by Kevin Bowen
published April 11, 2008
now playing in select
Many first-rate directors dream of sailing
the seas and setting an artistic foot in a culture other than their own.
Ultimately, this is more than a cinematic
vacation in the sun. It’s a test of not only the artist but the idea of cinema. Is film truly a universal medium, as it likes to believe? Is
there a common baseline of human experience to which it can relate? Or does storytelling arise peculiarly from a certain place and certain
Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to
torch film’s lofty claim. Think, for instance, of Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu’s command in his Mexican settings, as opposed to the strain he
shows in America and elsewhere. Yet cinematic travel is always an interesting experiment and sometimes a magnificent breakthrough, bringing
perspective to a culture lost on its inhabitants.
Often when moving to America, this brings us
to riding along somewhere in the southwestern desert, where, like John Ford, the filmmaker hopes to stand astride the American myth. Such a
trip happens in Wong Kar-Wai’s debut in American spaces, My Blueberry Nights. The film also pays a visit to the bluesy New York streets
of Martin Scorsese, a valued inspiration to many an Asian filmmaker.
A move from the crowded confines of Wong’s
native Hong Kong makes sense. Certainly with the sci-fi passages of 2046, he was dreaming of new worlds to conquer with his art. In
Blueberry, he places his human poetry in the wanderings of Elizabeth (the singer Norah Jones), a young New Yorker on the edge of a
breakup with her boyfriend. Awash in heartbreak, she finds comfort in the kind ear of a British restaurant minder (Jude Law), as he quietly
woos her with late-night blueberry pies.
To put things at a distance, she will move to
other cities, living under different names at each stop. This is an oh-so-metaphorical way to place distance from the memory of her sour past.
In doing so, she only manages to run into the sour pasts of others. In Memphis, she will befriend an alcoholic police officer (David
Strathairn) who cannot move on from his ex-wife (a great Rachel Weisz). In Nevada, she will learn lessons from a shady gambler (Natalie
Portman) with a foggy relationship with her father and the truth.
While the physical settings may be new, the
thematic ones are less so. Wong is still discussing the themes of love, loss, time, and memory that have become his terra firma. One
interesting wrinkle is the extension of memory into the concept of trust. With sad humor, Portman’s hustler refuses to believe that her father
is really on his deathbed. It is, after all, a lie he has told her in the past.
More illustratively, Law records all of his
activity on the restaurant’s security cameras. He keeps the ones he’d like to remember, to hold forever the moment. That habit will become a
motif. Wong creates a cinematic language of distance – shooting through windows, in exaggerated colors, or with a security camera’s fuzziness.
It does more than make us feel like we're looking into the past. It makes real the loss of the present to time.
In the most pivotal scene, for my money, a man pulls a gun on a woman. He tells her not to walk out the door or
he’ll shoot. Her three-word response instead shoots a hole in his theory. “And then what?” This throw-away line evolves into a thesis. The
disappearance of her physical presence will not relieve him of living knee-deep in her memory. It will simply drag more misery into his
wallowing. This point will be made soon thereafter, in a way that you might not expect.
The film’s greatest weakness (besides
Portman’s blonde dye job) is the underdevelopment of its main character. Jones does not impose herself on the film. That’s fine. She’s only
meant to observe and digest the actions of others. But when late in the film she makes an epiphany about her trusting nature, the film has not
established her as a trusting soul. It comes from the ether, and makes you recognize what little sense you have of the character’s being and
A thorny question remains. Can a foreign
artist make a film about memory set in a culture famed for its amnesia? Or is such a piece of art destined to fall short? I’m not sure that
My Blueberry Nights works as a convincing piece of Americana. But using America as a mythic playland for Wong’s ideas, it finds a