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My Blueberry Nights (2007) March 29, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Romance, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Norah Jones; Jude Law; Natalie Portman; David Strathairn; Rachel Weisz  Territory: Hong Kong

Elizabeth (Norah Jones) is splitting up with her boyfriend and hands his house keys to New York cafe owner Jeremy (Jude Law), knowing her ex-lover to be a patron of the establishment and hoping to run into him to smooth things over.  When it becomes apparent that he’s not going to retrieve his keys, she forms a friendship with Jeremy over blueberry pie before taking a journey of discovery across the United States.

I had a lot of doubts about this one – could Wong Kar-Wai’s style travel to an English speaking world and still be noticeably his film?  The answer, whether you like the film or not, is undeniably yes.  I was really worried that the principal cast would end up producing something that would look like a parody of a Wong Kar-Wai film, but as soon as Jude Law produces his jar full of keys which have been left by lost loves, never to be picked up by their other halves, and can recall the story behind each key, I knew I was in safe hands.

My Blueberry Nights - Norah Jones 

My Blueberry Nights is apparently adapted from an excised chapter from In the Mood for Love (and that bloody theme tune pops up again in harmonica form) and transplanted into the USA.  The heartbroken Elizabeth decides to take a trip across to the other side of the street by the longest route possible – all across America – and along the way encounters a collection of emotional screw-ups including an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) desperately trying to recapture his estranged wife (a surprisingly slutty-looking Rachel Weisz) and a broke poker hustler (Natalie Portman).  These encounters help Elizabeth deal with her own problems for her eventual return to the Big Apple.  Meanwhile, she writes to the increasingly infatuated Jeremy on a regular basis, who attempts to locate Elizabeth by contacting every Memphis Bar & Grill in the state.  In one sublime Wong Kar-Wai moment, he reaches an Elizabeth and starts spouting his happiness at tracking her down even though he knows it’s not the same Elizabeth he’s falling for. 

The tone for the film is usually very sombre, and the Officer Copeland sub story is particularly grim.  In that way, casual viewers are probably in for quite a surprise if they’re expecting light fluff.  After all, who would expect Norah Jones to start out in such a serious piece?  No matter what you think of Wong Kar-Wai or his films, I think it’s blindingly obvious that he can either spot acting talent a mile off or he knows how to get the best performance out of practically anybody, as Jones looks natural and is utterly convincing as Elizabeth.  Apparently, Jones turned up for a meeting with Wong assuming he wanted her to do some music for the film, only to be asked if she wanted to act.  Furthermore, knowing that she had never acted before, he instructed her not to take acting lessons.

Norah Jones and Natalie Portman in bed together - there IS a God!

For the first time since Wong Kar-Wai’s debut, cinematographer Christopher Doyle is not involved (he was unavailable), which another reason why I feared that this film may end up looking nothing like a Wong Kar-Wai film.  However, Darius Khondji does a fine job, even though it feels as if he’s deliberately mimicking Doyle’s style.  It perhaps doesn’t help that when asked about the difference between Doyle and Khondji, all Wong had to say on the matter was that while Doyle doesn’t care about food, but Khondji was always eating.

While My Blueberry Nights sometimes feels like retreading old ground, the film is far from the disaster I was dreading, and wherever Wong goes next should be interesting. 

Well, that’s all from me on Wong Kar-Wai for now.  Thanks to everyone who’s been reading all my thoughts on his films, and I hope I’ve encouraged one or two readers to check out his films.  

2046 (2004) March 25, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Romance, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Zhang Zi-Yi; Faye Wong; Gong Li  Territory: Hong Kong

Following the events of In the Mood for Love, an emotionally bankrupt Chow Ho-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) flits from one casual relationship to another, always thinking of his lost love, Su Li-Zhen.  He now writes science fiction and steamy erotica for newspapers as well as the occasional martial arts epic, and is preoccupied with the future world of 2046 where one can recover lost memories.

I think you would have gotten superb odds if you’d approached a Chinese bookmaker in the nineties and said you wanted to bet that Wong Kar-Wai would one day do a sequel to Days of Being Wild incorporating androids and sci-fi elements.  So while we’re all kicking ourselves at that particular missed opportunity, let’s look at the film on it’s own merits.  2046 is without a doubt Wong Kar-Wai’s most ambitious and expensive looking Hong Kong production, and probably about as complex as he’s gotten, too.  It’s easy to forget that his films are generally no longer than about 95 minutes long as he tends to pack a lot into a relatively short running time, but this one runs at about two hours’ and seems positively titanic.

