Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

I’ve been waiting a long time to see Wong Kar-Wai’s new film, My Blueberry Nights. It debuted at Cannes and suffered numerous delays on its way to American theaters. So, I took a detour to Hong Kong DVD. The film has been unjustly maligned by a lot of critics who just don’t understand how Wong Kar-Wai makes films. The reason I love his works isn’t because of the narrative, it’s the way he’s able to create moments like no one else. The images he captures, the feelings he creates, he speaks the language of film in a totally different way than virtually anyone else, and that makes every film of his an absolute joy to watch.

The American setting is certainly a change for WKW, at first it is a bit weird to actually hear his poetic dialogue spoken in English. Some initial exchanges come off a bit unnatural, but give it a couple of scenes and you get in the groove of the film, a place where people speak in flowery metaphors and simultaneously say exactly what they’re feeling and dance around the subject with great skill.

WKW’s previous film shot outside Asia, Happy Together, was consciously about the experience of living somewhere different, culminating in Tony Leung’s triumphant return to Hong Kong. This version of America feels like it’s in the same place as his previous films. Jude Law’s café could be right around the corner from the Midnight Express, and Norah Jones’ Lizzie could easily be the sister of the slightly unhinged Faye Wong character from Chungking.

So, you could argue that this movie is a retread of what he’s done before. Many scenes felt like echoes of his previous films, particularly Chungking and Fallen Angels. The thing is, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. This is WKW’s genre, tales of lonely people moving through cities, seeking connection. I absolutely loved his two 60s films, but it’s nice to see him mix things up and do a movie set in the present, with some of the visual energy of his 90s classics.

If you describe the narrative of the film, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special, a woman tries to get over a breakup by traveling across the country. It’s in the execution that almost all the value comes from. Christopher Doyle is missing from the project, but his spirit is still here. It feels like half the shots in the movie are shot in the low shutter speed style I named “The Chungking Effect.” The Chungking effect is used to isolate moments, to seemingly freeze time and immerse you deep in the world. The colors in this film are just unparalleled, it feels like neon streaks just hang in the air everywhere we go. Motion blurs and abstracts, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

The visual peak of the film for me is the almost indescribably beautiful conclusion to the Natalie Portman segment of the film, as perfect a moment as film can create. Driving away from Las Vegas, Lizzie and Leslie wave to each other from their cars, the camera perched on the hood, we can see their faces, their emotions. The sun is setting, colors fill the air and Lizzie says something like “I tried to learn to not trust people. Thankfully I failed.” I generally speak about WKW as a visual filmmaker, but he has a way of cutting through the bullshit that we all speak and saying these profound human truths. I loved the sentiment of that phrase and it just cut through me at the end. It was an a really powerful conclusion to the story, a perfect filmic moment.

My one complaint about the visuals in this film has to do with the editing. The cutting speed is a bit quicker than I’d have liked. At times, it feels like he cuts between the beyond real WKW shots and more conventional cinematography, there were a number of times I found myself wanting to linger longer in a beautiful image only to be quickly taken away. That problem arises most during the early scenes with Jude Law and Lizzie, but recurs occasionally throughout. This might be a first viewing problem though, once I see the film a few more times, I won’t need to linger on those images as much.

Watching this movie really shows you what film can do. Virtually every movie, from the most mainstream garbage to Oscar winning acclaimed movies, speaks with the same old Hollywood grammar, focusing on using the images in service of the narrative. That’s a valid approach, but it’s not the only way. Wong Kar-Wai doesn’t use the images to tell you the story, he uses them to make you feel the story, to linger in the emotional moment and engulf you in the world of the film. The only other director doing this is Terence Malick, the two of them speak a totally different language, and it makes their films among the best in the world.

I speak a lot on here about how TV has surpassed film as the primary visual storytelling medium. That’s indisputably true, no two hour movie is going to match the narrative or character complexity of a work like The Wire. But, TV is a less precise medium, when you’re doing a sixty hour story, it’s impossible to make every shot a great one. In a two hour movie, it is possible, it’s possible to create an overwhelming mood that just can’t exist on TV. This movie uses what only a film can do, and that’s why it’s so satisfying an experience. There are so many breathtakingly gorgeous shots in this film, it’s the best shot film I’ve seen since either The New World.

Rather than delve into the story, I’m going to talk about a few scenes that I really loved. Other than that driving scene I mentioned earlier, my favorite scene in the movie is the brief interlude with Jeremy and Cat Power, a.k.a Chan Marshall, a.k.a Katya in the movie. This scene has such a feeling of import, of many years of emotion, and you really feel what the two of them are feeling. Chan reminds me of Tori Amos, she’s got this really zen, Earthy feeling about her. There’s no anger there, just an acceptance of what happened. Norah Jones was generally strong, but had a couple of shaky moments. Chan is right on the entire time and delivers my favorite performance in the whole movie. There’s something so soothing in the way she carries herself, and that scene alone keeps the Jeremy character in the emotional foreground, despite the fact that he’s absent for so much of the film.

Another really exciting moment for me was the sudden appearance of Frankie Faison, a.k.a The Wire’s Burrell. I literally exclaimed “Burrell!” when he appeared. He’s got a sleazier vibe here, and does a nice job. That whole section of the story, with the morning/night parallels was classic WKW.

The structure of the film is designed to show Lizzie that holding onto pain and sorrow only causes sadness, allowing her to free herself from pining for the guy and get together with Jeremy. The movie feels like it could be slotted into that year long gap in Chungking Express, where Tony Leung waits for Faye to return from her journey. It’s about Lizzie growing up and expanding her world. To do so, she has to deal with some very troubled people. She sees the pain in Arnie, the refusal to move on, and realizes that she could become the same. Life gives us pain, but we have to turn it into something better.

