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(Credit: Jet Tone Films)

'My Blueberry Nights': Wong Kar-wai's trip to America

Wong Kar-wai - 'My Blueberry Nights'
3.8

Considered to be Wong Kar-wai’s first “critical failure” by many, My Blueberry Nights is undoubtedly an oddity in the Hong Kong auteur’s oeuvre. For one, the film is set in America, unlike all his other works. It represents the transposition of Wong Kar-wai’s unique sensibilities to a landscape that was entirely foreign to him. In addition to that, My Blueberry Nights is also notable for having Darius Khondji as its cinematographer instead of Wong’s frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle. Despite all the changes, My Blueberry Nights is laced with the overwhelmingly familiar melancholy that Wong Kar-wai is famous for.

Based on a short film made by Wong Kar-wai that was originally in Chinese, My Blueberry Night stars Norah Jones as Elizabeth – a heartbroken young woman who tries to recover from a brutal breakup in a tiny café in New York. The café is run by Jeremy (Jude Law), a Manchester boy who crossed the ocean to fulfil the dream of running every marathon in America only to settle down into the routines of running a business. In the quiet comfort of Jeremy’s café, Elizabeth nurses her emotional wounds with generous helpings of blueberry pies which are generally ignored by other customers.

Wong Kar-wai cited Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks as a source of inspiration for the aesthetic qualities of My Blueberry Nights. While Hopper said that he “was painting the loneliness of a large city,” Wong set out to achieve a much more ambitious goal. Although Doyle is conspicuously absent from the film’s production, the visual narrative employed Darius Khondji is heavily influenced by the former’s use of neon lights and colour compositions which amplify the visual reality projected by modernity. With the help of these familiar styles (fragmented frames and copious voice-overs), Wong Kar-wai tried to capture the loneliness of America.

When it was first announced that Jones would feature in a leading role despite the fact that she had no meaningful acting experience, questions were raised about her abilities. For the majority of the film, we follow her across the country as she tries to move on from her painful past by working odd jobs to save up enough for a car. From Tennessee to Nevada, Elizabeth embarks on a journey that reeks of the illusory myth of self-actualisation. Along the way, she runs into tragic characters like an alcoholic (David Strathairn) whose wife (Rachel Weisz) doesn’t want anything to do with him and a gambling addict (Natalie Portman) whose father trained her to indulge in it from an early age.

Natalie Portman as Leslie. (Credit: Jet Tone Films)

My Blueberry Nights has earned comparisons to Wong’s 1994 masterpiece Chungking Express for its treatment of love, but there’s a vast difference in quality. The latter embodies the spirit of Hong Kong, which the filmmaker understands so well, but his American debut can be clearly identified as the work of an outsider trying to peek in. However, My Blueberry Nights is an important addition to his filmography because it offers something that none of his other films do. For about 90 minutes, it lets you look at America through the rose coloured lenses of a Wong Kar-wai film, and it is definitely beautiful to look at.

“Working in Hong Kong on a film in my own language, I would be more sure,” the filmmaker admitted. “In a way, to work in the United States I spent time on the road here and have seen a lot of films but that doesn’t mean that I understand this country or Americans well enough to make everything authentic. [Lawrence Block] helped me to put the details into the script and made sure that it was authentic enough for an American audience and during the production; I also asked my cast and crew. I worked with a very minimal crew; it was almost like a student film and I would tell them what the situation was and ask them what to do, was this the way to express it? Because I was sure that they would know more than I did.”

An anomaly in the director’s illustrious career, My Blueberry Nights was dismissed by critics for its inability to properly interpret the elusive American ethos. Wong Kar-wai’s mesmerising misinterpretation still remains worth watching because its poetry is universal.

Far Out is currently the BFI media partner for the brilliant Wong Kar-wai season taking place in London, with tickets on sale now. At Far Out, we’ll continue to bring you all the news, reviews and detailed coverage in the coming weeks.

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