Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, his first film in English and set in America, is kind of costume jewelry. A refresher, deep-breath after the fractured convolution in production and final result of his last film, 2046, My Blueberry Nights has more than a passing resemblance to the early career break Wong took during the epic task of making Ashes of Time—a little ditty called Chungking Express that made the director’s name in the West. Small and spatially intimate to the point of claustrophobia, this new film sends a heartbroken young lass (Norah Jones) away from the sympathetic and clearly willing arms of equally-heartbroken, New York City café owner Jude Law, and on a road trip to see, ultimately, if she is ready to return to him.
Like in all Wong films, the heartbroken finds other versions of herself and her romantic loss—a Southern, sultry Rachel Weisz held too tightly by her alcoholic cop husband, played by David Strathairn, and later a cavalier Natalie Portman, a gambler who can read every face and so has no need to trust anyone. Completed short stories, each—Rachel and David in a Memphis dive bar, Natalie in a sun bleached Nevada of car commercials and advertisement photography—with only the rapport between Jude and Norah being the kind of stuttered, unsure love that is Wong’s hallmark, suggesting the half-scenario of the film’s production as much as it does the half-memories of his characters, living with a dream-like submergence into the past and could-have-beens.
Maybe it is the lack of subtitles—or the lack of Tony Leung—but these characters have a thinness and an overt-cuteness to them that has been absent from Wong’s work after his maturation to richer writing in Happy Together (1997). Yet this is a postmodern director, and one must to read across the surface of his films rather than through their panes. So if Jones becomes a mostly observant vessel rather than truly a character of rich longing—an absence of texture in every sense of the word, from William Chang’s art direction to Wong’s writing with Lawrence Block—we must remember the merging and splintering of Maggie Cheung into the many women of 2046 and cast our glance across Jones to those others, time, romance, and memory overlaying everything so that each new figure is only a figment of a remembered whole. Just as, indeed, My Blueberry Nights can be seen as a somewhat pathetic if nonetheless gorgeously inlaid figment of a larger idea Wong has gathered, defined, and elaborated through his other work.
A glimpse of the whole, as painful and heartfelt as that whole must be to inspire a career worth of romanticized melancholy, may not lay in the soft, receiving but inadequate countenance of Norah Jones, but rather in another appearance of a female singer/songwriter, who, like Jones, both appears in the film and provides its bluesy soundtrack: Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. It is the film’s most surprisingly moment, the re-appearance of Jude Law’s old flame (everyone in a Wong film has an old flame, which always burns more brightly than the new, and better flame right in front of their eyes). It is a brief appearance, but its disheveled naturalness takes the film out of its safely segmented short stories and into the true and tender, painful aching of the anecdotal moments conjured by everyday life.Wong does some show-stopping things with brazen, rough 180-degree breaking cutting that introduces Weicz’ slow-motion sexy walk through a Memphis dive, and later through a brutal monologue by Weicz recounting her trouble-from-the-beginning affair with Strathairn’s cop. But these moves have nothing on the simple pane of glass and a winter night’s foggy breath that keeps Law and Marshall’s hurting, but affectionate protectiveness about their past love just a bit removed. So quotidian but so true, Wong must subtly stylize even this frame to make sure we don’t see the core of what his entire filmography has tried to work around, or through. Marshall enters the film’s tiny, isolated closet of space-less, time-less regret and for a single moment this film of glittering poise, false happenstance, and the energy and nonchalance of transition is grounded in human naturalism and authenticity, a sense of a real person adorned by memory, time, regret, and longing. What else is the cinema of Wong Kar-wai but searching for these moments beyond the romanticism? Having found at least one here (and for reasons of glittering color and light, and a luscious glide of movement, all perhaps no less consequential nor pleasurable in appeal), My Blueberry Nights cannot be ignored.