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?
Ed Howard: That’s a great place to start, because Wong is one of those directors who often hardly seems to be making individual films so much as releasing fragments of one larger film that encompasses his entire career thus far. 2046 is more or less a sequel to In the Mood for Love, and characters in both films are slightly altered versions of people who appear in Days of Being Wild, but those aren’t the only Wong films that seem part of a coherent larger universe. He returns again and again to his familiar stock company of actors, who often reappear from film to film playing the same characters, or variations on the same characters, or different characters with shared names. His films are linked in countless ways; that line about the expiration date is repeated in Fallen Angels (1995), which includes a character made mute by an accident involving expired pineapple. Similar repetitions and echoes recur throughout his filmography. It’s hard to think of another contemporary director whose films are quite so thematically consistent or as intricately interwoven with one another.
The effect is cumulative, to the point where I wonder if Days of Being Wild is the Wong film that affects me least because it’s really not quite as good as the others, or merely because it doesn’t have the same already-constructed framework of associations, characters and emotions to build on. By the time Wong gets to 2046, the effect is dizzying, a wild patchwork of references and vignettes that swirl in a vibrant color wheel around the same story that Wong has been telling over and over again throughout his career, a story of missed connections, longing and desire, unresolved dramas. Wong’s characters are often haunted by their pasts, so it’s appropriate that the films—and especially 2046—are also haunted by the past, by the films Wong has already made and the characters he’s already created. When Lulu (Carina Lau) appears in 2046, she fills us in on what happened to her after the events of Days of Being Wild, and her story is unquestionably enriched by the knowledge of her character from the earlier film. If one hadn’t seen Days of Being Wild first, her story in 2046 might be just another element in that film’s array of people desperately seeking love and connection, but with the earlier film as a reference point it’s heartbreaking to realize that so many years later, Lulu is still looking for a “legless bird,” a restless, dangerous, passionate man to replace the one she’d loved and lost so long ago.
The flipside of that argument, perhaps, is that Wong’s films are so interconnected that one has to see them all, or a lot of them, to get the full effect, and that those who don’t make that commitment might be a bit adrift with any given individual film. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine getting a whole lot out of 2046 without having seen many of Wong’s earlier films first—it’s a loony apex of self-referentiality. Maybe that’s a limitation, but I don’t see it that way. Entering Wong’s world is always a pleasure, and his cast of characters and types—restless romantics, would-be noir adventurers, lovelorn cops and self-consciously posing criminals—all seem to be engaged in a search that, for Wong, might just be the essence of being human. The searching, restless quality of his films and his characters, the desperate desire for love, is a core human quality, which Wong’s characters simply express in more eccentric and dramatic ways than most, and Wong matches their inventive romantic gyrations with an equally exaggerated, expressive style. Film and characters together are striving for connection, remaking the world through the eyes of one hopeless romantic after another.
JB: I’d love to disagree with you just for the sake of argument, but we’re of the same mind on this one. As you suggested, Wong seems to be creating one sprawling work—a feeling that is enhanced not only by the ways that his films overlap when regarded from a distance, but also by the episodic construction of his individual films, wherein narrative cohesion is often flimsy at best. While In the Mood for Love tells one story from start to finish, the other pictures we’re discussing include abrupt shifts in narrative focus and even tone, to the point that when reflecting on Wong’s filmography it feels more natural to think of each vignette within its own organic narrative and thematic margins, rather than according to the boundaries created by the opening and closing credits. One could argue, for example, that the story of the cop in Chungking Express would fit just as nicely into Days of Being Wild or 2046. Wong’s vignettes are malleable that way, to the point that their assemblage within any given film seems almost arbitrary. It’s an effect that reminds me, strangely enough, of the way that so many of Woody Allen’s whiny rants on love are so readily interchangeable from film to film—any exchange from Manhattan could easily fit into Husbands & Wives or Deconstructing Harry, just to name three.
Actually, maybe that isn’t so strange. After all, Allen’s films are often criticized for their repetitiveness, which is also a complaint I’ve heard aimed at Wong’s body of work. We agree that the cumulative effect of Wong’s films enhances the individual works, but what if Wong were as prolific as Woody? At that point might the magic spell be broken even among his most ardent fans? I’m sure some would argue that Wong has made enough films to have already answered that question. But before we jump to the end, let’s begin with what for our purposes is the beginning: Days of Being Wild. You already mentioned that it’s the film that affects you least, but why? Is it because it doesn’t benefit from the momentum and background of the subsequent films? Or is it underwhelming all on its own? And if so, how?
EH: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Days of Being Wild doesn’t quite move me like Wong’s other films. To be sure, there are wonderful moments in this film. The opening scenes, in which Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) seduces Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) through cocky persistence and smooth talk, are delightful, especially his romantic gesture of spending a minute watching the clock with her, telling her he’ll remember her forever because of that minute. (That all of this later turns out to be just the game of an unregenerate ladies’ man doesn’t quite erase the romanticism of those scenes.) There’s also the wonderful sequence in which Li-zhen spends the night walking around town with the cop Tide (Andy Lau), talking through her heartache and sadness with him. It’s a beautiful sequence, with a late-night noir atmosphere as the two near-strangers stroll through the dark and empty town with its rain-slick streets.
The imagery in this film is gorgeous throughout; this was Wong’s first film with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has shot nearly all of Wong’s subsequent films, and it’s the beginning of a very fruitful creative partnership. The lush green jungles of the Philippines, where Yuddy eventually goes to find his birth mother, seem to hang over the film like a premonition: the credits roll over a tracking shot of the jungle, thick and wet, with layered shades of green, and this image is reflected in the overall green tint of the film. It’s as though that jungle aura has subtly infiltrated the city, overlaying these urban spaces like a damp blanket.
So the film’s atmosphere is certainly enthralling, and it has sequences that are as potent as anything in Wong’s later work. If it’s still a little underwhelming, I think it’s because I just don’t connect with these characters as deeply as I do in Wong’s other films. Li-zhen has more substance here than Maggie Cheung’s rather generic yearning girlfriend in Wong’s debut, As Tears Go By, but she’s still fairly one-dimensional, and the same could be said of Corina Lau’s Lulu; both women are defined almost exclusively by their desire for the male protagonist. There’s not as much of the eccentric character detail that fleshes out the similar romantics and heartbroken drifters of the later films, and the result is that the film feels like a stripped-down template for a typical Wong scenario. The later films were built on top of this foundation, and the flourishes and elaborations of the films to follow are what make them truly special. Wong’s best films are highly specific in their examinations of the desire for connection—one character channels his loneliness into the collection of pineapple cans, another rearranges the apartment of the object of her desire, another recasts his life and loves as a sci-fi adventure story—and Days of Being Wild, for all its admirable qualities, is comparatively lacking in that specificity.
JB: Indeed, there’s a kind of directionlessness to Days of Being Wild that keeps it from feeling centered on its axis. The film’s core themes are the same ones we outlined earlier, and yet both times I’ve watched it I’ve come away uncertain as to what it’s really “about.” Over the final 20 minutes, there are several moments that feel like the period at the end of the sentence, only to turn out to be commas or semicolons: Yuddy walks away from his mother’s home, not allowing her to see his face; Yuddy leaves Tide’s hotel room with both of them now remembering one another (or maybe not) from Hong Kong; Yuddy gets shot on the train; Yuddy’s mother, in a flashback, watches her infant son being taken away from her; Yuddy, in voiceover narration, has his epiphany about the bird with no legs; Yuddy and Tide talk openly about the woman that unites them; and the phone rings at the booth where Tide told Li-zhen to call him. Each of those moments feels like good places to end the film, and yet it keeps going. And while it’s not my place to argue how the film should end, I’ve never felt a clear sense for why it keeps continuing, especially given its ultimate destination (more on that in a moment). Those final 20 minutes feel slapped together, strongly at odds with the first half of the film in which many scenes are unnecessarily drawn out. (I want to slam my head into the wall each time Yuddy’s “aunt” delivers one of her “haven’t we covered this already?” monologues about why she won’t help Yuddy find his mother.)
I wholeheartedly agree with you that there are terrific moments within the film—a few of them moments that, not surprisingly, are part of the requisite mini-montage that precedes one’s ability to press “play” on the DVD menu: Yuddy’s goofy-suave dance of solitude in his apartment; Lulu seductively swaying her hips in front of Yuddy before they have sex; Lulu, glammed up, strutting into the frame in search of Yuddy; and of course those treetop shots of the Philippines. And you’ve mentioned some other great scenes on top of those. But compared to the rest of Wong’s work, everything seems a click or two off. Take, for example, that over-the-shoulder shot of Lulu strutting toward the door in search of Yuddy: earrings dangling, cigarette in her lips, the bright door reflecting enough light to create an alluring silhouette. Lulu throws open the door and Wong rack-focuses to Zeb (Jacky Cheung) sitting in her dressing room, and then rack-focuses back to Lulu, her face turned toward us over her shoulder so that we can see her bright red lipstick and blue eyeliner. It’s a stunning shot—and yet it’s not quite in focus. Not at first. That might seem like a petty criticism, especially in isolation, but it’s the kind of inexactitude that you couldn’t imagine from Wong in the ever-so-precise In the Mood for Love. (To think about it another way: the classic reveal of Harry Lime in The Third Man wouldn’t have the same panache if the camera needed a moment to focus on Orson Welles’ face.) It’s still a great moment within the film, but it’s one with a small yet glaring imperfection.
I feel the same about the way Wong handles a subsequent scene between Lulu and Zeb at the restaurant, immediately after their violent confrontation in the rain when Lulu scolds Zeb for thinking he can become Yuddy just by taking his apartment and his car. The restaurant scene begins with Zeb putting a large wad of cash on the table in front of a depressed Lulu and then sliding into the booth. “What’s with all this money,” Lulu asks. After a long silence, Zeb replies: “Like you said, you’ve got to deserve something.” Zeb’s body is slightly turned away from Lulu, his eyes searching the ceiling for words. “He looked real good in the car,” Zeb continues, in reference to Yuddy. “I looked like a joke. So it was better just to sell it.” Again there’s a long silence. Zeb’s sadness and longing hang there like the moisture in the air. He wishes he were Yuddy, wishes Lulu wanted him like she wants Yuddy. It’s a moment that comes almost out of nowhere (Zeb is a minor character), but it might be the most poignant moment in the film. And yet from there Wong employs an awkward cut to look Zeb in the eyes, from Lulu’s point of view across the table, as he convinces her to take the cash and go to the Philippines in search of Yuddy. It’s a simple cut to a sensible enough camera angle, but with that cut the mood is broken. The subsequent shot doesn’t seem like a new point of view but like a new take, a new scene, a new moment. It’s like hearing a record skip.
