In the pantheon of international cinema Wong Kar Wai (or Kar Wong Wai if you’re hip with the traditional Chinese pronunciation) is a household name. His notoriety in the United States may not be on the same plane but thanks to a new film things might change.
My Blueberry Nights is currently in the midst of a fairly mediocre national release playing mainly in select art house theaters and garnering so-so reviews from critics. At first glance Nights is the new film starring America sweetheart jazz singer Norah Jones. Starbucks musical idol aside, My Blueberry Nights is an exciting release since it marks Wong Kar Wai’s first feature length foray into the English language.
Besides being a fairly decent film, if not a little flawed when it comes to the script, Nights serves as a big step for the Hong Kong director. The leap from native to foreign tongue for any director is a difficult one. Some of the greatest international filmmakers have attempted this feat–some succeeding, while others simply went back to what they know best. Nights is by no means Wai’s best film but in terms of visual style and its unique take on the romance genre it is a respectable premiere effort to tackle the American movie going audience.
Wong Kar Wai is probably best known for his unique use of color, mood and a fascination with stories tackling the complications of romance. His most well known work, 2000s In the Mood For Love is a beautiful period piece, among other things, that deals with the theme of rejection, lust and restraint unlike anything else out there. It’s the film that truly propelled him from indie international darling to global master.
In the Mood For Love is also the middle piece of an unofficial trilogy of films in his repertoire starting with his sophomore effort, Days of Living Wild and ending with 2046. The three films are not connected in terms of plot but rather through certain characters and above all themes. The most common of these themes, rejection, is the driving pulse of almost all of Wai’s films serving as an unofficial trademark for the filmmaker along side a knack for cinematographic beauty.
Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express was hardly seen outside of Hong Kong and China upon its release but was resurrected by Quentin Tarantino in the mid nineties as a title in his short-lived overlooked film distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures. Besides being a beautiful film in itself Expressshowcases another of Wai’s most common cinematic traits, the use of interconnecting stories revolving around the proletariats of society–shop owners, beat police officers, café employees, prostitutes, and others on the brink of society. If there is one film that serves as the perfect introduction into Wai’s canon it’s Chungking Express.
While My Blueberry Nights is set on U.S. soil rather than Hong Kong or Southeast Asia, with an English language script in lieu of Cantonese dialogue, it is without a doubt a Wong Kar Wai film. His trademark themes are still present. His love of cinematography and knack for eye candy colors is evident and his usual choice of Asian movie stars–Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Valerie Chow–is replaced by the likes of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and of course Norah Jones.
The casting of Jones as the lead is a curious one but ends up an overall success. The musician’s trademark lulling piano music plays in the background throughout the film reminding viewers that hey, not only can I still sing but I can also act! Overall though she carries the film quite well and despite some cliché romantic movie moments (the upside down kiss featured on the poster being one of them) My Blueberry Nights is a fairly sweet love story despite its predictability.
Rather than go through the plot, which is as much a road flick as it is a romantic film, it should be noted that the theme of dealing with rejection and moving on with one’s life is the primary catalyst for the film. Wai’s use of common folk is also a big factor of Nights with the majority of the characters set in either rundown coffee shops or rundown bars. If there is one fault to take away from Nights it’s that the casting of pretty boy Jude Law and the beautiful Jones as down on their luck coffee shop employees seems to be a bit of the stretch. Then again, Wong Kar Wai has always been drawn to beautiful actors.
The two characters that work the best in the film are David Strathairn, as an empathetic alcoholic, and Rachel Weisz as his wild but in the end emotionally conflicted ex-wife. Their scenes manage to steal the show away from Jones and their storyline is one of the more fascinating that Wai’s weaves in the film.
Still nitpicking aside My Blueberry Nights is a beautiful film to experience visually and serves as a nice little intro into Wong Kar Wai’s work for American audiences. If it prompts even a handful of moviegoers to check out the director’s other films than if anything else it is a success. In terms of future English language projects for Wai only time will tell.
Fellow Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee made the cinematic trip from international filmmaking to Hollywood and back with great ease and success and perhaps Wai aspires to head down the same route. My Blueberry Nights is not a perfect film but when it comes to romantic dramas, it is ten times better than anything starring Patrick Dempsey or the recycled Meg Ryan style of fluffy filmmaking. See My Blueberry Nights but then dive into Wai’s past films to see how it’s done in the Far East.