Wong Kar Wai is one of today's most original and visually unique directors. His highly stylized, non-linear storytelling is more like experiencing a dream than watching a film. He seeks to communicate sensory impressions over quantifiable details. His plots pale in comparison to his stream-of-consciousness poetry. And how exactly does one describe the plot of a poem? It is a thing disjoined, impressionistic, ephemeral and open to interpretation.
Internationally acclaimed in his native Hong Kong, Wong is hoping his visual and philosophical technique translates for Western audiences in his debut English language feature, My Blueberry Nights. Like his ravishingly beautiful In the Mood for Love and 2046, the director's latest film is less about narrative and more about the sort of sultry visual moodiness that lingers with us long after the facts of the story have faded.
When we first meet Elizabeth (songstress Norah Jones in her screen debut), she is a woman suffering from emotional shell shock. Night after night, she wanders into Jeremy's (Jude Law) Manhattan diner in a trance-like daze, searching for an absent boyfriend. Full of empathy and omniscient advice, Jeremy looks forward to Elizabeth's visits. But she vanishes from his life and his diner the night she finally finds her lover canoodling back at his apartment with another woman. Heartbroken, she flees the city.
Not knowing whether she is running from or toward something, Elizabeth ends up in Memphis, Tennessee. There she befriends the troubled, alcoholic, cuckolded cop Arnie (David Strathairn) and his estranged wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz; note how her character's name looks American but sounds Chinese). Sharing days at the diner and nights at the bar, Lizzie, as she now calls herself, immediately understands Arnie's pain but is, perhaps, most surprised that she can also identify with Sue Lynne's problematic motivations.
When she next hits the road, Lizzie now goes by Beth, a cocktail waitress in a Nevada casino who falls in with Leslie (Natalie Portman), a down-on-her-luck gambler with a very personal score to settle. Leslie either holds the key to Beth's future or will leave her stranded in a vast, sweltering desert that exists both geographically and allegorically.
Everyone Elizabeth/Lizzie/Beth meets is facing excruciating circumstances, most greater even then her own. As she witnesses the agony of their loneliness and the emptiness of their relationships, she begins to comprehend that her physical travelogue is but a metaphor for a greater journey of exploration going on within herself, a journey from heartbreak to self-discovery. Will she keep running, from one place to the next, never staying long enough to be vulnerable, or will she double back on her own tracks and confront her greatest anguish and perhaps even stumble onto her greatest joy?
My Blueberry Nights is trademark Wong Kar Wai. Slow and deliberate, the film is saturated with vibrant, neon colors, bleached personalities and dreamy digital esthetics. Trains, a key motif in almost all of Wong's films, are shown often, constantly in motion from one place to the next, never sitting still. Though the action is set amidst vast metropolises, we see the cities in miniature only, from the perspectives of corner diners and smoke-filled bars. Only the inhospitable Nevada desert is seen for what it really is, vast and desolate.
Wong rarely allows his camera to get too close to the actors. The camera always seems to be trapped behind some sort of barricade that obscures our view. It slides this way and that, desperately searching for a better view of the action. Its desperation may have something to do with a comment Jeremy makes to Elizabeth when he admits to spending his free time watching the recordings from his own diner's security camera. "We miss so much, even though it is going on right in front of our eyes."
My Blueberry Nights ends with the least amount of ambiguity of any of Wong's recent works. His films continuously wrestle with love coming apart or never quite connecting in the first place. But for an American audience—which by and large disdains ambiguity and adores tidy endings with satisfying summations—he delivers the closest thing to a happy ending I've seen in his work.
For all that, My Blueberry Nights doesn't quite work. It is a slow, uneven script populated with thin characters and a lack of emotional gravity. While the director's lavish style and prowess behind the camera remain intact, his work loses much of its exoticism in English. Far from home, Wong's powers seem to wane. He certainly still knows how to seduce us, but can he keep us?
There's no disputing the fact that Norah Jones is one of the most talented and luxuriant singer/songwriters in the business. Her day job is certainly still her strongest. Jones gives a bland, uninspired performance, which never hooks us despite the fact that it does get better as the film goes on. We can never relate to her character because we are all too aware of the untrained Jones working so incredibly hard at looking like she knows what she's doing. It's not that Jones is a bad actress, per se, just an untrained one.
My Blueberry Nights is like a short film that goes on for too long. It is a flimsy, if inoffensive, addition to Wong Kar Wai's canon, an insignificant diversion at best.Discussion starters
- Trust is something Elizabeth has little of, yet she discovers it with the most unlikely of friends. Why is it so important that we trust and seek out the best in others, no matter how many times we have been hurt?
- People are mirrors who define us, Elizabeth says in the narration, and with each reflection we understand ourselves that much better. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- When Elizabeth asks Jeremy why he doesn't simply throw away all the sets of keys customers have left at the diner over the years, he responds that to throw them away would close certain doors forever. What does he mean?
- When Elizabeth asks Jeremy why no one ever buys the blueberry pie, he says, "There's nothing wrong with the blueberry pie, just people make other choices. You can't blame the blueberry pie, it's just no one wants it." What does he mean in light of the film's title, and why, after he is done speaking, does Elizabeth immediately order a slice?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
My Blueberry Nights is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violence, drinking and smoking, but not language or sexuality. Though Natalie Portman's outfits are revealing at times, a brief barroom brawl is primarily responsible for the rating.
Photos © Copyright The Weinstein Company
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