Days of Being Wild seems undone by similar small but significant scratches that repeatedly taint the atmosphere that Wong is attempting to create. Wong frequently recreates that atmosphere—because that’s one of his greatest gifts—but soon it’s lost again, or it seems disjointed from the rest. The final scene is a perfect example of the latter: After the aforementioned moment when the pay phone rings in the sad darkness, Wong cuts to a well-dressed man sitting on a bed, filing his nails, getting ready for a night on the town. The room is dark. Is it Yuddy? Is he still alive? Is it Tide or Zeb; have they become what Yuddy was? No, no, no and no. Instead it’s a character we’ve never seen before (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who primps and preens for about two-and-a-half minutes to the sound of Xavier Cugat’s haunting “Purfidia,” before turning off his bedroom lamp and walking out of the frame, ending the film. According to a typically thorough post by David Bordwell, that last scene was intended as a prequel of sorts for a sequel that never happened, but nevertheless it’s the final scene of this film. And I’m curious to know what you think about it, and whether it’s damning that two-and-a-half of the film’s most engaging minutes really have nothing whatsoever to do with the film itself.
EH: I think it’s pretty typical of this film which, as you say, has lots of interesting images and moments but often leaves them dangling, disconnected from one another and from the film as a whole. The last twenty minutes or so—which, I’ll be honest, were utterly baffling to me the first time around—are especially disorienting, and not just because of the elliptical storytelling or the sudden introduction of Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s unnamed character. The scene where Yuddy triggers a shootout with a group of thugs and gangsters is a sudden and bizarre diversion from the tone of the rest of the film, like it was pasted in from a wholly different film. Wong had a background in Hong Kong crime dramas, first as a writer and also in his directorial debut As Tears Go By, and this scene makes it clear that those films were still a lingering influence in his work, one he’d soon submerge much more deeply. (Another obvious reference point is Taxi Driver, and Scorsese in general, especially in the use of music.) Violence often erupts suddenly in Wong’s work, fast and frantic, but in the later films such incidents become less common, and when they do happen they’re jarring because of the violence and its effects on the characters, not because, as here, there seems to have been a stylistic tear in the surface of the film itself.
That’s not the only sign that in Days of Being Wild Wong was still pulling together the elements of his style into the coherent—but eclectic and unpredictable—aesthetic that would fully gel with his next film, Chungking Express. It’s funny you mentioned Orson Welles, because sometimes Days of Being Wild seems modeled on the angled cameras and striking framings of Welles the director, with the camera frequently either looking down on the characters from a skewed godlike perspective or craning up at them from the gutter. At one point, as Tide walks away from Li-zhen into the night, the camera suddenly positions itself, for no apparent reason, down by her legs as she leans against a wall; for a moment, the composition allows this shy, awkward young woman to become a femme fatale, her bare legs towering over the decreasing figure of the cop as he strolls away down the street. In other scenes, Wong’s visual language references the conventions of melodrama, particularly in all the mirror shots in which the characters aren’t seen directly, only their reflections appearing from odd angles. Yuddy’s “aunt” and Lulu are especially suited to melodramatics, and it’s fitting that they’re often the characters associated with mirrors in this film—most notably when Lulu, enraged over Yuddy’s sudden departure for the Philippines, throws everything off her dressing table and shatters her mirror at the nightclub where she works.
Even if everything doesn’t quite fit together in this film, the stylistic clashes are fascinating, and there’s a sense that Wong is discovering and assembling for the first time the distinctive elements of his personal style. The joy of the filmmaking is palpable, as when Wong and Doyle construct a bravura tracking shot that follows Yuddy up multiple flights of a staircase and into the train station bar where he’ll soon be embroiled in a shootout. It’s the flashy look-at-me maneuver of a director announcing his presence with a style-for-its-own-sake flourish. There’s a similar joy in the sequence of Lulu dancing for Zeb in the stairwell of Yuddy’s apartment, raising her arms above her head and swinging her hips seductively. It’s the moment when Zeb falls for her, and the camera peeks down on the scene from above, glancing over Zeb’s shoulder to convey a sense of his perspective, the dizzying angle creating a sensation of vertigo, as though the smitten young man might fall, or leap, into his feelings of desire and love. I feel like I could just keep picking out these moments, because this is a film of moments, where the individual elements never quite cohere into a whole. In subsequent films, I think, Wong would figure out how to maintain that emphasis on the heightened reality of individual moments while slowly accumulating those details as part of a larger picture; here, many of the details are compelling even if the film as a whole doesn’t have that cumulative impact.
JB: There’s no question that Wong learned to better maintain the tone of his films—even with significant shifts in point of view—in subsequent efforts. Like you, when I watch Days of Being Wild I find it fascinating to see an artist discovering his form in the film’s thrilling moments, but I find the stylistic clashes far too jarring to feel that the film is thrilling on the whole. The outbursts of violence are a good example. The film has three of them, and while the first one is poorly staged (Yuddy’s assault on the lover of his “aunt” is one of the least convincing ass-whuppins this side of the hurtin’ that Sonny Corleone puts on his brother-in-law in The Godfather) and the third one is curiously extreme (the shootout), the second one is rather well done: Zeb striking Lulu in the middle of a rain storm and knocking her to the ground. But the scene doesn’t quite work because it doesn’t feel earned. We just haven’t seen enough of Zeb or Lulu to be emotionally invested in either of them, and so it plays like a narrative aside. It’s a potentially great scene, it just isn’t great in this movie.
That’s kind of the way I feel about the finale, too, although in that case I think it is a great scene, even within this movie. The drawback, though, is that it makes me wish I’d just watched that movie—the one about Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s invisible man. I think those final minutes expose Days of Being Wild’s biggest fault: Leung isn’t in it. Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung give solid enough performances, but they don’t have Leung’s magnetism. Over the course of the films we’re discussing here, Leung proves himself to be unfailingly watchable. He has an effortless energy. The camera loves him, even from afar when he’s buffing his nails. He has the kind of magnetism that we’ve seen recently from George Clooney in The American—Leung can make the most mundane acts compelling. I think Days of Being Wild also suffers in comparison to Wong’s other works due to its blue-green color palette, which feels muted compared to the vibrant reds, yellows and greens that we encounter elsewhere. But even with the subdued palette, and even with all those little imperfections that I mentioned earlier, I find myself thinking that if Leung had been cast as Yuddy, that might have made all the difference.
EH: One place we definitely disagree is on the film’s color palette, which I think is gorgeous and wholly appropriate to the film’s melancholy mood; it’s muted, but deliberately so. We also seem to disagree about Leslie Cheung, and maybe about Yuddy, because though there’s no doubt that Tony Leung Chiu Wai has movie star charisma to spare—along with Maggie Cheung he’s probably the most compelling presence in Wong’s films—I think Leslie Cheung does an excellent job of making Yuddy an interesting character.
But not an especially likable character. He’s a womanizer whose smooth words and tough guy pose are eventually stripped away, revealing a fragile and pathetic loser who is unable to take responsibility for his own life. He likes to think of himself, romantically, as a bird with no legs that can’t stop flying for even a moment: “The bird can only land once in its life. That’s the moment it dies.” This dialogue could be uttered by any number of (overly) romantic Wong heroes, including those played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai in the later films, but the difference is that in Days of Being Wild the main character and his romantic pretensions are utterly demolished. Yuddy is twice told off in the film, his shield pierced by people who see right through him. First, his “aunt,” finally sick of his incessant moping over his missing mother, tells him that he’s using his adoption as an excuse, which is of course true, as evidenced by the somewhat stunned look on Yuddy’s face when she finally tells him where to find his mother, and his obvious ambivalence about getting what he’s always claimed to want. In his eyes you can see the realization that his bluff has been called, and now he’ll actually have to do something besides complain and half-heartedly seduce women.
The second time Yuddy’s cool façade is broken is by the cop, Tide, when the two meet up in the Philippines. Yuddy starts rattling off his familiar bird metaphor, but the cop interrupts him, dismantling the romanticism of Yuddy’s self-image as a free spirit. Yuddy is just a drunk who was found in the garbage, the cop says, referring to the pathetic scene he’d witnessed where Yuddy was robbed by a prostitute after passing out in the street. I don’t think any other Wong protagonist gets his ego and his sense of “cool” punctured as thoroughly as this.
JB: That’s certainly true. And we’re actually not that far apart on Yuddy and Leslie Cheung’s performance. I agree that Yuddy is a compelling enough character and that Leslie Cheung delivers a thoroughly convincing performance. And yet those final two-and-a-half minutes with Tony Leung Chiu Wai are almost enough to make you forget about everything that precedes them; that’s my point. Each time I watch the film I find myself thinking back to that last shot of Yuddy on the train, looking upward as the life drains from his face, and I can’t help but feel that somehow Leung would have made that scene the definitive end point. There would have been no need to go further.
Of course, that’s speculation, an attempt to understand why the film doesn’t affect me as deeply as Wong’s others. And, actually, Chungking Express is kind of in the same boat. It’s a more tonally consistent film than Days of Being Wild—within its vignettes, at least—but it, too, feels like a collection of arresting moments scattered within less-than-absorbing filler. Chungking Express is a sweet film, by far the most lighthearted of the works we’re discussing here, and while Wong does sweetness quite well, he doesn’t do it extraordinarily. Most of the film’s best moments are the ones where heartbreak and loneliness are close enough to touch. That’s not to say that they’re “sad” scenes, necessarily. One of my favorite moments in all of Wong’s filmography is the shot of Leung’s cop landing a toy airplane on the naked back of his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow)—a romantic and sexy scene if there ever was one, but a heartbreaking one also, because Leung’s character is remembering this moment after their breakup, missing the relationship that he thought would last forever.
That’s Wong’s gift—the ability to make a scene touching and devastating all at once. But in between such moments, Chungking Express offers many that are atypically frictionless. For a film that’s about two heartbroken guys, it’s unusually cutesy, isn’t it? Or do you think Wong finds his usual level of emotional conflict from a different angle of approach?
EH: Wow, I don’t agree with you on this film at all. Chungking Express is quite possibly my favorite Wong film, with 2046 a pretty close second. For all the lighthearted humor and “sweetness” to be found here, Chungking Express isn’t exactly a cuddly film, and if it’s “cutesy” at times then it’s a cuteness mixed with real pain and also real beauty. It’s a hyperactive pastiche that evokes a very complicated stew of emotions, with Wong’s familiar heartache and loneliness spiced with brighter, warmer emotions. The film is practically overflowing with style, bursting with visual ideas, ways of capturing the characters’ internal states in colorful torrents of inventive imagery. It’s a remarkably sensual film, not just in that sexy interlude that you mention (which, I agree, is one of Wong’s very best scenes) but in the beautiful candlelit sequence where the candles’ lights seem to elongate, stretching upwards, or in the kaleidoscopic, fragmented reflection of a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro, the cop in the first half of the film) and the unnamed blonde-wigged woman (Brigitte Lin) in the surface of a bar.
As I alluded to in discussing Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express is the film where Wong consolidates the elements of his style into a coherent and powerful whole, even while telling two different stories connected by only the slightest of threads, and even while splintering each of those stories into discrete moments and incidents. What holds the film together, more than anything else, is music, a very rigorous and programmatic use of music that closely associates songs with particular characters. Each of the women in the film has a single song associated with her. For the blond-wigged drug smuggler, it’s Dennis Brown’s great “Things In Life,” which announces the blond woman’s presence whenever it’s chosen on a bar jukebox. For Faye (Faye Wong), who desires Leung’s cop, it’s “California Dreamin’,” which she blasts at work at the food stand, turning up the volume and bobbing her head, lost in the world of the song. Even the stewardess ex-girlfriend gets a song, a soulful Dinah Washington tune, and when the cop finds Faye playing this song one day instead of her familiar “California Dreamin’,” he tells her it’s wrong for her, recognizing that the song belongs to another woman.
