Worst. Wong Kar-wai movie. Ever.
Wong Kar-wai movies used to be mini-events in our lives, so we were probably more disappointed than the average viewer. It’s hard to believe that My Blueberry Nights (MBN) was made by the same guy who made a gem of a road movie about ten years ago, Happy Together (HT). Both are road movies about lonely souls and wayward lovers, so it’s hard not compare the two, but unfortunately, while HT was “fucking poetry” (as one friend of ours said at the time), MBN was not only lackluster but at times downright difficult to stomach.
Remember the the faux-philosophical, quirky voice-overs that usually dominate Wong’s films? Well no more (or very little) of that—what we get instead is Wong’s attempts at actual dialogue, which has never been his forte, and although the script was written by an English speaker, we still ended up with some of the worst dialogue we’ve heard in a long, long time.
If there’s one way that’s sure to help you avoid bad dialogue, it would be to refrain from overly obvious, tendentious metaphors—like using “doors” and “keys” to talk about the human heart. “Some doors are not meant to be opened”, and “some people stay behind those doors” are case in point. To make matters worse, the slow tracking shots, shot through windows and glass for the sake of getting refractions, reflections, and distortions—might have been cool if used sparingly, but alas, like everything else, we get beat over the head with it to the point where it gets distracting.
Things take a turn for the worse during the second act of the movie, when Elizabeth (Norah Jones) decides to “take the long way to the other side of the street” and embarks on a cross-country road trip. We catch up with her in Memphis, where we run into yet more aimless people in search of their existential compass. Elizabeth crosses paths with a dysfunctional couple: he’s an alkie cop called Arnie (David Strathairn), she’s a slatternly southern belle got married to young and lived to regret it called Sue-Lynn (Rachel Weisz).
Normally, we worship at the altar of Rachel Weisz, and we think she has fair bit of actorly range, but playing fallen southern woman might is still a bit of a stretch for her, and we know, there are difficult precedents to live up to, like Scarlet and Stella. Weisz’s affected southern accent and white trash angst are awkward; but then again, maybe it’s just us. It could be because we know she’s British, and it could be because we just think her sexiness has something to do with her intelligence and good looks, not the low decolletage, feigned sexpot thing.
The scenes where she appears were shot in a really cheesy way as well—whenever she walks into the bar, everyone turns around to look at her, making the whole thing feel like some kind of WKW directed shampoo commercial.
As for David Strathairn—well, we don’t know whether to admire or pity him. It can’t really be all that fun for an actor to play a role where you’re slouched over the bar looking bleary-eyed and comatose half the time, else emoting stupid lines like “you’re my goddamned wife and I’m your goddamned husband”—and then turning violent. Yet despite having next to nothing to work with, he somehow manages to inject some dignity and humanity into his character.
Next, Elizabeth’s journey takes her to Nevada, where she meets Leslie, played by Natalie Portman. We hate Portman enough to warrant anger management therapy, but she’s been taking a lot of small art film roles, which kinda allows us to forgive her. She plays Leslie, a roving, professional gambler and, like so many of Wong’s other femme fatales, is on the run from an emotionally damaging relationship with a boyfriend/husband/father figure.
Our first impression upon seeing Portman on screen was “miscast”, as in they shouldn’t have gotten someone this young and fresh-faced as Portman for this role. The quaint southern accent, bleached bouffant hairdo, low decolletage, and skill for reading people (and men in particular) might have looked more natural coming from a middle-aged woman like Felicity Huffman, Joan Allen, Judy Davis or Joan Cusack. On the other hand, one of our friends pointed out that this was perhaps the point of her character—Leslie is pretending to be all grown-up and stocked up with all of life’s answers. And although youthful anti-gravitas is the new gravitas, there was none to be found.
Nonetheless, Portman’s performance was one of the few highlights of the movie. For one, her dialogue and her scenes were a bit more varied than that of the other characters. We see her in more than just once place, which is more than you can say for the other characters: Jeremy is always in his cafe, Sue-Lynn (Rachel Weisz) is usually seen at a bar and mostly at night. With Leslie, we get some more old-fashioned dramatic elements—we see her lose all her money at a poker game, ask Elizabeth to borrow all her saving in order to buy in again, offering her Jaguar as collateral. Now that’s some good old-fashioned dramatic tension! Portman is the only actress in this film that’s given any room to breathe inside her character.
Lastly, a few notes on style: overall, it seemed that MBN was far less cinematic a film than we would have expected from WKW. Largely absent are the wide-angle lenses that WKW used quite liberally in the films he made in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Not only did everything look cool and distorted with that lens, but its greater field of vision meant that it captured more information, more than just the actor’s body or her face—you could see their the kind of environment they lived in, the floors, the magazines, the bed, the chairs, the telephones—these inanimate objects that are, in their small way, also part of Wong’s palette. In contrast, MBN’s use of long lenses and close-ups verges on the monotonous and really doesn’t bring any of the places to life. In fact, we’d go as far as to say that the cinematography of MBN ends up shutting us out rather than inviting us in. It seems to be composed of an endless montage of close-ups, shot with a longish lens, from a slightly lower than eye-level angle. You see a lot of faces and expressions, shot from an angle as to make them seem flat—the space of the characters’ interaction becomes discombobulated and abstract.
On the other hand, other WKW films, such as Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love brought Hong Kong (of different periods) to life a way that few films can. The lonely rides in buses and subways and the dizzying and improvised journeys on motorcycles and ice-cream truck take us through the neon-scapes of Hong Kong (or Taipei, or Buenos Aires) and are some of the most energetic and visually electrifying sequences in Wong’s films. MBN seems kinda half-ass in comparison: time-lapse sequences with the moon, cityscapes and clouds are cliche, and speeding up the film stopped being creative several decades ago. Maybe we’re being too fanboi here, but we caught ourselves thinking more than once that things would have been different had Christopher Doyle shot this movie.
Which brings us back to the comparison with HT. Yearning, separation, distance—these are all classic WKW themes, and in HT you see them all, crystallized in the nuanced performances of Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung. Love, sex, tenderness dependency, heartbreak, betrayal, forgiveness, apathy, the whole gamut is there, and that’s really what made HT such a great film, and why MBN simply can’t compare. See the film if you have to, or if you feel obliged to watch every film that Wong makes. But don’t say that we didn’t warn you.
- Rotten Tomatoes has several reviews of the film.
- Norah Jones wasn’t the only singer to debut in this film: there’s also a small cameo with Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power.