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Norah Jones (#110 of 3)

The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

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The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai
The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

Jason Bellamy: “When did everything start to have an expiration date?” That’s a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong’s films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he’s developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong’s filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he’s using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he’s referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he’s approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop’s mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn’t everything, it’s a lot of it.

That theme pops up again and again in Wong’s films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong’s In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, “They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it.” While that’s particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong’s lead characters. In this conversation we’re going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we’ll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I’d like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong’s body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?

A Movie a Day, Day 39: Wah Do Dem

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A Movie a Day, Day 39: <em>Wah Do Dem</em>
A Movie a Day, Day 39: <em>Wah Do Dem</em>

The softer they come, the softer they fall in Wah Do Dem, a micro-budget indie (it was shot for approximately $75,000) about a blinkered Brooklynite. Max, played by a mouth-breathing, deadpan Sean Bones as a hipster Napoleon Dynamite, is the kind of plaid-shirted, knit-capped, self-satisfied lad you can’t picture much more than five miles from Williamsburg. Or, as a fellow passenger on the cruise he won in a contest puts it: “Surprise, surprise. You don’t fit in everywhere in the world.” Of course, in real life, Max would have sold the cruise on Craigslist, or used it as a launching pad for some arty project, the way co-directors Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner decided to make the cruise Chace won into a setting for their first feature. But I’m glad he didn’t, since his story turns out to be an entertaining culture-clash fable.

Wah Do Dem (the title, which is never explained, apparently translates roughly to “What’s wrong with them?”) starts slow, with too much footage from the cruise (hey, did you know people eat and drink a lot and dance really badly on those things?). But then we land in Jamaica and things start to get interesting. Max’s provincialism and narcissistic faith in his own coolness make him an easy mark for hustlers, and the dumb decisions he keeps making leave him more and more stranded, but it’s all irie in the end. Literally losing his shirt sets him off on a journey—by car, bus, motorcycle, and ultimately on foot—that gives him the taste of “the real Jamaica” that he was looking for.

Luminous Being: My Blueberry Nights

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Luminous Being: <em>My Blueberry Nights</em>
Luminous Being: <em>My Blueberry Nights</em>

Wong Kar-wai’s films aren’t just intoxicating; they’re intoxicated. They deploy slow motion, fast motion, freeze-frames and other visual flourishes not to highlight pivotal narrative moments, but to italicize feelings—some sorrowful or profound, others fleeting, playful, sensual. His frames are packed with chromatic and textural details and often separated from the viewer by environmental scrims (curtains, door frames, windowpanes, human blurs of foreground motion). Wong compounds disorientation by layering images atop each another in a series of luxurious dissolves. He glosses over dramatic housekeeping and fixates on tremors of emotion. His films seem to be struggling to remember themselves.