Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Once More, With Feeling, Or Not

Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights

Every time I watch Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's (arguable) masterpiece In the Mood for Love, I get a ravenous desire for cheap Asian noodles. Not a craving, mind you--a ravenous desire that if not satiated will last days, days I spend in anguish just thinking about, obsessing over, how I will get my hands on some MSG-laden noodles. I'm like a junkie in need of a fix. Experience has taught me to watch that film with some good take-out--or at least a cup of ramen.

This is strange since I can't remember that many shots of really appetizing-looking food in the film at all (for food porn, see The Vertical Ray of the Sun or Big Night or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.) That's how transportive Wong Kar-Wai's filmmaking is; he films an encounter at the noodle stand, and I feel like I'm there: pushing through the crowd, yelling to have my voice heard, feeling the heat from the steaming pots of noodles, smelling them. If I had to pick one word to describe his filmmaking, it would be "sensual."

However, "sensual" is not a word I would ascribe to WKW's latest (and first English language) film My Blueberry Nights. Case in point: Despite all the money shots of gooey vanilla ice cream melting in blueberry pie, I not once craved--nor got a sensation of--blueberry pie. I just thought, "ice cream melting in pie." I also thought of how sexual the shot was, but that thought was unaccompanied by desire or feeling as well. There was no depth. The film wasn't an experience so much as a bunch of pretty pictures tenuously held together by a threadbare plot. (This coming from someone who, generally, likes her plots threadbare.)

Actually, compared with most WKW films, My Blueberry Nights has a fairly concrete and identifiable plot. (Can you imagine trying to write plot summaries for his other films? In the Mood: Two cuckolds become friends, are bereft about their marriages, fall in love, maybe. Chungking Express: a fast-food-stand server pines for a regular who is pining for his ex; meanwhile, another regular pines for his ex but finds a diversion in a smuggler with a blond wig. Ashes of Time: martial arts masters do very little fighting, a lot of pining for one another. Fallen Angels: who even knows.)

Here's Blueberry Nights: a young woman (played by a wooden Norah Jones), spurned by her lover, finds solace in the company of a café owner (a really appealing Jude Law) and then goes on a cross-country road trip to forget about her ex-lover, where she meets many "colorful" (read: stock) characters. I miss all the pining.

Jude Law in the classic Tony Leung role

I'm not being glib. One of the problems with Blueberry Nights is a lack of urgency that characterizes WKW's other films. That feeling that if you don't get the girl, your life is not worth living. To a non-romantic, or to anyone who hasn't seen a WKW film, this sounds a bit ridiculous and melodramatic, and it is, but who hasn't felt this way at some point? And every time I see a WKW movie and am overwhelmed with longing or loneliness or romantic feelings or even hunger, I feel like this is why I watch films. His films aren't just meditations on these things, they are these things. It’s the whole experience thing I discussed in my last post.

So, why does Blueberry Nights lack this urgency? First, there's Norah Jones (who isn't a cringe-inducing actress, but just has no presence); she doesn't so much act as react, though that's partly the script's fault. She's supposed to be a heartbroken mess, but she just seems like a perfectly well-adjusted girl who just was dumped by a guy whom she wasn't that crazy about to begin with but was accustomed to and so thus feels a little lost. This is not the stuff of WKW movies: No ambivalence allowed.

Jude Law's character, I thought, should have been the protagonist. A man with an interesting, not quite mysterious but maybe a little intriguingly hazy or murky past, who is pining for a lost girl who comes to his café and cries about her broken heart while gorging on his leftover blueberry pies. Law's is the classic Tony Leung part--he's also as dreamy as Leung. And he seems real, unlike Natalie Portman's character (a spitfire gambler) or Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn's fraught couple with a penchant for drinking and fighting.

Another reason why I think Law should have been the protagonist is because WKW doesn't understand women, completely. This isn't a bad thing; WKW does not usually pretend to understand women but tends to look at them--and film them--with a mixture of bemusement and awe. (The one exception I can think of is Faye Wong's character in Chungking Express, who plays a lovesick fast-food worker, and who is more empathetic than mysterious and seductive.)

Repression is also missing. One of the characteristics that make WKW's films so unbearably (in a good way) heartbreaking is the compulsion--or expectation--to repress one's desires or feelings. For this reason, his films aren't very talky, and this has made him find other ways to convey characters' thoughts and motivations. Here, though, everything is much more open (I don't know if this is merely the way he views American culture, in contrast with his own). People just talk, talk, talk, but there is no subtlety, and, because characters can just talk, talk, talk, there is not this urgency and longing to reach out to someone, this hunger for human connection that drives my favorite WKW characters to despair. I'm not saying I want characters to be despondent--I love, for example, Chungking Express, which is this sweet romance between lonely, inarticulate, crazy romantics--there's just no sense of struggle, of self-doubt, of repression in Norah Jones "journey," and there's really no obstacle keeping her from her destined love.

Of course, there are a bunch of other problems with Blueberry Nights: The camera work is jarring without serving the themes or narrative; the dialogue is, often, awkward; I miss WKW's regular cinematographer, Chris Doyle. But I could take or leave those. The romance--gut-wrenching, heartbreaking romance--is what I can't live without.


ammie said...

Well, I certainly want to see some of his other films now... And maybe eat some noodles :)

Dante A. Ciampaglia said...

I, for one, have been craving blueberry pie since hearing about this movie. So, like, for a year! And that thought of how good a slice of pie would taste right now certainly allowed me to make it through MBN. Until I heard Lawrence Block's crappy dialogue. At those moments I just wanted to throw pie at the screen.

Raquel Laneri said...

Oh, have you only seen Bluebeery Nights? In the Mood is a masterpiece. Lots of people I know prefer Chungking Express, though. Fallen Angels is really visceral and raw--and really good too.

Raquel Laneri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
monster paperbag said...

Wong Kar-Wai is a master of film. Absolutely.