The art of Wong Kar-Wai, both luminous and numinous, is dauntlessly irrepressible in its romanticism. Like a body of water with a deceptively smooth surface against which a brilliant sheen of light playfully dances—under which a hidden bubbling tumult secretly resides—Wong's pictures are spectacles of bleating, bellowing amour. It is within these excursions into the matters of the heart that Wong's characters caress one another. Wong's characters are all in essence serving prison terms, and the prison constructed for them is one of neon lights reflecting in damp night streets. Time itself, and memory—that most quintessential human tool, gift and burden, which haunts, spoils and entices—are elastically bent until the characters no longer seem capable of steering their own ship. The bedazzling visualizations Wong employs are incisive punctuation marks, such as the skip-frame slow-motion and fast-motion or freeze-frame, with which he chronicles the perturbation and despondency, passion and depression. The tools at Wong's disposal do more than communicate—which is naturally their chiefest raison d'etre—they implement wordless poeticism, both amplifying and moderating moments either too nimble or serene or agonizing to ever be forgotten no matter how his characters, imprisoned by love, try. His most favored tool may be the folding dissolves, which he lays atop one another like a stack of steaming pancakes. It may be said that Wong's most repeated punctuation mark is a visual realization of an ellipses. It is that ellipses that most distinguishes and beckons, and perhaps even frustrates those unacquainted or impatient with the director's marked, seemingly innate form of ever-burgeoning nascence of being. To label it an indulgence is a poor misreading; Wong's cinema glistens like that body of water, in which the characters both struggle and thrive. Mastery of the waves, the ebb and flow, may be temporary (perhaps truly temporal), but the thrill guarantees that the characters slowly unlearn their own histories, and resume their swimming.
My Blueberry Nights, the director's first feature film made in English, shot in America, has been assailed by Wong aficionados and novices, admirers and critics, alike. For a significant portion of the critical establishment, the film was a gangrenous revelation—a fat, easily slain cow of a film, which provided them with sufficient armaments to assault Wong's entire filmography. The lack of subtitles, it was said, pulled the veneer of artfulness away; Wong was the artistic emperor with no clothes, a visual fetishist, perhaps, whose pictures were repetitive, exhaustingly lonely affairs (how simultaneously apropos and lethally invalid a reception, considering that repetition, loneliness and affairs in no small part constitute much of Wong's cinema). To hear the words in English reduced their import, and all connotations and ramifications tied to them were consequently harmed. What the move to English may have demonstrated, however, was that dialogue—scripted by Wong, and in this instance co-written by Lawrence Block—is at best secondary to the optical carnival of sensuous visages that radiate and pulsate with so much electricity. Unfortunately, that My Blueberry Nights is a more minor work than all that which has come before in Wong's oeuvre only seemed to ensure the film's lackluster critical fate.
The uncomplicated story is different for Wong—it's as much an ode to Americana as, say, The Chungking Express celebrates Hong Kong—and probably compelled critics to suspect him of pandering to the American audience. After all, surely Wong must be a cynical exploiter of emotion. Merely glancing through his entire canon, however, Wong is in actuality the world's most vital romantic filmmaker. That the circumstances of My Blueberry Nights seem almost archaically symmetrical—the advertising and most apparently acclaimed and cherished shot of the film (above) speaks to the film's aesthetic and narrative symmetry, which could be mistakenly interpreted as being “too neat,” “too tidy.” Wong's films are riddled with melancholy and anguish, but the swimmers do fleetingly defeat the force of nature, for however long. As the tagline to The Chungking Express noted, “If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years,” connecting pineapple cans with their dates of expiration to resilient love. That line could be appropriate for all Wong films (sans, perhaps, Happy Together, about a pair of homosexual Chinese living in South America). Like the hidden glass in As Tears Go By, Wong forms his romances around everyday objects. In My Blueberry Nights, he extrapolates deeper meaning out of food, and most directly blueberry pie. Like Cop 663 in The Chungking Express, the viewer is deprived of the scenes of heartbreak that have devastated Elizabeth (Norah Jones) as My Blueberry Nights launches its tale. (As in a number of Wong's memory-induced stories, Cop 223's story is told in part through dreamy flashback.) Elizabeth walks into a vacant diner late at night, and like other love-stricken men whose tales have been told by Wong, Jeremy (Jude Law) becomes quite fond of her almost immediately. Jeremy informs Elizabeth that whereas cheesecake and other desserts have been wholly consumed by closing time, there is always leftover blueberry pie. It is over this blueberry pie that Jeremy and Elizabeth meet-cute, she still stinging from her excruciating break-up, and he recognizing that without missing a proverbial beat.
