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: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor
Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.1.5
For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.
Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.
Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.
The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.
Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment
The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.3
With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”
With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.
In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.
The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.
Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.
Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan
Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.2
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.
Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.
Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.
Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.
As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.
Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy
Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.1.5
Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. He’s from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his father’s dreams, which in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she can’t host, and ends up taking her to his cousin’s place. She isn’t comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away he’ll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she won’t put out. By the time he kicks her out, she’s already in love.
The strangers’ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. That’s because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), Luc’s subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (André Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexuality’s peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.
We’ve seen, and lived, this story a million times—in real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, “For the room, I’ll refund the whole amount.” It’s then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. “I’ve seen women wait for their men all their lives,” he tells her.
And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.
Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.
Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalism’s Race to the Bottom
The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.2.5
A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.
Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.
While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalism’s race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanal—Winterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing “is this all there is?” dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyle—the film shows McCreadie’s ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.
Linking the flashbacks about McCreadie’s up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking he’s just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadie’s success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadie’s self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her boss’s avarice.
With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion he’s imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. He’s the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like he’s reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, “BrainyQuote!”
Greed isn’t a subtle satire. But, then, what’s the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (“adding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,” as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isn’t able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues
It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.2.5
Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. “Legal but rare” is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly O’Sullivan, no doubt count on.
Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsible—qualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty she’s endured—she struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the film’s opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, she’s brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude she’s chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.
Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridget’s nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not they’re actually dating.
In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into “kids say the darnedest things” terrain, even though it can be funny (“My guitar class is a patriarchy,” she proclaims at one point). But O’Sullivan’s screenplay doesn’t overly sentimentalize childhood—or motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridget’s mother’s (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridget’s head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.
Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the couple’s next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose “lean in” brand of upper-class feminism doesn’t preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Frances’s smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridget’s foolhardy crush on him.
Bridget’s relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isn’t making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. It’s that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell she’s built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, it’s true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principles—a public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediation—but it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.
Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller
What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.2.5
Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschietti’s similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boy’s eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if he’s wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.
Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silence—a refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillers—informs Shin’s lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.
Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as she’s a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sisters’ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.
Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultz’s plot, and there’s quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. It’s a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the film’s unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.
When Abby’s sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shin’s greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the film’s opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappers’ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.
Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist who’s either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boy’s disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abby’s unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifying—suggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abby’s fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isn’t quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity
While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.2
Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.
Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.
Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)
It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.
Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.
Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.
Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.
The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.
Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.
Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?
Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.
Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?
Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—
Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.
Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?
Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?
Neeson: Yeah, we did.
Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.
Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.
I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”
When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?
Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.
There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.
Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.
It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.
Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.
You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?
Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.
Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?
Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”
Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!
Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?
Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.3
The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.
It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.
Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.
In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.
This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.
A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book
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