What Chungking Express is about, ultimately, is the possibility of human connection in an increasingly impersonal and distancing world—a theme that runs throughout Wong’s work but is perhaps expressed most potently (and most optimistically) here. In this film, just as songs come to define the essence of a person, in a more impersonal way numbers often stand in for people as well: the answering machine service where Kaneshiro’s cop is known only by a number, the cops’ badge numbers that pretty much replace their real names. In this context the urgency of emotional connection, of real feelings, is even more important, though often it seems that these characters are better at channeling their feelings into things rather than people. That’s why Kaneshiro’s character attempts to quantify his heartbreak in cans of pineapple, while Leung’s character in the second half anthropomorphizes his apartment and talks to beer bottles when Faye stands him up. He says he likes to see his apartment cry when it’s flooded with water or when a towel drips tears after getting wet; he likes to feel that these objects are not impersonal, that there is feeling and emotion invested in them.
Indeed, that’s the impulse behind Faye’s interventions in the cop’s apartment, rearranging things and adding new elements in an attempt to insinuate herself into his life through incremental adjustments to his living space. That’s a frequent trope of Wong’s films, in which his lovelorn characters often try to achieve closeness and connection through the empty apartments occupied at other times by the people they desire. This is the only form of intimacy available to the killer and his partner in Fallen Angels, and similar scenes recur in Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. I think Wong finds it such a compelling and enduring concept because it so completely expresses the simultaneous distance and intimacy between these characters. In the living space of a loved one, his characters are surrounded by intimate details of the person they desire, but it’s a strictly one-way connection, and often a closer, more physical connection eludes them. In Chungking Express, the idea is expressed most poignantly in the scene where Leung’s cop wanders all around his apartment looking for his stewardess ex-girlfriend, half-convinced that she’s returned to him, and in the process he completely fails to notice Faye, who’s dodging him and hiding just out of his sight. It’s a playful and funny sequence, and even a little “cutesy,” but it also expresses the heartbreaking fact that, obsessed with his past and his pain, the cop is unable to see the hopeful future that’s right in front of his face.
JB: Oh, come on, man. That scene is “cutesy,” and not just “a little.” We don’t have to consider “cutesy” an insult, and, truly, I don’t, but we at least have to call it what it is. I think you’re right, of course, that there’s genuine heartbreak in this film, and even in that scene (although to a far lesser degree), but in the traditional sense Chungking Express is more comedy than tragedy, not just because of the somewhat atypical happy ending, but also because almost every scene of anguish is festooned with humor and/or whimsy. For example, think of Qiwu, the cop in the first half of the picture, making funny expressions as he munches through one of his cans of pineapple, or offering pineapple to his confused beagle. Think of the montage of Qiwu calling seemingly every woman he’s ever known in an effort to land a date, at one point phoning someone who he hasn’t talked to since the fourth grade, who not surprisingly doesn’t even remember him. Think of Qiwu repeating his lame pickup line four times to the blond-wigged drug smuggler until he lands on the language they share. Think of Qiwu coming up with three reasons why a woman would be wearing sunglasses at night, never considering that they might be a disguise, or later cleaning the drug smuggler’s shoes, perhaps wiping away evidence, thus repeatedly proving his bumbling ineptitude as a cop. Or think of Leung’s cop, number 663, talking to a bar of soap or to a “crying” dishrag. Or think of almost every scene with Faye, the virginal innocent, a schoolgirl in a woman’s body, playing in Leung’s character’s apartment: flying a toy plane around the room, submerging the toy in a fish tank, swapping out the labels on cans of fish or calling her uncle on a sunny day to say that she’s trapped in a rainstorm when really she’s watering a plant in the shower. None of those moments are riotous knee-slappers, but I think they’re more likely to induce smiles than tears, and while I would never suggest that genuine pain is entirely overlooked in this picture, I certainly don’t feel Chungking Express has the same soul-crushing emotional intensity of the other films we’re talking about here.
In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that Chungking Express is a lesser film than Wong’s other works. I only mean to point out that it’s quite different. Chungking Express is an optimistic picture, one that suggests that no matter how bad things seem at any given point, there is always hope for improvement, sometimes in the most unpredictable of ways. Kaneshiro’s character begins his birthday convinced that no one out there is thinking of him, and he leaves his story fortified by the simple gesture of a woman he doesn’t know. Leung’s character begins his story in love with the flight attendant, then falls in love with Faye, then loses Faye just as quickly and ultimately finds happiness giving up his badge and taking over the food stand where they met. What I enjoy most about the film is the way it reflects how childlike and vulnerable we can be in private moments: Kaneshiro’s character tries to exude cool, but the password to access his voicemail is “Love you for 10,000 years,” and his apartment includes large stuffed animals; and then there’s Leung’s character, who walks around his apartment in his underwear while clinging to the playfulness that he enjoyed with his girlfriend. In some of Wong’s films, his characters are perhaps overly poetic, but these characters feel modest, accessible and familiar, and there’s something to be said for that. It’s an ultimately touching film, but I don’t find nearly the level of poignancy in it that you do.
EH: I never meant to imply, of course, that Chungking Express isn’t funny and lighthearted, because it undoubtedly is both. But that humor, that playful sensibility in these sometimes almost-childlike characters, doesn’t diminish the poignancy of their floundering search for love and intimacy. The film focuses on the same themes of heartache and connection as Wong’s other films, but does so with much more humor, and with much more optimism about the place these heartbroken characters ultimately end up. (For the most part, anyway: notably, the blond-wigged woman kills the former partner who betrayed her and then wanders off alone, a much more expected Wong ending.)
Wong uses his newly assured, eclectic style to explore these emotions, balancing the playfulness of the characters—and of the stylistic flourishes he slathers over the film—with the more painful and heartbreaking aspects of the stories and characters. The scene you bring up where Qiwu gets a birthday call from the blond woman is a good example. Wong’s aesthetics magnify the moment, enhancing its emotions and its surprising beauty. Qiwu makes the call to his answering service, gets the message, and Wong inserts a shot of a clock turning from 5:59 to 6:00, marking the anniversary of the exact moment when Qiwu was born. That’s what Wong is all about, that kind of heightened reality, an intensified reality where every gesture is meaningful, where every coincidence is magnified into a real movie moment. Qiwu is happy to get a call on his birthday, just when he most needs that assurance of human connection, and he says he’ll remember the moment forever, that he wishes he could can it like pineapple. Wong freezes the frame on a shot of Qiwu with his hand on his chest, as though trying to hold what he’s feeling now in his heart. It’s a very moving scene, one of many in this film.
That’s because the flipside of your correct assertion that “almost every scene of anguish is festooned with humor and/or whimsy” is that all that humor and whimsy is wrapped around characters who are, like most of Wong’s romantic heroes and heroines, desperately seeking to either regain the love they’ve lost or to discover love anew. That scene where Qiwu calls all the now-long-outdated names in his little black book is very funny, yes, but there’s also something sad about it, especially since it draws attention to his now-ended five-year relationship, as some of the women he calls say they haven’t heard from him in exactly that many years. Chungking Express may not have the “soul-crushing emotional intensity” of most of Wong’s other films, but only because its emotions aren’t really “soul-crushing,” for the most part—they’re certainly intense enough, though.
JB: That’s true, and my comments about the frictionlessness of Chungking Express are relative to its place within Wong’s filmography, which is heavy in “soul-crushing” gravity. Meanwhile, I have to recognize that your defense of the film’s poignancy, in spite of its playfulness, is somewhat upheld by the fact that the blond-wigged woman’s story makes for the least powerful vignette in the film, despite its considerably more severe tone—one marked by violence and death. To be clear, I’m not saying that her vignette is unaffecting, because I’m consistently crushed by the simple brutality of the moment when she kidnaps the shop owner’s daughter and leaves him to agonize over his daughter’s fate, unaware that the kidnapper is treating her to bowls of ice cream with every intention of returning her safely. For the most part, though, the wigged woman’s story draws its power from the ways it overlaps with Qiwu’s story, and perhaps from its intrigue, and when her story ends we’re reminded of how little we know of her. Her anonymity, of course, is one of the main reasons that her vignette is less affecting than that of either of the cops, as is the fact that she has less screen time than either of them. But I suspect that another key factor is attributable to the vignette’s style.
Earlier you said that Chungking Express is “practically overflowing with style, bursting with visual ideas, ways of capturing the characters’ internal states in colorful torrents of inventive imagery.” I agree with the latter part, but I don’t think the first part requires any sort of modifier, and sometimes I wonder about the ultimate effect of Wong’s “visual ideas.” Chungking Express is, indeed, overflowing with style, and no more so than in the vignette of the drug smuggler, which is highlighted by off-kilter slow- and fast-motion sequences that turn the florescent city lights into neon blurs. It’s an appropriate visual treatment, underlining the way in which the drug smuggler is always on the run, never settled (until, of course, she meets Qiwu and reduces to his speed, eventually even taking a nap), but it’s not a treatment that lends itself well to repeated use, and by the midway point it feels overdone. It’s a flourish that can be defended but that doesn’t quite fulfill—an exercise in style that has substantive justification and motive that nonetheless winds up feeling like nothing more than gratuitous ornamentation. It’s the most obvious example, in my opinion, of a time when Wong shoots for that “heightened reality” that you mentioned and misses the mark. But I suspect you might think otherwise.
EH: You suspect right. Part of it is that I may just have more appreciation for gratuitous style for its own sake than you. But more than that, I find the style of Chungking Express to be utterly thrilling in every way, including the manipulation of speed that makes the drug smuggler’s scenes leap unpredictably from frantic action to languid lyricism. As we’ve both pointed out, Wong is usually dealing with very strong, intense emotions, so it makes sense that he’s developed a visual style that’s suited to expressing those emotions with an appropriate level of intensity. At the same time, the hyperactive pastiche of the scenes with the drug smuggler represent a nod to Wong’s immersion in genre filmmaking, and the blond-wigged woman herself is another of Wong’s genre archetypes, even if Chungking Express as a whole distances itself from the hyper-violent stylization of As Tears Go By or Fallen Angels.
The drug smuggler seems to come from a different world (and a different film) from the cops, who despite their profession don’t exactly seem like they come into contact with high crime every day. You’ve already pointed out some of the most comical signs that Qiwu is a lousy cop, but my favorite is the throwaway bit of dialogue where he says that he used to call his girlfriend every time he made an arrest, which makes it sound like a very rare special occasion. When Qiwu and the smuggler come into contact, it’s not just two different people clashing, but two different styles, two different types of films: the self-conscious gangster poseur and the idiosyncratic romantic. The clash is embodied as well in a playful Easter egg, the one scene (as far as I’ve detected) where the film’s two main women come into contact, when Faye walks by the blond-wigged woman during the film’s first half. The blond woman is posing dramatically in her trench coat, considering her next action in trying to track down her betrayers, and Faye goes strolling by carrying a tremendous Garfield stuffed animal; that about sums up the gulf between the cutesy and the intense in this film. It’s a conscious clash, as is the scene where the blond woman kills her former partner, and his bloody body falls in an alley surrounded by cute, cuddly kittens, his lifeless hand extended towards an expired pineapple can, which brings the two thrusts of this story together, so that the genre story and the breakup story are resolved with the same moral: everything expires, everything comes to an end.
