Wednesday 26th January 2022

My Blueberry Nights (12A)
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai
Reviewed by: James Smith

Wong Kar Wai is best known in the West for his beautiful and moving Hong Kong films, such as the masterpiece In the Mood for Love, its gorgeous follow up 2046 and the delightful Chungking Express. Until now, Wong's work has been firmly rooted in Hong Kong and its environs, but here he has, slightly surprisingly, decided to try his hand in the US, with a romantic road movie starring country singer Norah Jones – seemingly as traditionally American as possible.

I totally sound like I'm from Manchester!
I totally sound like I'm from Manchester!

Jones is in her first starring role here as Elizabeth, a heartbroken young woman living in New York whose boyfriend has just left her for another woman. She clings to the hope that he will return to her by visiting a café across the road from his apartment and leaving the key to her apartment for her ex to collect. He never does, but each night she returns to the café to eat some blueberry pie and discuss her problems with the owner Jeremy (Jude Law, whose accent is from Manchester, apparently). Shortly afterwards, for no readily apparent reason, Elizabeth decides to go on a road trip across America, and on the way meets various wacky characters that help her to crystallise her feelings on love.

The casting of Jones is reminiscent of Wong's decision to cast Faye Wong in Chungking Express, herself famous as a singer in Hong Kong with limited acting experience. In that film, Faye Wong was a breath of fresh air, and clearly Wong Kar Wai was hoping for something similar here. He does initially get that from Jones – during the first act, in which she is mainly required to mope and weep, she is rather good, easily winning the audience's heart. However, once the road trip part of the film begins and her character starts hiding behind various other names (Beth, Lizzie, Betty), so does Norah hide behind, or is overshadowed by, the more well-known actors that appear: David Strathairn as an alcoholic cop, Rachel Weisz as his extravagant estranged wife and Natalie Portman as a wild gambler who has issues with her father.

By the end of the film (it was all shot in sequence, so this is also the end of the shoot), Jones' initial sweetness has become irritating and she has barely developed her character, making this first foray into acting a mixed success.

Of course, the main question regarding this film is whether Wong has managed to bring his style and success to the US. I hate to say it, but he has not made a particularly great film here. Some of his style is present, and there is much to love: in particular, the cinematography is superb and he demonstrates that it is not just when he is working with Christopher Doyle that he can make films that look fantastic. No-one shoots motion like he does and the way in which he made moving lights look beautiful in Chungking Express is again displayed here. He utilises the wide range of locations (stretching from New York to Las Vegas) to give each act its own style, and the range of colours that he uses means the film is never a hardship to watch.

However, where he fails is in the story; famously, he rarely starts filming with a completed script, rather allowing his films to develop as they are being shot. Indeed, In the Mood for Love was originally conceived as three interconnected stories until one of them shone out and became the single story of the film, while 2046 underwent a tortured production during which the story was significantly altered from the initial concept of a predominantly science fiction film. Here, it is as if the constraints of a Hollywood shoot have prevented the organic development of the film that he is used to, and this shows up in some of the weaker parts in the middle of the film that would possibly have been excised in his Hong Kong films.

Another problem is that the ending is particularly hideous, with a saccharine Hollywood last act spoiling a lot of the good stuff that has gone before; this definitely seems to be a concession as his other films never end up in the characters living happily ever after.

It is nice to see a new Wong Kar Wai film and to see him trying something a little different. Nevertheless, I hope that he does return to Hong Kong for his next film as the freedom he has there certainly seems to help him as a film-maker. This film is not a disaster, but nor is it what we would hope for from one of the best current directors. We'll declare this a minor hiccup and move on.

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Length: 111 minutes
Certificate: 12A
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IMDB Link:
Release Date: 22nd February 2008

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