels too much like a Wong Kar-Wai movie. In its elliptical treatment of beautiful people uttering quasi-poetic statements against a backdrop of lurid neon lights, it sometimes borders on clunky self-parody. The film begins to find its footing once Jones meanders into a sad Memphis restaurant where alcoholic cop David Strathairn tries to drink away the poisonous memory of cheating wife Rachel Weisz between doomed stints in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Here, Wong’s genius as a visual storyteller comes to the fore. All it takes is the obscene swagger in Weisz’s strut to convey just what she means to Strathairn and how devastating her loss must be. While Jones’ opening heartbreak fatally doesn’t register, Strathairn’s pain bleeds through every frame. When it comes to conveying emotion, words are a poor substitute for the soul-shaking power of a great song, so Wong smartly lets Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” carry the emotions of the Strathairn/Weisz portion of the film.
My Blueberry Nights regularly hits screamingly wrong notes without ever losing the tune or sacrificing the all-important mood. Jones botches her first, most important scene before establishing herself as an appealing presence. Rachel Weisz overacts egregiously at times and shouts some of her lines way too loudly, but musters up the requisite gravity for a big monologue about how she fell in love with a cop, of all things, and how everything went awry.
The screenplay, which Wong co-wrote with crime novelist Lawrence Block, meanders with a vengeance as Jones rambles out of Weisz’s life and into the life of a desperate gambler played with movie-star dress-up theatricality by Natalie Portman, who drips unconvincingly honeyed charm as a card shark who has always gotten by on the kindness of strangers and the gullibility of suckers.
Portman and Jones end up taking a road trip together that brings out the best in both of them. Portman tries to infect Jones with her cynicism and distrust of human nature and fails; Jones re-introduces Portman to some of her better angels. “Sometimes we depend on other people as a mirror to define us and tell us who we are. And each reflection makes me like myself a little more,” notes Jones, deep into her spiritual journey. Each new encounter brings Jones closer to a place of openness and lures her back to the bar where everything began.
My Blueberry Nights is so subtle in its seduction that I barely even noticed I was being seduced. It’s a film of modest but considerable charms, a moony, swooning romance that meanders purposefully until it reaches full circle and returns to the beginning. The pleasures are primarily visual in nature. It’s the elegant dance between Darius Khondji’s elegant cinematography and a soundtrack full of gutbucket soul. It’s the melancholy mood of bittersweet romanticism the film sustains in spite of periodic missteps.
Perhaps My Blueberry Nights got the reception it deserved. It feels not so much like a major statement from an important filmmaker as it does a sprightly aperitif before a heavy meal. It’s the kind of agreeable trifle a genius makes between big movies. In that respect, it’s similar in conception, if not execution, to Chungking Express, which Wong originally conceived as a silly little project to distract him from the daunting task of completing his kung-fu epic Ashes Of Time. The big difference is that no one had huge expectations for Chungking Express (or its companion piece, Fallen Angels), while critics and audiences understandably expected something at least substantial from the maker of In The Mood For Love and 2046. A lovely, sweet little wisp of a movie would not suffice from a grandmaster like Wong Kar-Wai. Here at My Year Of Flops, we’re a little more accepting.
Late in the film, Jones asks Law whether he remembers her as the girl with the broken heart or the girl who liked blueberry pie. For the sake of clarity, Law would be better off remembering her as the girl who liked blueberry pie, because in the lovesick world of Wong Kar-Wai, everyone has a broken heart, at least until they find someone to heal it. In this case, that’s Law and Jones, who nail the ending just as dramatically as they screwed up the beginning. The film follows suit: After a rocky start, it evolves into a lovely, unabashedly romantic sleeper ripe for rediscovery.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success?: Secret Success