The headlines today--or any day--reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.
Wong Kar Wai makes beautiful films. If you saw In the Mood for Love, 2046, or Days of Being Wild, you know how sensuous and luxuriant the Hong Kong filmmaker’s visual style is. His penchant for slow-mo sequences with 50s American pop/soul music playing in the background creates some truly breathtaking cinema.
My Blueberry Nights—the director’s first English-language feature—is just as remarkable from an artistic point of view. However, compared to his other films, Nights never quite feels as special or real or… something. Perhaps because it’s in English and we don’t quite give actors as much grace when they perform in our native language, but I really didn’t connect with the actors that much in this film (with the exception of Chan Marshall in a brief cameo).
Norah Jones is the star (in her first screen role), and though she’s not terrible, she’s just not equipped to give the role the depth it deserves. Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn and Natalie Portman round out the cast, and each has a few good moments, but on the whole they never quite embody the sort of sensual mystery that Wong Kar Wai’s films are so apt to capture. Then again, this may also be my limited western perspective on what Wong Kar Wai is visioning through eastern eyes. And herein lies the film’s biggest strength and biggest weakness.
Wong Kar Wai’s films have always excelled at navigating the dialectical tensions—visually, tonally, thematically—between east and west. When one lives in Hong Kong (a longtime British colony), I suppose this tension is borne into you. In Nights, Wong Kar Wai aims to make a deeply American film, though it features the sort of non-linear, mystical time-warp structure that his Hong Kong films often follow. The result is a bit messy and boozy and surreal, with moments that hit and some that definitely miss.
The film encompasses a vision of America that one would expect from a non-American artist. The understanding of America here is thoroughly mediated by postcard imagery, iconography, and pop-cultural exports that have long defined this country for the rest of the world. This includes a Hopper-esque New York City (dingy cafes under the train tracks, noir-ish wet streets, flickering neon signs), an Elvis-haunted Memphis (full of stilted lovers, drunks, and barroom brawls), and a desolate Nevada desert (full of casinos and highways made for muscle car convertibles). The imagery of Americana is also heavily defined by food—blueberry pie ala mode, steak and potatoes, cheeseburgers and fries, etc., which is interesting at a time when films (Ratatouille, Waitress, Bella), seem to be exploring the cinematic joys of food like never before.
Of course, the vision of America Nights envisages is also defined through the story. It’s a story in which each character is ending some relationship but then starting a new one—forgetting the past and taking a new path, as it were. It’s about movement and possibility and second chances, fully in keeping with the popular literary mythos of “open road America.” Indeed, the film toys with “road-movie” as its genre (Norah Jones’ character begins in NY and gradually makes her way out to Nevada by the end of the film), and the final scene brings it all back to the beginning—providing a semblance of T.S. Eliot (“to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”) to chew on, along with a big juicy slice of blueberry pie.
In the end, Nights is an imperfect though respectably ambitious ode to America from an outsider voice. I enjoyed the film in the way that I enjoyed German director Wim Wenders’ last film, Don’t Come Knocking, which was also a road movie that heavily invoked pop mythologies of Americana. It’s nostalgic more than prescient, lyrical more than challenging. Good bits of cinema… just not great.