2046 - Leung and Zhang 

In the Mood for Love’s Chow is now a heartbroken man, and personally I found him a lot more interesting this time out.  He intends to take over apartment number 2046 in a local hotel (the room number he occupied in In the Mood for Love where he wrote his stories with Su Li-Zhen) but ends up moving in next door at 2047.  From there, he observes the female occupants of 2046 starting with Miss Wang (Faye Wong) who is learning Japanese for her boyfriend, despite her father’s disapproval of the match.  Next to occupy 2046 is Bai Ling (Zhang Zi-Yi), a party girl who falls for Chow after their casual relationship develops into something more emotional – if only from her point of view.

The plot meanders quite a bit, as you might expect, with various characters drifting in and out of the story.  But by and large, 2046 is not that difficult to follow if you’re paying attention (not unlike Ashes of Time, in fact) and the inclusion of other characters gives the film more space.  Leung Fung-Ying (aka Mimi/Lulu) (Carina Lau) returns from Days of Being Wild and talks to Chow about Yuddy.  Ping (Siu Ping-Lam) is still around and up to no good. 

But the new ladies in Chow’s life add the most colour.  Zhang Zi-Yi is the most surprising here, and she shows that she really can act.  But then Wong Kar-Wai always has been able to get great performances out of his cast.  Black Spider (Gong Li), on the other hand, feels like one lady too many, and for some reason I never really connect with her story, despite it being really quite important to Chow’s character (I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film, just take my word for it).  The women of 2046 are stunningly beautiful (again, apart from Gong Li, who looks uncharacteristically unglamorous) and shot amazingly.  Zhang Zi-Yi in particular is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the scene where Faye Wong is pacing her room repeating Japanese phrases to herself is (and I know I’m going to sound Tarantino-esque by saying this) erotically charged and the one scene that has always stayed in my memory.

2046 - Faye Wong 

The visual style of the film is also quite bold.  The sixties sets are not much different from those in In the Mood for Love, but the futuristic settings of the 2046 world are a great mixture of retro-futuristic kitsch and stark realism.  Wong has decided, wisely, to use more than one piece of music throughout the film, a decision that made me breathe a huge sigh of relief.  Even if In the Mood for Love was not a true sequel to Days of Being Wild, 2046 is undoubtedly connected to both films by theme, character and setting.  The “big clock” motif that permeated the other films is gone, but replaced with a multitude of mirrors which has probably provoked great debate amongst fans. 

Although I feel that 2046 is a solid film, there’s no escaping the feeling that it’s always going to play second fiddle to the film that preceded it.  Which is odd, as this is easily the more challenging, adventurous and arguably the more original of the two films.  It certainly delivers more the more you watch it, which is something I can’t honestly say about In the Mood for Love.  Furthermore, the return of the film-noir voiceover monologues is welcome despite the device seeming just a tad clichéd now.  Somehow, though, I suspect that Wong could have trimmed it a little and made the result more wieldy.

In the Mood for Love (2000) March 12, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Romance, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Maggie Cheung  Territory: Hong Kong

Newspaper writer Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) meets Secretary Su (Maggie Cheung).  Both are lonely as their spouses are frequently working abroad and supposedly having an affair, so they get together to be surrogate partners.  This sparks an inevitable feeling of kindred spirits and the first flashes of romance between them.  The question is: will they give in to their feelings for each other, or will they do the honourable thing?

I’m well aware of how utterly adored In the Mood for Love is, being probably the most well known of all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, especially overseas (i.e. here).  But I didn’t like it on the first viewing and now, on third viewing, and in context with his other work, I’m finally convinced I’m never going to like it.  In fact, I’m quite sure I’ve liked it less and less with each subsequent viewing.

Before going into details, a little more about the plot.  Well, this being a Wong Kar-Wai film, there isn’t a plot as such, but the film focuses solely on the two would-be lovers.  There isn’t any great surprise there, but gone are the film-noir voice-overs to let us know what they are thinking.  This isn’t a bad thing, actually, in retrospect, as when they reappear in the sequel you realise it was becoming quite a clichéd device anyway.  However, what now happens is you get long periods of silence that feel quite uncomfortable.  According to Maggie Cheung, the plot of the movie was left on the cutting room floor while what remains is hints and insinuation.  Again, a nice idea in theory, but I don’t really think the remaining material stood on its own merits. 