It’s interesting that you criticize the repetitiveness of Wong’s style in this film, because Chungking Express is largely built around repetition, around parallels and mirrors, and not only because it’s split in half between two stories of heartache and recovery. I’ve already praised the repetitive use of music, which is my favorite element of the film, and Wong often pairs these aural repetitions with visual cues that signal a particular song’s appearance, like the CDs spinning and reflecting light in a jukebox display, an image that’s linked to Dennis Brown’s “Things In Life” and by extension to the blond-wigged woman. While I can see why you might say that film overuses certain of its stylistic devices, I find the recurrence of these flourishes both purposeful and hypnotic, an integral part of the splintered but inherently playful world that Wong is creating, where some people play at being gangsters and others play at interior design.
JB: What we’re getting down to here is a matter of personal taste in a very specific area. Because, see, I like Wong’s use of repetition—it would be almost impossible to enjoy Wong otherwise. It’s just that whereas “Things In Life,” “California Dreamin’” and Faye Wong’s cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” stand up well to their repetitive aural implementation, I don’t feel the same about Wong’s visual treatments in regard to the blond-wigged woman. Again, Wong’s use of alternate speeds is perfectly appropriate and easy to defend, from a structural, mathematical standpoint, but it’s a device that simply proves tedious to me—much in the same way, I suppose, that 3-D proves tedious to many viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar, even when it thematically enhances the otherworldly experiences of the protagonist. To those who enjoy the visual flourishes, it’s poetry. To those who find those flourishes empty and irritating, it’s gimmickry. The shots you mentioned of those spinning CDs in the jukebox showcase Wong’s ability to create arresting visuals out of the mundane; I love those shots. But when Wong attempts to enhance a chase sequence by altering the frame rate, it reminds me of the kind of overdirection that too often dooms Danny Boyle. I agree that it’s a gimmick that’s “suited” to the emotions of that scene, but that’s different than saying that Wong’s manipulations actually enhance the effect.
Perhaps then that has something to do with my fondness for In the Mood for Love, which has no shortage of style or repetition but is the most tonally and aesthetically consistent film we’ll cover in this discussion. It’s the film that, to me, shows Wong at his most refined. I realize that could be a disappointment for some who appreciate Wong precisely because of the way he’s willing to cross genres and mingle moods, but each time I watch this film I’m taken aback by its cohesion, by the way each and every second of the film seems in balance with the rest. At the outset we discussed something I’m sure we’ll come back to later—the way Wong’s films overlap to create one sprawling opus—but In the Mood for Love is the film that best stands alone, as if it’s the axis on which the other films pivot. It’s a painstakingly crafted film that feels effortless, one in which each flourish seems borne not of concept but of soul. It is, I think, cinematic perfection (which is not to imply in any way that it is the only kind of cinematic perfection).
It’s also an emotionally devastating film, and a special kind of emotionally devastating film at that. As Steven Santos summarized over at The Fine Cut, “Every image sticks in your head like remembrances of a lost love. It is almost embarrassing to even attempt to communicate how devastating this film is. I often space out the viewings of this movie because it does become hard to deal with in that aspect. It’s a movie that almost actually begs to be watched alone, the very opposite of what most romantic pictures (aka ’date movies’) are designed for.”
EH: That’s an interesting way of putting it, that this is a romantic movie that should be watched alone, because In the Mood for Love is very much about a romance in which both of the people involved remain alone, together and yet not, simultaneously intimate and isolated. The film is a moving quasi-romance between Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who live in the same building and who form a connection when they realize that their spouses are cheating with one another. At one point, Mr. Chow rents a new apartment as a place to write—he’s trying to write kung fu serials with Mrs. Chan’s help—and the two of them spend many days there, talking and working. They have all the accoutrements of an affair, including a secret apartment just for them, without actually moving beyond their emotionally charged friendship.
In these scenes, Wong’s camera glides around them, showing them in mirrors or partially obscured by the hazy gauze of curtains, images that prevent them from being seen directly. One tracking shot reveals Mrs. Chan in a segmented mirror, smiling at Mr. Chow, but as the camera pans right across multiple reflections of him at work, he’s looking down, not meeting her gaze. Then the camera tracks back to pass her again (she’s now intent on reading as well) and finally all the way back to the left to catch one more reflection of him, looking up at her now that she’s no longer paying attention. They are together yet separated, each feeling for the other but not quite connecting, their gazes falling on each other at different times. Sitting across the room from one another, they’re brought closer only in an illusory way by the mirror.
A similar effect is achieved by panning from one room to another in the building where they live in adjoining apartments; they sit back to back in their individual apartments, separated from one another by the wall between the rooms, so close and sitting in the same solitary pose, but unable to get any closer. It’s the perfect visualization of the frustrated romantic connections that are one of Wong’s primary subjects, and In the Mood for Love is full of such formally rigorous shots. You’re right that this is Wong’s most “refined” and “aesthetically consistent” film, a film where every element of the mise en scène and composition contributes to the sense of separation between these two people who clearly love one another.
JB: The relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan is one of the most interesting you’ll find in cinema. They clearly love one another, yes, but they are also united in their suffering. As much as this is a story about the creation of a new relationship, it never stops being a story about the destruction of existing relationships: the marriages of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. That makes In the Mood for Love a 180-degree turn from the trajectory of the typical Hollywood romance, wherein new love is almost always cherished over old or existing love, to the point that there are films like 2001’s The Wedding Planner, in which the audience is encouraged to root for Jennifer Lopez’s character to steal away the groom of the very wedding she’s been hired to coordinate—a plot twist that if it happened in real life would cause people to recoil in horror but that within the film itself is treated like the pinnacle of romance and soul-mating. In Wong’s film, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan can never get beyond their marriages, in part by choice (they don’t want to become their cheating spouses) but mostly because the hurt of those betrayals is too strong to escape.
That, as much as anything, is why this film is so devastating and why it begs to be watched alone, because is so superbly shows how difficult it is to move beyond heartbreak, which as a rule is a deeply personal and isolating experience. And what’s interesting is that while most films suggest the isolation of a failed relationship precisely by creating isolation—think of Jon Favreau’s emotionally inhibited Mike in 1996’s Swingers, who can’t ever get a relationship started with a new girl because he’s still fixated on the last one—In the Mood for Love makes that feeling of isolation excruciatingly palpable precisely by bringing two characters together. It’s because we know that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have feelings for one another that we fully appreciate the trauma of their spouses’ infidelity—because the latter paralyzes them from fully giving in to the former.
Wong captures the coming together of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan with the kind of heightened reality that you might expect if this were a straightforward romance: all those slow-motion pass-bys on the way to the noodle stand, the characters illuminated by street and shop lights, the haunting “Yumeji’s Theme,” which suggests yearning and passion and, just as much, sadness and isolation. But despite appearances this isn’t a film in which new love will soothe the pain of lost love, and even though these early scenes seem to foreshadow a typical romantic partnership, the rest of the film will consistently thwart those expectations.
EH: One way in which Wong thwarts those expectations is the clever way he stages conversations between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, in which it initially seems as though they’re finally getting beyond their platonic joint suffering, finally expressing their real feelings for one another, only to turn those conversations on their head as we realize that they’re actually role-playing as their cheating spouses. In one scene, they act out what they imagine might have happened when their spouses first began their affair, trying to guess who would have made the first move. The scene thus plays out twice with virtually identical dialogue, the only variation being which person is the assertive one. The first time through, it seems like the conversation between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan has suddenly turned flirtatious and light, but by the end it’s clear that, though they’re speaking words of seduction and desire, the words aren’t meant to apply to one another. They recreate their spouses’ affair verbally, and perhaps even emotionally, but not physically. Still, the words they’re saying during these recreations often seem like expressions of the characters’ own feelings for one another, though ostensibly they’re just trying to understand and cope with their spouses’ betrayals.
As you say, their fixation on the past prevents Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan from forming a new romance of their own, but they’re also held back—as Ebert implies in the review you quoted at the start of this conversation—by the time and place in which they live, by social pressure and their sense of propriety. They are very conscious of perceptions, very conscious not only of maintaining their marital fidelity (even when their spouses don’t) but of maintaining the appearance of fidelity. That’s why Mr. Chow rents an apartment across town where they can be together while avoiding even the suggestion of an affair. Before that, when Mr. Chow’s landlady and the neighbors unexpectedly return home early from a night out, Mrs. Chan is trapped in Mr. Chow’s bedroom, unable to leave without creating the impression that they’ve been caught cheating.
There are thus several barriers that prevent these two lonely and sad people from starting the romantic relationship that they clearly wish they could. To continue your analogy to the conventional Hollywood romantic tradition, if Hollywood romances are in almost every case about the formation of a romance, Wong’s film is instead dedicated to exploring all the reasons why a romance doesn’t form between these two characters, why a romance is unable to form. The closest they come to real romance occurs after Mr. Chow leaves, on his own, for Singapore. He never sees Mrs. Chan again after this, but at one point she does come to visit him, entering his apartment when he’s not there, walking around the room, laying on his bed, smoking his cigarettes, and stealing his slippers as a souvenir before she leaves. As I said before, this is a recurring trope in Wong’s work. It’s a kind of intimacy, a way of being close without actually being close, and it’s also a downer echo of the playfulness of Faye in Chungking Express. Like the cop in that film, Chow comes home to an apartment that’s been subtly altered, its interior marked with the presence of a woman who loves him, but whereas these visits were a precursor to future connection and romance in Chungking Express, in this film the woman leaves for good after a single visit, leaving behind only phantom traces.
JB: That’s a powerful scene because of what it signifies, even though the scene itself is quite unassuming. When Mrs. Chan sits in Mr. Chow’s apartment, it’s as if she’s sampling the life she could have had, and frankly could still have, with him. Up to that point, Mrs. Chan has been in the apartment that Mr. Chow shared with his wife, and she’s spent time with him in the apartment that they both maintained was nothing more than an office for writing, but until she steps into his Singapore apartment, she’s never seen what Mr. Chow’s life looks like free from his wife and free from the pretense of marital fidelity. In Chungking Express, Faye infiltrates the cop’s apartment because she’s too uncomfortable to find another way to initiate intimacy, but in this film Mrs. Chan has already been intimate (emotionally speaking) with Mr. Chow, and so when she enters his Singapore apartment it’s as if she wants to conjure the closeness that she’d felt so many times before.
That scene is ambiguous enough that we can’t know Mrs. Chan’s specific intentions. It’s possible that she shows up in Singapore open minded to the possibility of staying there, giving in to her feelings for Mr. Chow. But mostly it feels like a quiet goodbye, like someone lingering in the doorway watching her lover sleep before she returns to the real world. That would make that scene the first of two heartbreaking solitary goodbyes, because the film’s final scene of Mr. Chow at the temple is cut from the same emotional cloth: a man, on his own, whispering into a notch in the rock wall, speaking secrets that we cannot hear but have no problem guessing. In that latter scene, Mr. Chow is spontaneously following up on a practice from an old legend in which people would climb mountains, whisper their secrets into a hole in a tree and then cover up the hole with mud to lock their secrets inside. The spontaneity of his action—he sees the hole and comes up with the idea—is a sign of how much he still thinks of Mrs. Chan, even though they have gone their separate ways.
