Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights sparks a multitude of thoughts for me. Already an admirer of his previous work, I came to the film with some minor discomfort in need of assuaging. Funny thing about that discomfort. I didn’t even realize I had it until I was well into the film. And some of that realization made me uncomfortable with the discomfort itself.
Part of it was because the film is so beautiful on the surface. Wong Kar-wai has always been a master of color, hue, saturation, framing and time. He has always been able to make the passage of time a visual event, visceral, sometimes wistful, often a character within the story itself. Time moves across his screen, changes up, slows down, speeds up again. Blurs. Trails. Comes into focus. Then stops again. And he has always chosen actresses who can make the camera love them. Wong Kar-wai may be, among current directors, the best at presenting female beauty.
But it was the aspect of new language and locale in this film that stumped me the most. Wong Kar-wai was born in China in 1958, then moved with his family to Hong Kong at the age of five. He went from speaking Mandarin to having to learn Cantonese almost overnight, utilizing countless hours at the movies to help that transition. Becoming a filmmaker almost seems like fate, given his story. Perhaps making yet another transition was fate as well.
My Blueberry Nights is his first movie in English, and the first movie of his I’ve seen with predominantly American actors. I loved his earlier films set in Asia (Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046), starring great Chinese and Japanese actors. Even though I needed subtitles to understand the dialogue, I felt at home with the world on the screen, connected in a strange way, while another part of me sensed the foreignness and was even more involved. And the soundtrack just heightened the effect. Wong Kar-wai, like Haruki Murakami, is a Jazz aficionado, and a lover of American and British pop tunes and classic standards. He mixes this in brilliantly with his story lines. It’s all the more effective given the provenance of the music and the settings of his films. The contrast. The jarring juxtaposition that looks and sounds so smooth on the screen.
This time, however, the music would still be American and European, but the setting would be, too. New York, Memphis, parts of Nevada and California. No broad cultural contrapuntal. No delightfully jarring mix.
But music was still a key, as was the language, and I found that it didn’t take that long for it to begin to work for me. It didn’t take that long before I didn’t care anymore that I wasn’t watching another of his visually stunning films set in Asia, with Asian stars speaking Chinese. Once the movie created its own world, it’s own set of rules and timing, I settled into that world, and Wong Kar-wai’s artistry did the rest.
Music probably started the whole project. The film stars Norah Jones, a gifted singer/songwriter, the daughter of Ravi Shankar, and yet another embodiment of cultural change, fusion, transition and its beautiful effects. Wong Kar-wai decided to do a film with her as the star long before he started making it. A previous short film of his was the basis, but Norah Jones was the raison d’etre. It would be her first starring role. Another gifted singer/songerwriter, Cat Power (Chan Marshall), stars as Jude Law’s ex-girlfriend, Katya, and two of her songs grace the soundtrack.
Which brings us closer to the story itself. I know, it took me long enough!
So, we have Norah Jones as Elizabeth, wandering into a little cafe in New York, owned by Jude Law, who plays Jeremy. She’s a bit frazzled, tired, and upset after discovering her boyfriend ate at that diner with another woman. There’s some nice symbolism regarding a bowl of lost keys and Elizabeth returns to the diner a few more times. She and Jeremy strike up a rather guarded friendship that neither really understands initially. Though Jeremy is quicker to sense its possibilities. Blueberry pie and ice cream mix with the wonderful visual palette of the film. The eyes get their dessert often enough.
Elizabeth soon decides that she needs to leave New York. This is often a move people make after a traumatic breakup, and probably accounts for most of the great geographical discoveries through the centuries. Columbus, no doubt, was jilted prior to asking for funds for his famous voyage. Brendan the Navigator was thrown out of his house by his Irish girlfriend after coming home too late one too many times. Leif Erickson’s girlfriend did the same thing to him. And Marco Polo left Italy for the Orient because he forgot his mistress’s birthday three years in a row.
Elizabeth becomes Lizzie and Beth and other variations of her full name along the way, and meets David Strathairn, Rachel Weitz and Natalie Portman as she moves west. She writes postcards to Jeremy back east, telling him about her new acquaintances, their lives, their tragedies, choosing a form of communication without the risk of direct responses in the moment. The story within the story involving David Strathairn’s character, Arnie, a policeman by day and a drunk by night, is moving and could reside inside the painting above. His ex, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weitz), left him for another, perhaps many others, and he can’t let go. Oddly enough, either can she, even though she’s mostly gone. Wong Kar-wai gets a lot out of small moments and deceptively simple plot lines. There is a universality in play that is never overtaken by the strong color mix, the music, or the idiosyncrasies of the characters.
But it is Lizzie’s time with Natalie Portman’s character, Leslie, the gambling daughter of a gambler, that really sets the stage for her to figure most things out. They briefly play a much milder version of Thelma and Louise, do a sun-drenched road trip to a hospital to see Leslie’s father, and then part company, strangely enough, on the upswing.
I liked the film. A lot. I don’t think it’s as strong as 2046, which is a masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned. Nor is it quite as good as the others I mention above. But it gets to you, creeps up on you, becomes more than just a pleasant diversion with beautiful visuals. It’s really quite wonderful in the way it’s framed, the beginning and the end, the lost keys and the open doors and the letting go and the moving on. What seems too simple at first glance becomes not a matter of simplicity at all but of lived and loved universals. And, though it is far from “realistic”, there is a deeper truth to the movie that helps us let go, move on, give up our keys and go through yet another door on our way to . . . .