My Blueberry Nights fittingly opens with languid, oneiric close-ups of delicious blueberry pie being topped with melting ice cream. The music and atmospheric winsomeness make the allusion to semen flowing through a woman's inner cavity while making the pictorial less obvious in its meaning than it logically should be. The viewer is looking at blueberry pie, with melting vanilla ice cream undulating through and about it, but it may just as well be the voluminous ultramarine body of water that opens Happy Together. The shots of the film are lightly embroidered together through the dissolves and faux slow-motion step-printing Wong utilizes in postproduction, taking the process to its limits with The Chungking Express. Limning the film's episodic structure—Elizabeth wanders about the United States from New York City to Memphis and finally to Las Vegas, encountering one triad or pairing or lone figure whose sad stories of regrettable loss does not so much teach as they do asomatously provide her with glimpses of an ache. That mutual heartache finds solace in alcohol (David Strathairn's crushed, nightly-drunken Memphis police officer Arnie Copeland), petty revenge (Rachel Weisz in a dramaturgical interpretation of Arnie's fed-up, unforgiving wife Sue Lynn) and the posturing of ensured command in the form of a daredevil card sharp named Leslie (Natalie Portman) seeking an escape from a place and person she is compelled to revisit. These disparate strangers-cum-doppelgangers are always found in a diner or smoke-filled bar at which Jones' Elizabeth works. The cumulative experience is a mildly emotionally distressing but finally soothingly salving road trip odyssey, after which Elizabeth has wholly convalesced from the hurt of her destroyed relationship.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji, whose affinity for long lenses with which he codifies and composes a vaporous, blurred aesthetic look under which the characters—and especially Jones' Elizabeth, who is featured in plentiful scrupulous facial close-ups—traverse, supplies Wong's film with an obscuring patina as though the viewer is watching the proceedings through a fogged-up window. It is truly as though My Blueberry Nights wishes to forget itself, or look away from its own reflection either out of embarrassment or emotional and psychological paroxysms that arise from confrontations with the unpleasant. (Think of the impetus behind the tracking shot hurtling away from Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle on the telephone in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, here made subtler, more continuous and dreamily celestial rather than nightmarish.) As with Wong's previous pictures, the value of and spasming from memory, through which images, random sights and people are glorified and ripped apart, glossed over and meticulously mentally reconstructed, is at My Blueberry Nights' spirited heart. Elizabeth is like Tony Leung's Chow in In the Mood for Love and 2046 in that she is largely a central unifying beam that connects the disparate, circling characters in her orbit, and unlike Chow in that she is more naïve, more femininely doting and perspicuously alluring in that she transmits a blankness, openness and infectiously spunky fearlessness that seems to be more of a verite capturing of Jones' very qualities than extensive acting. Leung's Chow was doomed to almost precisely know what he was doing and to whom he was doing it; Jones' Elizabeth is unburdened and almost solely receptive, presenting a fulcrum of a precociously innocent wisdom that occasionally comes with youth, distinguished by an emphasis on listening and short, well-meaning bursts of advice.
As per usual with Wong, the film's soundtrack is teeming with tristful, rueful songs such as Cat Power's “Living Proof,” Otis Redding's “Try a Little Tenderness” and the Cassandra Williams cover of Neil Young's “Harvest Moon.” The songs in Wong's films seem to never merely begin or conclude, but rather pick up in almost veritable midstream as music so often does in one's memory. Composer Ry Cooder lays and folds his score and songs atop the soundtrack to which Jones herself contributed with “The Story” in a manner that is seamless—and musically quite similar to Wong's translucent pile of overlapping dissolves. Wong's musical choices are always magnificently accomplished, evoking in the viewer and listener a universalism of sentiment that risks a less challenging mawkishness. That bravery is both a particular quality of Wong's from his earliest Hong Kong days to My Blueberry Nights, and it routinely masks a deeper sociopolitical context, whether it be the anticipated move for Hong Kong to China from Great Britain in The Chungking Express (as Cop 663 fishes for coins to feed the jukebox, remaining perfectly still listening to the music as the rest of the world appears to fly all about him) or Sino-Japanese relations distilled into one ill-fated romance in 2046. My Blueberry Nights is Wong's attempt to explore America, and in so doing he forms compelling links between western and eastern values, customs, mores and personalities. It is not surprising that perhaps the least successful characterization and performance is Weisz's, which at its most histrionic would comfortably remain within Wong's Hong Kong films as played by a beautiful Chinese actress like Maggie Cheung. The most lasting connection between Wong's previous pictures and My Blueberry Nights, however, is in its lushly empyreal keynote image, so fantastically mesmeric, which attains a kind of unmistakable transcendence that Wong brings to his art. Like the passionate kissing between Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung in As Tears Go By set against “Take My Breath Away” and the brilliant blinding white fadeout that transports the two to an entirely different plane—making their stay in Wong's stylized prison of love worth it all—Wong's final shot in My Blueberry Nights unlocks that prison cell, leaving it up to the receiver of the sights and sounds to wonder just how free these two lovelorn people truly are.