Wong captures that scene from a variety of angles, each of them powerful in their own ways. Most memorable for me are two specific shots: one from far above Mr. Chow, as seen from the vantage point of a confused onlooker, which shows just how fully and unselfconsciously he commits himself to the exercise, and one from close up, near Mr. Chow’s hands, as if seen from the vantage point of the wall, which allows us to watch Mr. Chow’s jaw rising and falling as he whispers his secrets. I love those shots because they lay bare Mr. Chow’s deep feelings for Mrs. Chan, by showing the solemnity with which he takes part in this ritual, while also protecting the privacy of those feelings. We know all along that these characters love one another, but that scene and the scene of Mrs. Chan in the Singapore apartment suggest that we still might not understand the intensity or character of their bond.
EH: Absolutely. As much as Wong delves into the intense emotions of his characters, he always does grant them the privacy to hold back something from the camera, to maintain some mystery and distance. It’s an acknowledgment that some things can’t (or shouldn’t) be put into words, that some things can be felt but not necessarily articulated. Wong is great at conveying that quality of ineffable emotion, powerful but never fully understood, one suspects, even by the characters themselves, let alone by an audience watching from outside. As you say, the formal aestheticization of scenes like the one of Chow whispering his secret brings out the rich emotions of such moments in a subtle, suggestive way that leaves plenty of room for ambiguity. In the Mood for Love may not be Wong’s flashiest film, but it’s still formally dazzling in quieter ways.
In the early scenes of this film, for example, Wong uses a simple but formally audacious technique to foreshadow the themes and relationships of the film to come. As Mr. Chow and his wife, and Mrs. Chan and her husband, move into their new adjoining apartments and settle in, the main characters’ spouses are mentioned and sometimes speak from offscreen, but they are never actually seen. This disorienting aesthetic choice makes it seem, in these early scenes, like the main characters’ spouses are already not quite there, that the two marriages are somewhat distant and abstracted, because the way in which Wong films their marital conversations is so alienating. Though at this point Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan barely know each other well enough to say “hello” in passing, it already seems like they are connected at a deep level because, in parallel scenes taking place in adjoining rooms, they both interact with these ghostly spouses. Since neither Mr. Chan nor Mrs. Chow ever appears in the flesh, it begins to seem like the main characters are speaking not to their invisible spouses but to each other. Even before their spouses increasingly disappear on long “work” trips, even before the suspicion of infidelity crops up, the framing of these scenes suggests splintering and isolation. In these opening scenes, Wong frequently shoots people from behind rather than directly, or captures impersonal details like a stray leg or the back of a neck—images that add to the impression of disconnection. Only when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan begin forming a friendship does the style of the film become smoother, less prone to such distancing effects, as their growing—if unconsummated—love for one another mitigates the effects of their unsatisfying marriages.
JB: In the least, it mitigates the loneliness they feel. Before the role-playing scenes you mentioned, there’s the scene in which Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan first go to dinner together and cautiously circle the reality of their situation until it’s unmistakable to both of them. Mr. Chow asks about Mrs. Chan’s handbag and where he could get one for his wife; Mrs. Chan asks about Mr. Chow’s tie, and where he bought it. The truth, as both have long suspected, is that those items came from their cheating spouses, purchased on trips abroad, and purchased twice: the same handbag for Mr. Chow’s wife and Mrs. Chan, the same tie for Mrs. Chan’s husband and Mr. Chow. It’s a difficult scene to watch because it’s the moment in which both characters confirm for themselves not just their spouses’ infidelity but the proximity of that unfaithful behavior to their everyday lives—an affair unfolding right under their noses, with surprisingly little effort to conceal it. Wong captures his actors in single shots, cutting or whip-panning back and forth between them, often showing us the character who is listening, processing this information, rather than the one talking. Mr. Chow takes drags of a cigarette. Mrs. Chan stirs her coffee. Finally, when the truth is obvious, wafting between them like the smoke from Mr. Chow’s cigarette, Mrs. Chan comes out with it: “I thought I was the only one who knew”—one of the film’s key lines.
Later, when Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan rehearse their inevitable painful departure from one another and Mrs. Chan breaks down in tears, it feels like as much as anything she doesn’t want to lose her confidante, her shoulder to cry on who understands exactly what she’s going through. “Don’t cry,” Mr. Chow says consolingly. “This isn’t real.” And although he means that this isn’t really goodbye, he’s actually summing up their relationship. At one point or another, it will be time for both of them to face the reality of their “real” lives. Their avoidance of the lonely, messy truth has as much to do with the connection between them as any shared attraction. That said, their fantasy of avoidance isn’t without genuine romance—romance that’s struggling to get out. The next time we see Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan having dinner together, they camouflage their budding feelings by pretending to pantomime their spouses’ dinners, with Mr. Chow ordering his wife’s favorite dishes for Mrs. Chan and vice versa, as if they’re doing research. Their expressions during these meals—actually two dinners spliced together—are serious, far from flirtatious, with the only smile coming when Mrs. Chan implies that Mr. Chow is doing a good job of mimicking her sweet-talking husband. But there’s romance in the air anyway thanks to the soundtrack: Nat “King” Cole singing “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.”
In a recent piece for Salon about “the songs that belong to the movies,” Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Cole’s rendition “communicates the idea that we’re seeing the big screen equivalent of a swoony pop song about a great love that couldn’t be. It also captures the sophistication and international flair of 1960s Hong Kong. The sight of two gorgeous Hong Kong professionals flirting with each other while an African-American pop star sings a love song in Spanish sums up the director’s one-world aesthetic better than any other scene in his career.” I’m not sure I find “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” quite as memorable as Matt does, but I agree with him on the last part, and so I wanted to use this scene as an opportunity to discuss Wong’s use of music in general. For me, the signature Wong tune of this film and of his entire filmography is the orchestral “Yumeji’s Theme,” which is used consistently and also appears in subsequent films, and yet I think it’s true that Cole’s rendition of “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” better exemplifies Wong’s approach to music in general, which in addition to being suggestive of one world is also noticeably unpretentious.
EH: There’s no doubt that “Yumeji’s Theme” and Nat Cole’s renditions of various Spanish songs both do a lot to shape and define In the Mood for Love. What they have in common, I think, is that swooning, romantic quality, tinged with more than a little melancholy—perfect music to accompany this story of unfulfilled yearning. “Yumeji’s Theme” and the Cole songs each represent one of the two major facets of Wong’s use of music, and in that respect In the Mood for Love does provide the perfect opportunity to discuss the role of music in Wong’s cinematic world. “Yumeji’s Theme” weaves throughout the entire film, recurring again and again, embodying the film’s themes through its delicate, insistent plucking and aching bowed tones. The repetition of it ensures that this beautiful piece of music becomes synonymous with the film’s central relationship, contributing to the consistent atmosphere of gloomy romanticism as much as the film’s rigorous visual aesthetic. The Cole songs, on the other hand, are linked to particular moments, the way that “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” drifts moodily through the background of that dinner scene, augmenting the moment’s rich but subtle emotions.
While “Yumeji’s Theme” represents Wong’s careful creation of overarching moods, the Spanish-language ballads reflect the director’s tendency to take individual moments and magnify their impact through pop songs and hyper-stylized visuals. In the Mood for Love is a film of nostalgia, a film where the past tense is implicit in its sleek, glamorous images of Hong Kong’s past, and if “Yumeji’s Theme” is a timeless piece, the Cole tunes are unmistakably of a previous era, contributing to the film’s glossy evocation of a time and a place that have slipped away, much as this relationship slips away. (And to the extent that the film’s heartache is caused in part by the social norms of an older time, these songs serve to locate the main characters’ frustrated relationship in its period context.)
You said before that In the Mood for Love is the Wong film that stands on its own the best, “as if it’s the axis on which the other films pivot,” and I think that’s true. It’s a film with countless connections to Wong’s other works, but for the most part those connections radiate outward from this film’s calm, melancholy center. Like all of Wong’s films, scenes here echo ones in his earlier films—the Singapore apartment visit, as I already mentioned, and also the scene where Mr. Chow whispers his secret to a hole in the wall, which resonates with the ending of Happy Together—but for the most part those connections are external to the film’s real essence. More than any of Wong’s other films, In the Mood for Love homes in on a narratively simple but emotionally complex story and explores the subtleties of its central relationship in a direct and moving way, without excess. It’s only in retrospect, especially in relation to 2046, that In the Mood for Love becomes part of a larger network within Wong’s filmography, reaching back to obliquely tie into Days of Being Wild as well: Is Maggie Cheung playing the same character here as she was in that film? Is Mr. Chow the unnamed character that Tony Leung played at the end of that film? Such questions are unanswered, and largely irrelevant to the effect of In the Mood for Love, which is moving and beautiful whether one has seen all of Wong’s other films or none of them.
In comparison, 2046 is a relentlessly meta film, a film that builds upon the foundation of Wong’s entire oeuvre and especially on the foundation of Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Together, these films constitute a loose trilogy, presumably not quite the trilogy that Wong would have made if he’d been able to follow up Days of Being Wild as originally intended, but a trilogy in which loose strands from that earlier movie are picked up and woven into a very different patchwork, where characters reappear in very different circumstances, and where past, present and future are compressed and confused. The title and sci-fi trappings of 2046 make it seem like the number refers to a futuristic year and a futuristic Hong Kong, but in fact the title refers to the number of the room where Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan shared their most memorable moments together. As the film’s voiceover says, in room number 2046, nothing ever changes, and nobody has ever come back from it, because 2046 is the past, is memory. Chow writes a science fiction story where 2046, the room where he spent the bulk of his most intimate time with Mrs. Chan, is a place that is always frozen because it’s a disconnected moment in time, a cherished but painful memory where he can relive, over and over again, the same doomed romantic story. 2046 picks up on the past tense perspective of In the Mood for Love and expands it into a collage of memories and imaginings. This film is haunted by other movies just as Chow is haunted by memories of his past.
JB: Exactly right. Though it seems an awkward comparison, 2046 always reminds me a bit of A Christmas Carol. Tony Leung’s character doesn’t observe his past, present and quasi-future in quite the same fashion as Ebenezer Scrooge, but Mr. Chow seems similarly outside of his own story even while he’s within it. Just as the mythical 2046 location within the film is a place where people go to look back, 2046 as a whole is a representation of Mr. Chow filtering through his past, examining his feelings in the present and seemingly wondering what all of this means for his future. In the way he stumbles across characters who in name or appearance are reminiscent of characters we’ve met in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and to a degree even Chungking Express, it’s as if he’s conceding that his own perception of the world might have been skewed, as if he’s examining it from a new perspective.
