China, Drama, Films, France, Hong Kong, Reviews, USA

My Blueberry Nights

A dazzling ode to neon lights, beautiful but as hollow as a glass tube…

Like many auteur Asian directors, Wong Kar-wai has long relied on funding from the west to make movies, so the inevitability of an English language debut must have long been on the cards. But did he have to make such a predictably hash job of it?

When Elizabeth (Norah Jones) finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her, she leaves his flat keys at a local cafe for him to collect. Making a regular rendezvous to check in with the owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), the two start to develop an odd connection, as Elizabeth tucks into leftover blueberry pie.

Realising she’s still not getting over her ex, she decides a life change is in order. She leaves town on a long journey around America in the hope of discovering herself, finding work where she can. Along the way she meets characters who themselves are lost: Arnie (David Strathairn) a Memphis cop with a self-destructive alcohol problem due to never getting over his wife leaving him; Leslie (Natalie Portman) a gambler who’s never reconciled with her father.

Eventually Elizabeth realises what she was really looking for wasn’t so far from where she began…

Working with crime novelist Lawrence Block, Wong Kar-wai’s script hardly allows its characters to breathe from the inane and unimaginative spouting of platitudes. They’re flat, predictable, and seem to have fallen out of a lesser romantic comedy from the 1980s. Of course, it’s typical of Kar-wai to use subtlety and implication rather than fill out his characters, and often that works well – but for that he relies heavily on the actors, and that’s where he came unstuck…

It’s not that Norah Jones is exactly terrible – she’s just nowhere near up to the job of supporting the movie, especially with the majority of additional input coming from Jude Law – who like most British actors always a lot more interesting when playing a cad – and Natalie Portman – who seems to have forgotten how to act now she’s grown up. It’s obvious that Kar-wai wanted a somewhat blank muse to reflect the characters she meets, only he got even less. Though to be fair, with a script like this even the most experienced actor would have trouble defining their role with so little.

Of course, Kar-wai would have been attracted to working with a pop star, in the same way he’s done with Hong Kong actors like Leslie Cheung, Jackie Cheung and Andy Lau in the past. The difference being that while in the East actors seem to make that transition seamlessly, and are often far better as actors – case in point the late Leslie Cheung, perhaps one of the most charismatic actors to have graced the screen this side of Johnny Depp – those in the West rarely make a good job of it.

It’s interesting that in her two minute cameo Chan Marshall, aka notoriously batty singer Cat Power, makes a far more beguiling and engaging appearance as Jeremy’s ex. Indeed, for those of us fortunate to have seen her often muddled live performances, she seems perfectly normal, an enormous acting feat. She even gets one more song on the soundtrack to Norah. Did Kar-wai miss a trick not casting her as the lead?

Elsewhere only David Strathairn truly shines as the fullest, most convincing and easily most affecting character in the film. The tedious overuse of slow-motion, a recurring technique for Kar-wai but never before used to this extent, belies a truth that the scenes lacked poignancy without it, that the performances just don’t connect to the audience in the way he would have wanted them to. As with 2046, Kar-wai never seems completely happy with his movies, cutting an extra 13 minutes after the lukewarm reception it received from critics when it opened the Cannes Film Festival.

The soundtrack, too, seems rather repetitive considering the involvement of Ry Cooder, as one song becomes the soundtrack to each vignette. And please, Otis Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ for the heartbroken cop in Memphis? We all love Otis, but you might expect that Ry, having just worked with Mavis Staples could have been a little more imaginative. Perhaps even James Carr’s ‘Dark End Of The Street’?

The gloss and shine of neon lights filter nearly ever scene from the movie – of course Elizabeth would end up in Las Vegas, isn’t that what the films being leading up to? The home of bright, neon signs, and just as hollow as she seems to be. For one of Kar-wai’s few films without the award-winning cinematographer Chris Doyle on board, Darius Khondji is respectable replacement, even if his vision adds to a more optimistic vision than we’ve seen before, something strangely anomalous in a Kar-wai film.

Indeed, the film even has a happy ending – what? – rather than the more emotional, heart-rending conclusion we’re used to from Kar-wai where his leads never quite get to together (because they’ve left it too late, or they’re dead, or whatever). The result is something of a Wong Kar-wai lite, distilled from familiar themes but totally lacking in their original poignancy.

That’s not to say the director hasn’t kept his tendency to continually refer to his own work. According to Kar-wai himself, the initial idea came out of a scene scraped from his classic In The Mood For Love which would have cast his leads Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in a contemporary café, which eventually became a short film of it’s own.

My honest opinion? Go see In The Mood For Love.

Even if you’ve seen it before…

My Blueberry Nights is released on DVD in the UK today.

Home media details

Distributor: Optimum (UK)

Good presentation of the film, but the extras lack the sort of clout that might have been available.

There's footage of the Cannes Press Conference, which looks a bit cheap if you ask me, and some 'character studies', which amounts to the actors talking about their roles again.

The short documentary on the making of the film, 10,279 miles since Hong Kong, is actually better and more informative than you might expect. But you can't help but wonder could something at least have been done with the edited 13 minutes, let alone the short film that inspired My Blueberry Nights?

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Andrew Heskins
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