Film Review: Wong Kar-wai’s “My Blueberry Nights”

My Blueberry Nights opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 to profoundly unenthusiastic notices, and when it finally opened in the States in early 2008, the critical reception wasn’t much better. I find the overwhelmingly negative reception to this film rather baffling. While I won’t argue that it is his best film (that would be In the Mood for Love), it is a beautiful piece of work that finds the patented Wong style – speeded-up pixilated motion, swooning romanticism, an unerring instinct in finding the perfect song to fit a mood – successfully transplanted to the US. Cinematographer Darius Khondji proved a worthy successor to Wong’s erstwhile collaborator Christopher Doyle, and Wong retained his most important creative partner, editor and production designer William Chang Suk-ping, to quite salutary effect. The New York diner where the film begins and ends recalls most closely the Hong Kong fast-food joint that was a principal location of Chungking Express. We rarely look at the characters head on: we peer at them through windows, down corridors, through doorways, a voyeuristic style reminiscent of how the characters are viewed in In the Mood for Love. And while Norah Jones is most certainly no Maggie Cheung, just as Jude Law is no Tony Leung, My Blueberry Nights can definitely stand, though maybe not as tall, with his other work.

The film is essentially a road movie, its central figure Elizabeth (Norah Jones) taking “the longest way to cross the street.” At the outset, Elizabeth, distraught at her boyfriend leaving her for another woman, stumbles into the diner owned by Jeremy (Jude Law), a cheerful fellow who seems outwardly to have few cares, although later we learn he has his own sad tale of thwarted romance. He pontificates to Elizabeth his unique philosophy which uses the popularity of different flavors of pie to explain human behavior. After one night at the diner after hours, when she cries her eyes out while watching footage of her ex and his new belle taken with Jeremy’s security camera, and passes out drunk afterward, she sets out on a cross country trip to escape her pain. Elizabeth ends up in Memphis, working as a diner waitress during the day, and nights at a dive bar. Elizabeth sends letters to Jeremy periodically, while Jeremy in New York frantically calls every diner in Memphis in an attempt to find her. In the film’s midsection, Elizabeth’s story takes a back seat somewhat to those of people she meets along the way: an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) pining away and drowning himself in drink over his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz). Later, Elizabeth works at a casino where she runs into a blonde-haired card shark (Natalie Portman). Elizabeth mostly stays silent while she listens to other characters’ laments, which helps to keep Elizabeth an appropriately opaque character, while perhaps making things a little easier for the inexperienced Norah Jones.

Wong uses songs to typically expressive effect, in much the same fashion as the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express and Nat King Cole’s Portuguese tunes in In the Mood for Love. Here, Wong makes great use of Cat Power’s “The Greatest” (Cat Power herself shows up in a great scene as Jeremy’s lost love) and Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” The marriage of these songs with Wong’s visuals exhibit the old magic we’ve come to expect with his films. A little faded, perhaps, but it’s still there. The narrative situations, scripted by mystery writer Lawrence Block along with Wong, are admittedly a little trite on paper, but Wong’s strength has never been in narrative, but in mood and atmosphere. Comparing what happens in this film to situations in the real world, as many critics seem to have done, is rather pointless because Wong is not presenting a real world, but a facet of his distinctive cinematic universe. Setting the film in such iconic American locations as Memphis and Las Vegas allows Wong to refract such overly familiar locations through a lens that is so adept at creating inimitable, fetishized images such as Jude Law licking the cream off Norah Jones’ lips as she sleeps. My Blueberry Nights, far from the failure it has been widely interpreted as, is instead a beautifully made experiment that takes Wong out of his comfort zone and melds his style successfully to the American landscape.