I’m fascinated by the thought of what 2046 must look like to a viewer who can’t spot the references to those earlier films. Does this film have the same meaning without that context? Does it feel like a collection of loose ends rather than like a somewhat unorthodox way of tying those loose ends together? I suspect the film is compelling in its own right, if for no other reason than because Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are so compelling together, as Chow and Bai Ling, neighbors in the same building with a habit of sleeping around, who get involved in yet another of Wong’s star-crossed romances. They’re both beautiful to look at; let’s start there. And Wong only enhances that with his typically striking visuals. He films the actors from in front, from behind and in profile. He centers them or moves them to one of the edges of the frame. He shoots them in two-shots and singles, and in one especially memorable composition he captures Bai Ling in the foreground, in focus and in profile, her face overlapping that of Chow’s, out of focus and facing the camera, as they connect over drinks for the first time. It almost makes no difference how Wong shoots them—they’re breathtaking from every angle.
If the relationship at the core of In the Mood for Love is defined by emotional connection and lack of opportunity, this relationship is the reverse: physical connection is frequent, and the attraction is there, but no matter how often Chow and Bai Ling are lovers they never find love. She is ready. He is not. One of the unusual things about their relationship is that even though she’s the victim, the one whose feelings are unrequited, the one who dares to open her heart, Chow is the one I always feel sorry for—at least until the end. He’s paralyzed. If he is indeed the exact same Mr. Chow from In the Mood for Love (and I’m not stating that as a given), then his experiences from the unfulfilled relationship in that film have changed him, turning him from a deferential, compassionate, warm man to a selfish, guarded sometimes jerk. Not only is he unwilling to give his heart away, he’s also unwilling to act with sympathy toward the woman who falls in love with him. He’s trapped.
EH: Yes, he is. He’s trapped by his past, unable to break free of the mental prison he’s constructed for himself based on the aborted romance of In the Mood for Love (and I don’t have much doubt that, if this maybe isn’t quite the same Chow as in that film, it’s at the very least a version of that character in some form). Though 2046 is about Chow’s relationships with several women he meets during the years after his friendship with Mrs. Chan, his relationship with Bai Ling is at the center of the film because it’s another frustrated could-be romance, as in the previous film, but frustrated for very different reasons. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan were both holding back, preventing the seemingly inevitable from happening by maintaining their composure and their loyalty to their respective disintegrating marriages. The relationship between Bai Ling and Chow initially seems similar in that both parties claim to be utterly uninterested in a conventional relationship beyond casual sex: they start out as unsentimental “drinking pals” because she’s heartbroken over her cheating boyfriend and he just wants some company to fill his otherwise empty time. Predictably, she soon falls for him and wants more, but he remains aloof, making this a much more unbalanced relationship than the mutual restrained longing of In the Mood for Love.
This relationship is defined by two key scenes in which the subtle rigor of Wong’s aesthetic amplifies the bleak emotions of these moments into iconic portraits of heartbreak. In the first of these scenes, Chow, in a gesture of calculated callousness intended to prevent Bai Ling from falling for him, offers her money after the first time they sleep together. He pretends that this is just a transaction, when the passionate and sensual way in which Wong had shot the actual sex scene suggested anything but. She takes this slight in stride, trying to stay flirty and light, smiling and biting her lip as she tosses back some cutting banter, and she subverts his cruelty in a playful way by taking only a token sum and telling him he can come back anytime for the same low price. But as Chow walks away, Wong holds the shot on a closeup of Bai Ling’s face, facing the camera rather than Chow. As he departs in the background, her face changes: her lips begin to quiver slightly, the veins in her neck throb, and her eyes seem on the verge of leaking tears that she’s desperately trying to hold back. The shot breaks only when a single tear finally winds down her cheek, causing her to smile ruefully and move away. The scene as a whole, and especially that final shot, captures the complicated emotions welling up within this supposedly casual relationship.
The second key scene takes place after the couple breaks up, and both of them begin loudly taking other lovers to reinforce to the other that it’s over. Bai Ling listens to Chow having sex with another woman, and Chow frames her sitting against the wall listening to the sounds coming from the other side. The composition is drastically unbalanced: Bai Ling is shunted off to the right side of the frame, with a conspicuously empty red cushion next to her and a lot of blank space filling up the other half of the frame. The shot conveys a haunting absence, the absence of the man making so much noise just on the other side of the wall, the man who represents the missing other half of a composition that naturally seems like it should have been a two-shot. Instead, this is a two-shot with one of the participants removed; Chow, having lost what he sees as his one real shot at love, no longer wants to be tied down into such cozy compositions. If In the Mood for Love is about a love that’s frustrated and tainted by circumstances beyond the lovers’ control, 2046 is about the damage we do to our own relationships, and about all the myriad ways in which the present is affected by the past.
JB: I think that’s true. And it leads us to the scenes that perhaps best convey the haunting effect of the past, while also most overtly uniting 2046 with In the Mood for Love: the three cab ride scenes. In the first scene, Chow and Bai Ling are shown in the back of a cab, with Chow passed out on Bai Ling’s shoulder. In his unconscious state, Chow, seated to Bai Ling’s right, reaches his hand over into Bai Ling’s lap to take her hand—a gesture that recalls the moment when Mr. Chow cautiously extends his hand to Mrs. Chan in the back of a cab in In the Mood for Love. As before, Mr. Chow’s hand is rejected (at least at first), but not for the same reasons. It might not be obvious at first glance, but this moment between Chow and Bai Ling isn’t a reproduction of the cab scene in In the Mood for Love so much as it’s an echo of it. By that I mean that Chow isn’t reaching for Bai Ling’s hand because he’s falling in love with her, which is why he tries to take Mrs. Chan’s hand in the previous film. Rather, Chow tries to take Bai Ling’s hand because he’s imagining that she is Mrs. Chan. Somewhat incredibly, Bai Ling seems to know this. Although her rejection of Chow’s hand could be read as the act of a woman accustomed to warding off the drunken advances of programmatically predatory Lotharios, which Chow certainly has become, a closer look, and perhaps a repeat viewing, suggests that Bai Ling knows that she is nothing more than a stand-in for someone else.
This is confirmed quite a bit later in the film, when Chow tries to imagine a happy ending to his futuristic novella and admits that he doesn’t know how to write it. Once again, Wong puts us in the back of a cab with a passed out Chow slumped over on the woman next to him, although this time that woman is In the Mood for Love’s Mrs. Chan—her first of two brief physical appearances in the film. “Some years back I had a happy ending in my grasp,” Chow says, “but I let it slip away.” These scenes suggest that Chow is living in a dream state. He drinks to forget about Mrs. Chan and, in a way, to remember her. The film closes with yet another cab scene, this time showing Chow, alone, slumped against the cab door. He’s awake this time, and all too aware of his solitude. Given the preceding cab scenes, this, too, is “a two-shot with one of the participants removed.” And my question to you is whether you find this final scene hopeful or hopeless. Chow implies several times in the narration that he’s the only one who has ever returned from 2046, which suggests that he’s the only one who has given into his nostalgic fantasies only to spot them for what they are and return to present-tense, forward-looking living. Clearly the guy in the back of the cab at the end of the film hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but I wonder if you think that Chow is heading in that direction. Or, instead, is he doomed to more of the same?
EH: That’s an interesting question, and one that 2046 leaves deliberately up in the air. Chow’s narrated insistence that he’s the one person to ever return from 2046—implying that he’s broken free of the past—is contrasted against the fact that we never actually see him breaking free of the past as the voiceover says he does. Instead, the film provides a happy ending for a character whose story parallels Chow’s in many ways, and in whose life he intervenes, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. Jing-wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the owner of the hotel where Chow lives, has an on/off affair with a Japanese man, an affair that, like Chow’s would-be romance with Mrs. Chan, is frustrated by circumstances. Jing-wen’s father, remembering World War II and the often-barbarous Japanese occupation of China, is prejudiced against the Japanese and refuses to allow his daughter to see this man. When Chow moves into his apartment, Jing-wen is trapped, like him, in the past, hung up on a love that she just can’t forget. She paces around the empty room next door to Chow—room number 2046, of course—reciting her lover’s last words to her and rehearsing the words she could have said but didn’t, the words that might have allowed her to avoid this heartbreak: “please take me with you.” She’s trapped in the past, trapped in 2046, just like Chow is.
Later, Chow will explore Jing-wen’s story—and by extension his own—through the sci-fi fiction he writes, in which a man takes a long train ride away from 2046, away from the past, accompanied only by androids, versions of the various women in Chow’s life. The android played by Faye Wong, a version of Jing-wen, has delayed reactions and can’t express what she feels until long after the moment has passed. It’s a very clever metaphor for the inability to connect in the present that leads to the backward-looking obsession with missed opportunities, like Chow’s fixation on Mrs. Chan or like Jing-wen pacing around the empty apartment 2046, telling the space, yes I’ll leave with you, long after the man she should have said it to had left. These people are out of sync with each other, like androids with faulty programming, like Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan who could never quite get beyond their circumstances to express their real feelings to one another. Chow invents the concept of delayed reactions in his story ostensibly as a metaphor for Jing-wen and her Japanese boyfriend, but the story becomes about his own life too, reflecting his past with Mrs. Chan. It’s also a kind of wish fulfillment for Chow: he sees Jing-wen broken up by her failure to say what she really wanted to say to her boyfriend, and he imagines that the same condition may have afflicted Mrs. Chan, that she too wishes she had said, “take me with you.”
Chow’s fiction is thus a way of rationalizing these failures to connect. People are out of sync with one another because they’re malfunctioning, maintaining stoic, unrevealing expressions in front of those they care about, only smiling and crying later, only later saying the things they’d wanted to say when their loved ones were there. Chow himself, whispering his secret into a hole in the wall at the end of In the Mood for Love, is indulging in this temporal disconnection, expressing his feelings only when it’s too late. Chow’s sci-fi writing is another way of trying to work out the problems of the past, though again he can only express his feelings indirectly, by constructing androids who stand in for real women. By the end of the film, Chow, in the back of a cab alone, leaning against the door the way he’d once leaned on both Bai Ling and Mrs. Chan, hasn’t quite decided to return from 2046 for good, but it’s clear that he wants to, very badly, and that his stories are attempts to deal with the past, to close it off into a metaphorical fiction and write a happy ending.
The problem is that he doesn’t know what that happy ending could possibly be, and it’s telling that the one example of a happy ending that the film provides—Jing-wen finally moving to Japan and marrying her boyfriend, with her father’s grudging acquiescence—involves not forgetting about the past but correcting the mistakes made in the past and being reunited with one’s true love. Chow still can’t imagine a happy ending that’s not romantic. He can’t imagine the happy ending where the gloomy romantic finally cuts ties with the heartbreak of the past and moves forward into a different life. Maybe that’s the answer to your original question: Chow, as much as he might want to escape 2046, still isn’t quite ready to do it by the end of the film.
JB: That’s pretty much the way I see it, too. In the Mood for Love has an ostensibly heartbreaking conclusion with the scene at the temple wall, because Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are alone and, we know, don’t need to be, and yet the conviction of Mr. Chow’s love, evoked so well by the way he whispers into the wall, is so touching that it adds some sweet to the bitter. It’s a textually sad scene that I find subtextually uplifting, suggesting a man who holds onto the past not because of an inability to escape it but out of respect for its significance. The conclusion of 2046, on the other hand, is textually hopeful, because Chow claims to have escaped 2046, but it’s subtextually depressing, suggesting a man who has been inside his fantasy for so long that he can’t distinguish between it and reality. The actual final shot, coming just after the shot of Chow slumped against the cab door, is a slow zoom toward what Manohla Dargis perfectly described as “a large cavity that looks at once like the amplifying horn of a Victrola and a sexual orifice of unknown provenance.” Dargis argued that Wong “never explains the significance of the cavity because, like Kim Novak’s blond twist of hair in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the image has a power that renders further explanation superfluous,” and she might be right. But to me the zoom suggests a move into darkness, as if leaving reality to reenter the coziness of the womb.