I loved the totally different feel of the diner and the bar in those scenes, the optimism of the day and the sad desperation of the night. I’ve heard some people cracking on Rachel Weisz’s performance in the movie, but I think she’s great. Wong Kar-Wai movies have a different kind of acting than others, one where the emotions float a bit closer to the surface, and I think all these actors do a great job with it.

And, Wong Kar-Wai is able to make people look beautiful and glamorous in a way no other director can. I love simple details, like Lizzie’s straw hat, Leslie’s red glasses, the way the hair falls over Sue Lynn’s eyes when she speaks to Lizzie at the end. He makes Norah Jones look like the most beautiful woman in the world, and at times, the saddest. WKW once said there’s nothing so compelling as a woman crying, and the way he shoots her, that’s true.

The casino section is another great one, pitting the totally cynical Natalie Portman character against the gullible and trusting Lizzie. I think the poker scenes have a touch of cliché about them, we’ve seen this kind of material before, but I love the second half of the story, when they’re on the road, and Leslie finds out her father has died. It’s the kind of moment that only WKW can do, she doesn’t behave like a normal person, her total disbelief that he could be dying heightens the emotional impact of what’s happening. I really like the scene where her and Lizzie lie in bed together and try to understand each other. I’ve already mentioned the closing bit, where they drive away from each other, but it deserves a repeat, it’s just unbelievably beautiful.

Watching a WKW film set in America makes you realize how much he transforms the places he shoots. His New York looks more like the fantasy Hong Kong of his previous movies than the place I live in, the blurred subway cuts through a city that feels a block over from the killer’s apartment in Fallen Angels. Even when he gets out of NYC, he keeps things inside, there’s not that much distinctly American about the environs. It’s the same dreamspace.

The one element of the film that feels distinctly American is the music. WKW uses music as well, if not better than any other director around, but this film felt a bit underscored. I’m not as big a fan of the rootsy American sound he’s got here as of the hyperpop scores for Chungking and Fallen Angels. I loved the scene set against Cat Power’s “The Greatest,” but there were a number of moments where I would have liked a bit more music.

Ultimately, this is a Wong Kar-Wai movie, and it has all the greatness that entails. People still have this misconception that great films must be about weighty things, about death and destruction and history being made. But, the emotional journey of a single human being can be as profound as any of those things when you’re allowed to emotionally engage with that journey. WKW shoots this film in such a powerful and engulfing way, it makes virtually every other film out there pale in comparison. I’m sure a lot of reviews will compare the film to the sugary, but substance free confection of the title, but in this case, the style is the substance because the style is what gives the film its emotional heft. Told in a ‘traditional’ style, this wouldn’t be a particularly notable movie, but a WKW movie is about the moment, not the arc, and the moments here are as wonderful as anything he’s captured on film.

So, he’s far beyond pretty much every other filmmaker out there, how does this film stack up against his own work? I don’t think it’s his best work, it lacks the total emotional devastation of 2046, and can’t quite match the reckless pop energy and exhilaration of Chungking and Fallen Angels. I’d say it’s closer to something like Days of Being Wild. Unlike a lot of people, I think 2046 is one of his best movies, but it was so consumed in a specific aesthetic, it’s nice to see him scale back and do something else. I’d been waiting for this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. He’s still the world’s best filmmaker, and in my opinion, the best filmmaker of all time.

With no new project yet confirmed, it could be a while before we get new WKW. What I’m really waiting for now is that new cut of Ashes of Time. I love that movie so much, but I feel like I haven’t really seen it, due to the unbelievably shitty DVD transfer of the only available version. Hopefully they’ll get that together, and get Blueberry a theatrical release here in the States, I’d love to see it on the big screen.


1minutefilmreview said...

Hi Patrick,
Nice blog, we absolutely love Wong Kar Wai films including this one. Free to drop by for a quick movie reviews though.


Patrick said...

Thanks, I've added you guys to my RSS feed, so I'll be checking out your stuff in the future.

1minutefilmreview said...

Thanks. We've added yours too.

Anthony Hoang said...


First off, great site and I really like your take on movies/comics/t.v.

I watched My Blueberry Nights recently and I disagree that it is a great movie. I think the main difference between this movie and other WKW movies is that this lacks any excitement or tension that his other movies had. Even Chungking Express, WKW's most upbeat movie had a tone that was darker at times. I think the problem with My Blueberry Nights stems largely from a main character that is not particularly interesting. Norah Jones acts more as a vessel for the audience to view the other characters but we don't care for her or her plight very much. Contrast this with any other character in his films, they all have unique personalities and ways of looking at things. Lizzie is just too okay with everything that happens, seems to have no real opinion on matters.

Another problem is the setting. In Chung King Express we see the energy you feel from living day to day in a crowded city, and their loneliness is contrasted with that vibrant energy. In Happy Together we have people who are trapped in a foreign setting trying to make sense of their relationship and the world around them. These movies use the setting as a challenge for these characters. They are all dealing with heartache and can't escape it partially because of their environment. In My Blueberry Nights, Lizzie has freedom to go whereever she wants. She takes a road trip to Memphis, then Vegas. It all seems so slight. Unlike Happy Together where the journey home has an emotional impact, when Lizzie goes home to NY I don't see her being any different at all. I didn't see any growth from her as a person.

I think the mood of the film was great. It's surprising that as popular as WKW has become, his style has not been immitated to death here in the states. It still looks and feels fresh. I think it's my least favorite of WKW by far but still very intersting compared to most movies coming out these days.

Patrick said...

I'd pretty much agree with that, though I think it's better than As Tears Go By. I think that lack of tension is a central problem. Lizzie's issues are the same as a lot of the people in Chungking or Fallen Angels, but he doesn't find a way to make it relatable in the same way. Hopefully his next will be a return to form, we shall see.