I first saw The Transporter at an advance screening immediately after a local comic book convention. I was with a bunch of comic book guys, as well as my DVD Talk colleague David Walker. We all laughed our way through it and had a good time, but upon exiting, it was hard to say if we actually thought the movie was good. Amidst the debate, David wisely observed, "Come on, guys, we all know that if that was in Chinese, we'd be declaring it genius."
This story came to mind as I was watching My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-Wai's English-language debut. Its slow rollout means it has hit the Pacific NW several weeks after other markets, and many of the nation's critics have already given it fairly mediocre, if not outright negative, reviews.
Come on, guys, we all know if this was in Chinese, we'd be declaring it genius. If it starred Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Faye Wong, all of your reviews would be swooning.
Wong Kar-Wai hasn't changed his game all that much for the American market. My Blueberry Nights is in English, and the actors are all familiar faces from Western entertainment, and there the changes end. In fact, if there is one thing you can criticize the movie for, it's for being too Wong Kar-Wai. It hearkens back to the story cycle of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, and its biggest crime is not quite reaching their same heights. Parts of it do feel like a remake, as if the auteur were summarizing his oeuvre for the unfamiliar. That's not such a terrible thing. It's certainly better than European directors like Michael Haeneke or George Sluizer who do shot-by-shot do-overs and end up flailing in stagnant water. And one thing you can say for My Blueberry Nights, as Wong Kar-Wai's calling card to a new audience, it represents his previous work really well. No one renting Chungking Express or 2046 based on their enjoyment of it will feel like they were tricked into thinking Kar-Wai is something he's not.
My Blueberry Nights is constructed like a literary anthology, with Elizabeth (played by singer Norah Jones) acting as the doe-eyed observer that connects them all. The tale begins in New York, and it's worth noting that the first shot immediately after the title credits is of a subway train passing by a billboard advertising something "Cinderella." Though it's a detail a director with Kar-Wai's loose, improvisational shooting style finds by accident, it's not one that a director with his penchant for revision and meticulous editing includes by accident. He wants us to know this is a fairy tale. Lizzy is on a Cinderella's journey in search of the glass slipper that will confirm her prince.
Itching to get out of a relationship with a man who is cheating on her, Lizzy stumbles into a café run by British transplant Jeremy (Jude Law). She leaves her boyfriend's keys with Jeremy to give to the lout when he comes in for his pork chops. Jeremy reveals he has a bowl full of keys left by disappointed romantics, all with their own story. Each lover is like one of his pies. They might be apple, which almost always gets devoured by pie-hungry customers, or they might be blueberry, which ends every night whole. To give the underdog its day, Lizzy orders a slice of blueberry, and the two get to talking. Dessert and conversation becomes a nightly ritual to work that bad boyfriend out of the girl's system, but with the scumbag living just around the corner, a bigger change is necessary.
Lizzy hits the road, sending Jeremy postcards from her stops in Memphis and Las Vegas. She works as a waitress in bars, diners, and casinos, and My Blueberry Nights becomes about the people she finds along the way. There is Arnie (David Strathairn), straight-laced cop by day and alcoholic brooder by night, and his tempestuous wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), and then there is Leslie (Natalie Portman), a poker player to whom everything is a gamble. Through these people, whose tales have a touch of Raymond Carver, Lizzy picks up some pointers about the nature of human connection. It's a familiar Wong Kar-Wai theme--the randomness of our relationships and the persistent memory of connections we cannot break.
Wong Kar-Wai has always had a crush on Americana, and the neon of heartland watering holes slides right onto his aesthetic palette like it has always belonged there. His America is one we don't see anymore, and the nostalgic twinge it evokes is equal in power to the longing his characters experience. He and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Panic Room and, amusingly, the U.S. Funny Games) photograph it beautifully, with the sumptuous colors and tricky time signatures that the director loves. Some may blanch at the willful artistry on display, finding it forced or even too meandering. I don't have a problem with it. Kar-Wai's adoration for lovely imagery and visual repetition is no more pronounced than Terence Malick, the only filmmaker that springs to mind whom can compete with Kar-Wai in sheer terms of dreaminess. Both directors see life as a series of poetic waves, ambling ever closer to a resolution, but not following any static outline.
The cast Wong Kar-Wai has assembled all find their way to the director's rhythm. Even first-time actor Jones, whose role is often to just stand and watch, manages to serve her purpose, drinking it all in, the actress gaining confidence along with her character. The performance style of the ensemble is naturalistic, even if the dialogue and the construction of the picture are not. It's what gives My Blueberry Night its unique tone, falling somewhere between the fiction of Sherwood Anderson and the '60s films of Michelangelo Antonioni. There are a lot of bruised emotions and tattered dreams being uncovered here, and Strathairn, Weisz, and Law each have at least one scene where the heartbreak on their faces will break your heart in turn.
My Blueberry Nights is one of those movies that gets better the more I sit with it, and Wong Kar-Wai is one of those directors whose films improve with each viewing (this is actually my second time seeing My Blueberry Nights). You should know that going in, that the movie will require a little patience and your full immersion. To long-term fans of the director, the film may come off as a bit of a B-side, but that's okay, every artist needs one or two lesser works. Many consider Falling Angels to be a B-side, as well, and Wong Kar-Wai followed that with Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. While we don't know if there are more films of that caliber around the corner, standing on this particular corner watching ice cream melt and tears rolling should tide us over, and it's certainly better than sitting around complaining about what could have been or might still be.