When to hold on, and when to let go. It’s a quandary that characters face over and over again in Wong films, and it dominates his next feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. Wong’s only English-language film, My Blueberry Nights uses Norah Jones’ Elizabeth as a thread binding three vignettes—one that is primarily hers and two that aren’t. The film is perhaps best known for its predominantly negative reviews, in which the film was called “contrived” (The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson), “maddeningly superficial” (Slate’s Dana Stevens) and “affected and emotionally inert” (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott). These are the kinds of adjectives that have been flung at Wong by his detractors all along, but this time they came from some of his fans. The film has supporters, of course, among them Matt Zoller Seitz, who takes the position that minor Wong is still worthy of major appreciation, but on the whole My Blueberry Nights created a sense that Wong’s effect was lost in translation.
Love it or hate it, My Blueberry Nights certainly feels like a different kind of Wong film, even for all the ways it feels so familiar—from the slow-motion shots of melting ice cream, to the striking use of color, to the (really, again?!) shots through storefront windows. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume, based on some of the comments you’ve made already, that you consider My Blueberry Nights “minor Wong.” And so my question for now isn’t if, as Matt contends, minor Wong is still major. My question is what makes My Blueberry Nights minor?
EH: I’ll answer that question, but first I want to stick with 2046 for a moment, since you brought up the very provocative image of the mysterious horn/hole that appears at both the beginning and the end of 2046. Obviously, that image is connected back to the hole into which Chow whispers his secret at the end of In the Mood for Love, so in that sense it’s both a descent into darkness—because Chow has allowed his past to envelop him and overshadow his present—and a repository for passionate emotions. The presence of this mysterious horn suggests that in many ways 2046 is a feature-length expansion of that haunting scene from the end of In the Mood for Love. Throughout 2046, Chow is haunted by the secret he whispered at the end of the previous film, the secret that echoes through the bottomless chamber of that horn. At one point, the Faye Wong android tells the train passenger fleeing from 2046 that she will be his tree, that she’ll hold his secrets for him, and this is a potent metaphor for Chow’s cavalier treatment of women as a way of holding back the pain of the past.
The androids connect Wong’s film to some of the 1960s films of one of his most obvious influences, Jean-Luc Godard, whose Alphaville and Anticipation both end with women—brainwashed, robot-like inhabitants of futuristic societies where emotion has been suppressed—rediscovering love and emotion, relearning how to express one’s deepest desires both verbally and physically. Although 2046 ends with several nods in that direction, it doesn’t quite strike such an optimistic note. At the end of the film, Chow is still out of sync with his present.
Moreover, Chow often doesn’t treat the women in his life as people, but as objects. He’ll attach himself to a woman to pass the time or to distract him from his pain, but he intentionally keeps these relationships casual and transitory—which is why he can so easily dehumanize these women by casting them as robots in his fiction. He occasionally connects with a woman at a deeper level, as he arguably does with Jing-wen, but not in a romantic way. In fact, the poetic idea of whispering a secret in a hole actually has vulgar, unpoetic connotations when the repository for the secret is a woman, an alternate meaning that Wong toys with several times here. For all the ways in which Wong is sympathetic to Chow’s heartache in 2046, he’s also fairly critical of the character’s misogyny and self-absorption, his tendency to treat women as interchangeable stand-ins for the one woman who really meant something to him.
Anyway, I do agree that My Blueberry Nights is minor Wong, though as you suggest it’s hard to pinpoint why, since so many of the typical elements of his films are there: the episodic narrative with loosely linked characters, the colorful aesthetic, the quirkiness, the thematic emphasis on heartbreak and redemption, what might be called an obsession with obsession. So what’s missing? For me, at least, what’s missing is largely intangible, and it’s the sense of deeper emotional complexity that undergirds all of Wong’s best films. Coming after the dense, evocative 2046—a film that can be read and felt in many ways and at many levels—My Blueberry Nights almost feels like Wong needed a break from that film’s emotional overload, its convoluted web of allusions and ideas. My Blueberry Nights is a small film, often charming and even moving in places, but its scope isn’t as sweeping, its ambition isn’t as apparent, as in Wong’s peak work.
JB: For me, the primary weakness of My Blueberry Nights is that it trades the ethereal for the literal. Thus, while it might look like a Wong picture, it doesn’t feel like one. Compared to the other films we’ve discussed, My Blueberry Nights is a small picture, both in ambition and in impact, and yet it’s weighed down by big, melodramatic gestures that more often than not feel empty and excessive. One of the things that makes Wong’s other films so consistently compelling is that his characters are so difficult to figure out, even when they seemingly come right out and tell us what’s on their minds or in their hearts. In those other Wong films, a character’s emotions are usually best expressed through music cues, camera angles and the mise en scène. Facial gestures and emotional outbursts are to be distrusted: smiles mask pain and embarrassment; tears suggest sadness but without quite explaining why. In this film, it’s different. Characters are more extroverted, sometimes to the extreme. Especially painful is the film’s middle chapter in which Rachel Weisz’s Sue Lynne breaks into interminable melodramatic tantrums—outbursts that seem unusual within the Wong universe on their own and that are further accentuated by Wong’s decision to sometimes capture them from a distance, taking in each gesture of Weisz’s full-bodied spectacle.
One could deduce from this that Wong is making a boldface statement about the behavioral differences between Americans/Europeans and Asians (in addition to making a statement about the behavioral differences across eras). I can buy that. Perhaps Wong feels he’s being true to these characters, to their American (and European) way of being. That makes perfect logical sense. But no amount of rationalization can keep this film from feeling like a departure from Wong’s very essence, as established by his previous films. There’s just something altogether wrong about watching Wong’s characters dump their feeling out onto the table in front of them, akin to the way David Strathairn’s Arnie scatters a pocketful of Alcoholics Anonymous chips across the bar, and I say that fully realizing that Days of Being Wild is hardly void of big emotional outbursts, whether it’s Yuddy assaulting the lover of his “aunt,” or Zeb and Lulu arguing in the rain; in my mind those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The emotions in My Blueberry Nights don’t just feel big. They feel sloppy. And until this film that’s a word that I’d never thought could apply to Wong.
EH: Interesting. I agree in a way that My Blueberry Nights is sloppier than usual for Wong, that it pours out its emotions in a particularly blatant and broad way, but I’m not sure I agree that the emotions themselves are any bigger or more inherently (melo)dramatic than in Wong’s other films. In the Mood for Love is all about restraint and discretion, true, but for every Mrs. Chan in Wong’s oeuvre there’s a passionate, unfettered Lulu. I think what sets My Blueberry Nights apart is not that it’s about characters who express their emotions in big ways, but that the ways in which they choose to express those emotions are less artful than those of other Wong characters. Wong’s films are filled with people who pour out their emotions in grand gestures, from the cop who measures his heartache in cans of pineapple to the girl who tries to connect with the man she loves by redecorating his apartment to the lonely mute in Fallen Angels who tries to cure his alienation through outrageous and often violent acts to Chow in 2046 creating a garish fictional artifice to house his long-fermenting pain. What these characters have in common, besides the grandeur of their emotions, is the artful, creative ways in which they express what they feel. They don’t just unleash torrents of raw emotion; they create readymade metaphors for their feelings and try to remake the world to reflect their inner turmoil. Their actions mirror those of Wong as filmmaker, molding the raw material of drama and emotion into cleverly structured narratives packed with metaphors.
The characters in My Blueberry Nights, on the other hand, largely do unleash torrents of raw emotions, largely without the mediating influence of the metaphorical constructs that structure the emotions in Wong’s other films. In that respect, the decision of the film’s central character, Elizabeth (Norah Jones), to set off across the country to escape her heartache over her broken relationship, is a typical Wong device. Elizabeth is putting distance between herself and her pain, not just metaphorical distance but physical distance, and the passage of time is reflected in the film’s intertitles in the form of distance from New York City, distance from the site of her heartbreak. Like many other Wong characters, she doesn’t just suffer quietly and privately, but concocts a way to write her feelings onto the world in a big way. It’s not as powerful a metaphor as the pineapple cans or the visits to loved ones’ apartments in previous Wong films, but it does arise from the same sensibility. The other characters in the film, in contrast, feel just as intensely but the ways in which they interact with their pain aren’t nearly as interesting. The story of the drunken Arnie and the unfaithful Sue Lynne frequently verges on cliché, as does the story of the self-consciously posing gambler Leslie (Natalie Portman) and her father, with whom she has a relationship that is externally cool but secretly loving. Most of Wong’s films traffic in big, melodramatic gestures and intense emotions; the difference here is not the quantity of emotion but the quality of how it’s expressed by the characters, and by extension how Wong chooses to frame and filter those emotions.
JB: You know, I think you’re right. The reason that the (melo)drama of My Blueberry Nights feels so sloppy and blatant isn’t because its emotions are less restrained. It’s because its emotions are artless. In film after film, Wong creates worlds of heightened reality, but with My Blueberry Nights he trades poetry for hyperbole. It’s Wong’s Las Vegas—exterior dazzle without a soul, built of structures that remind us of the real thing without coming anywhere close to achieving it. A good example would be that fishbowl full of keys at Jeremy’s restaurant, each set a remnant of relationships gone wrong. On the face of it there’s nothing about a fishbowl of keys that’s less metaphorically powerful than 30 cans of pineapple, and yet the effect is nowhere near the same. At one point Elizabeth asks Jeremy (Jude Law) to tell the story behind one of the sets of keys. “Those belonged to a young couple a few years ago; they were naïve enough to think they were going to spend the rest of their lives together,” Jeremy says. “What happened?” Elizabeth asks. “Life happened,” Jeremy explains. “You know, things happened. Time happened. That’s pretty much always the case, more or less.”
Amazingly, that passage is more stilted in the film than it is on the page. But the problem isn’t with the dialogue itself, even though it seems lifted from an episode of Scrubs. The problem is that in that specific moment the film is without subtext. Jeremy might be trying to reach Elizabeth on some deeper level, but if so it’s buried so deep that I can’t find it. In Matt’s “Directors of the Decade” series for Salon in December of 2009, he called Wong (among others) a “sensualist,” someone with “a lyrical gift for showing life in the moment, for capturing experience as it happens and as we remember it.” Continuing the definition, he wrote: “The sensualists are bored with dramatic housekeeping. They’re interested in sensations and emotions, occurrences and memories of occurrences. If their films could be said to have a literary voice, it would fall somewhere between third person and first—perhaps as close to first person as the film can get without having the camera directly represent what a character sees.” I agree with that. But I couldn’t apply that description to the fishbowl scene because I can’t detect any emotion in that scene—not in the characters or around them.
