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.