EH: I agree. The fishbowl seems like the kind of metaphorical device that Wong frequently uses in his films, but it’s dealt with in such a superficial way that the scenes revolving around it don’t come anywhere close to the emotional intensity that characterizes his best work. Jeremy’s dialogue about the keys is so generic that it could apply to anyone, though it seems to me that he’s trying to talk about himself and his ex-girlfriend Katya (Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power). What should be a resonant, touching moment is weighed down by sitcom-level abstractions about love and heartache. At times like that, My Blueberry Nights seems like a third-party attempt to mimic Wong’s style rather than the product of Wong himself.
Which is not to say that My Blueberry Nights is without its charms. You earlier cited Matt’s appreciation of this film as “minor Wong,” with the implication that the minor work of a filmmaker as great as Wong is still pretty major in the grand scheme of things. I wouldn’t go that far—at least not for this film, although I certainly have my own favored auteurs where even their “minor” works seem great to me—but My Blueberry Nights is at least enjoyable. Some of its problems arise from Wong’s attempts to adjust to the Western setting and characters, but there’s also a certain appeal in seeing the director’s Hong Kong aesthetic transplanted to the US. The lights of Reno’s casinos, neon diner signs in Memphis, the lights of traffic in New York: all are substitutes for the bright, busy glow of Hong Kong that suffuses Wong’s other films. As a result, My Blueberry Nights has a warm, colorful look that’s like Wong’s other films but somehow also not, because it has the distinctive feel of a foreign eye looking at America and seeing only the parts that reflect (or can be subsumed by) his own sensibility.
It’s a very sweet film, too. There’s darkness here, of course, but as we’ve already discussed the film’s melodramatic elements are possibly its greatest weakness. Instead, the film most appeals to me when it’s sidestepping the darkness and delivering sentiments that are cute, and light, and sweetly romantic. For that reason, I like the laconic reunion of Jeremy and Katya, in which the dialogue is no more substantial than it is elsewhere in the film, but Wong gets across the tender nostalgia of the scene through the atmosphere: the glossy night-time New York street corner, the faces of the actors, the cigarette smoke that wafts in the night air. I’m also moved, in this film’s modest way, by Wong’s typical amplification of a kiss into a slow-motion spectacle, a device that’s recycled for the very sweet conclusion. And as portraits of romantic obsession go, Jeremy frantically calling anywhere he can think of and speaking to anyone named Elizabeth in the hopes of finding his friend is pretty satisfying and funny, especially when he excitedly spends several minutes gushing over the phone to someone who turns out not to be his Elizabeth. The film’s pleasures are modest and small-scale, but not entirely absent by any means.
JB: No, the pleasures aren’t entirely absent. But they are sparse and fleeting. My favorite moment in the film, the one that lingers beyond its frames, is the unpretentious yet touching goodbye between Elizabeth and Leslie on some lonely highway in Nevada. It’s perhaps the film’s most genuinely American image: two cars following one another down the blacktop amidst the rugged terrain that lies between so many distant southwestern outposts. The women are in separate cars but they’re still joined by their proximity, until Elizabeth hangs a left to complete her journey while Leslie remains on the road to complete hers. They share a honk and a wave, and now they’re alone again, Portman flashing a little look that shows how quickly Leslie feels Elizabeth’s absence. Gustavo Santaolalla’s “De Ushuaia a La Quiaca” has been used in so many films over the past decade that it’s become cliché, but within the boundaries of this film it’s yet another appropriate Wong musical selection, a piece that suggests the sadness of farewells and the thrill of new beginnings. That scene touches me, as do so many compositions: Elizabeth’s face reflected in I’m-not-sure-what while sitting with Jeremy in his restaurant; Arnie slumped over by himself at the bar; Elizabeth with her arms folded on the diner counter, chin on her arms, lost in thought; and so on. But I agree with you: so much of this film feels like someone approximating Wong’s style. The techniques are his, but the effect is absent.
One of the things that I love so much about In the Mood for Love is that for all of its painstaking, clearly strategized artistry, it feels effortless, as if the film’s drama naturally walks into cinematic and emotional focus, without Wong needing to tape down any marks. Here it’s the opposite. My Blueberry Nights feels labored. For example, so many shots of Jeremy, whether he’s missing Elizabeth or sharing a smoke with his ex, are shot through the storefront windows of his café, allowing Wong to add some exoticism and color to his compositions thanks to the window paintings that obscure the characters’ faces. They are nice shots, for a while. But as with his use of speed in Days of Being Wild, Wong’s style enhancement eventually becomes style alone—excessive, rigid and ultimately empty. In this picture, even Wong’s use of music sometimes feels forced, the most glaring example being the moment when Arnie threatens Sue Lynne with a gun and Wong transitions out of the confrontation with Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” a song that has already been established as Arnie’s theme but feels completely inappropriate anyway. And of course no one is working harder than Wiesz, who by the time she runs out of ways of portray drunken rage and despair is only halfway there.
EH: “Labored” pretty much sums this film up. It’s a film that’s working very hard in order to come across as charming and endearing, at least when it’s not working equally hard at overcooked melodrama. It’s a very uneven, unbalanced movie as a result. The scene where Arnie pulls a gun on Sue Lynne epitomizes everything that’s wrong with this movie, while the other scene you pick out, the highway goodbye between Elizabeth and Leslie, represents the potential good movie lurking within this material. Portman’s Leslie is an interesting character, and Portman, who’s not saddled with as much melodramatic baggage as Wiesz, delivers a subtle, sympathetic performance that’s probably the best in the film. Portman never quite disappears into the character, which could be problematic except that here I dig her obvious enjoyment of this role, the pleasure she takes in playing this slightly outrageous gambler and loner.
I often appreciate the kind of correspondence she’s playing with here, where an actor’s interest in her role dovetails neatly with the character’s own persona, so that Portman’s crooked smirk and subtle glimmer of mischief can be read as either the character’s playful penchant for bluffs and deceits or the actress’ similar delight in the feints of her own performance. What I like about this character, in comparison to the much heavier material with Arnie and Sue Lynne, is that her arc is poignant and sad without sacrificing the lightness and stylishness that I associate with Wong even at his most emotionally intense. The final twist of this storyline—that Leslie won the big poker game and told Elizabeth she’d lost mainly to ensure some company on her trip to see her father—is a good example of clever gamesmanship that hides an emotionally resonant payoff.
That’s why that storyline feels the most like vintage Wong to me, if more the Wong of Chungking Express than of In the Mood for Love. On the whole, however, we seem to agree that My Blueberry Nights is minor Wong, perhaps with moments and images that at least nod to Wong at his best. As with all of his films, there’s a sense of interconnection with his larger oeuvre, here felt especially in the road trip vibe of Elizabeth’s cross-country journey, which most directly ties into the much more powerful exploration of similar themes in Happy Together. Like that film, My Blueberry Nights is also an interesting example of what we’ve discussed elsewhere as Wong’s internationalism, his tendency to act as though borders barely exist. Just as the Hong Kong Chinese of Happy Together head to South America and use the landscape as a venue for their emotional struggles, there are hints of the same idea in My Blueberry Nights, in Elizabeth’s desperate tour of America as a way to put distance between herself and her heartache. My Blueberry Nights might be Wong’s weakest and least consistent film in terms of quality, but in other ways it’s an utterly characteristic work; it doesn’t fail by venturing outside of Wong’s comfort zone but by resting too complacently in this familiar territory without the adventurous style and emotional depth of the director’s other work.
JB: That actually brings us back to the beginning of this discussion, when I asked you whether the recurring themes of Wong’s filmography strengthen the individual pictures or water them down. We seem to agree that the other pictures we’ve discussed are stronger for the ways they overlap (or are overlapped by) Wong’s other films; or at least we seem to agree that the individual films are not weakened by the ways they refer to and remind of Wong’s other work. But in the case of My Blueberry Nights, I’d suggest it’s a little of both.
There’s a moment early in the film when Elizabeth asks to take a look at the security tapes that Jeremy says are like his diary, so that she can confront the image of her ex-boyfriend out with another woman. The scene unfolds without dialogue. Instead, we get “Yumeji’s Theme,” this time played softly and slowly on harmonica, a rendition that sounds not just Americanized but also as if it’s a distant echo of the orchestral version from In the Mood for Love. And that’s perfect, because that’s exactly what it is. Just like Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan attempted to reenact the meals that their cheating spouses were having without them as a way to confront that infidelity, Elizabeth looks at the security tape and watches the man she loves dining out with another woman as a way of coming to grips with the brutal reality of their failed relationship. The harmonica version of “Yumeji’s Theme” would make for appropriate background music even if it didn’t directly refer to In the Mood for Love, but there’s really no doubting that this short scene is all the more effective for those who spot the reference and feel the breeze of that film’s hurricane of emotions wrapping around us.
Alas, at other times in My Blueberry Nights, the references to Wong’s previous films only seek to illustrate the comparative majorness of those films in contrast to the minorness (and sometimes that’s an understatement) of this one. In the Tennessee chapter, for example, there’s a moment when Sue Lynne squeezes by Elizabeth in a tight hallway at the bar. Wong shoots the scene using one of his favorite compositions: putting his camera right up next to a wall so that the wall seems to run into the camera at about a 15-degree angle. It’s a shot we’ve seen many times before, particularly in Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, but seeing it here doesn’t enhance My Blueberry Nights, because unlike the harmonica version of “Yumeji’s Theme” it doesn’t trigger any specific emotional response. Instead, it simply invites comparison, and by doing so makes My Blueberry Nights feel small. Although Wong is proof positive that effect can be amplified by thematic weaving and repetition, the problem with this approach is that future missteps threaten to taint previous successes by association. My Blueberry Nights doesn’t, in my mind, cheapen In the Mood for Love, my favorite Wong film, or do much to detract from my overall opinion of him as an artist. But if he were to string together numerous other misfires, I worry that it might send the whole structure tumbling down, like a Jenga tower that grows weaker by borrowing from itself. The safer thing to do would be to cover these films with mud, sealing them in small compartments. Of course, to do so just wouldn’t be Wong.
EH: No, it wouldn’t. The compartment metaphor suggests that Wong’s oeuvre is like an apartment block, with each of his films an apartment within the larger building, a tempting construct considering Wong’s fascination with urban environments and his Hong Kong-centric perspective. However, these individual rooms in the building of Wong’s oeuvre aren’t sealed off from one another, not by any means. Characters fluidly pass from one room to another, crossing over into the lives and stories of the Wong heroes in adjoining rooms. Such fluidity between ostensibly separate urban spaces is a thematic foundation of Wong’s work, as evidenced by the parallel disintegrating marriages in the adjoining apartments of In the Mood for Love, as well as the repeated emphasis on lovers who interact with their loved ones’ apartments as stand-ins for the people they love. Wong’s films often revolve around the significance of particular rooms—notably room number 2046, which appears in several different incarnations throughout his work—and in the same way the separate “rooms” of his individual films are permeable to echoes or ghosts that flow from room to room.
In this way, the interconnectivity of Wong’s career becomes a metaphor for the urban interconnectivity that he explores within many of the individual films, the sense that in the neon-lit modern cities of Wong’s films, no one’s life is truly separate, no one is truly isolated no matter how alienated and disconnected they might feel. No matter how bleak Wong’s films can sometimes seem, no matter how dark the emotions he dredges up can be, that utopian idea remains at the center of his career, the thread winding through his films and tying them together.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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