In the Mood for Love 

So, it’s vague.  Very vague.  Which I can handle.  I can even handle the deliberate slow pacing (something that I’m appreciating as I get older).  That does not bother me.  What does is a multitude of things.  Firstly, I never really buy into the characters and I’m confused as to whether Chow and Su’s respective partners are having an affair with each other or whether it’s just a co-incidence that they’re both absent.  I’m not sure Mrs Chow even is having an affair, let alone Mr Chan.  I’m sure that’s part of the point, but the idea of infidelity just comes out of nowhere in the movie with Chow practicing with Su how to handle the confrontation when and if it happens.  Next up, Wong’s sense of using music seems to have deserted him completely.  The (presumably original) theme tune is good, but is used throughout the film whenever something happens (or, indeed, doesn’t happen) between the characters.  It gets old pretty quickly, especially when you’ve already watched the film a couple of times.  Finally, and most unforgivably, the end is blatantly recycled from his previous movie Happy Together.  Seriously, substitute a lighthouse at the end of the world with Angkor Wat and replace the friend with one of the central characters and it’s virtually identical.  I’m amazed more people haven’t actually noticed this, and can only assume they haven’t seen the earlier film.  I’m pretty sure the Cannes crowd wouldn’t have seen it anyway (which is their loss).

So griping over (for now), even I have admit there are a few highlights.  The scene where the couple are chatting with the pretence of buying presents for their spouses and then admitting to each other that their partners already own the discussed items and admitting that they knew each other’s spouse already has the item is great, as is the scene where Su is essentially trapped in Chow’s apartment overnight because she can’t get out without being spotted my their Mahjong playing neighbours.  Also of note is little scene where the tenants are cooing over a new rice cooker which is quite amusing, and the only obviously light touch to the movie.  On the photography side of things, Christopher Doyle’s style seems a little reigned in for this one.  By that, I mean he does a splendid job, naturally, but he isn’t as “obvious” or showy as he can be, and that does suit the piece well, I freely admit.

The whole Days of Being Wild connection is often talked about, and rightly so.  It appears to be a fact that Maggie Cheung was pestering Wong for more detail on her character and that Wong then told her it was Su Li-Zhen – the character she played in that film – perhaps just to shut her up.  Whether it was Wong’s intention to make a sequel is unclear, but the character does not seem to bear any resemblance from the one she played in the first film, and I’ve now seen them close enough together to be able to judge.  Of course, the setting is a couple of years after Days, so it’s possible she could have changed.  Of course, it does tidy up the ending where Tony Leung is getting ready to go out, so for that reason alone, it’s best to think of this as a true sequel.  And of course, the return of the now-infamous “really big clocks” helps!

So there we have it.  A lot of people’s favourite Wong Kar-Wai film.  Hell, a lot of people’s favourite film of all time.  And I’ve just gone and trashed it.  And what’s more, I’m supposed to be a fan of the man!  I hope what I’ve written hasn’t pissed too many people off, and I hope I’ve made a good case as to why I think it’s the most disappointing Hong Kong film he’s ever made (As Tears Go By can be forgiven under the circumstances).  But I figure I’m allowed the odd difference of opinion on classic films every once in a while.  I really wish it wasn’t so, but this is one Wong Kar-Wai film I can live without.

Days of Being Wild (1990) March 7, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Romance, 1990s films , add a comment

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Leslie Cheung; Maggie Cheung; Jacky Cheung; Carina Lau; Andy Lau  Territory: Hong Kong

Days of Being WildI don’t know what Wong Kar-Wai was up to in the years between 1988’s As Tears Go By and this, his second film, but Days of Being Wild is certainly a much more accomplished piece of work than his debut.

Following the life of Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a hedonistic, chauvinistic young man searching for his mother, the film is fully stocked with intriguing characters.  On the face of it, Yuddy is about as unsympathetic as it goes – he has a succession of women and comes from the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” school of thought, but he has the odd redeeming quality despite his self-absorption and pretension.  Yuddy likes to think of himself as a bird who only lands once – to die – and so has to keep moving, presumably another reason why he has to keep “loving” as many women as possible.

Days of Being Wild is one of those rare films that pretty much demands a second viewing immediately to gain a better understanding of the themes, relationships and symbolism of the film.  And upon repeat viewings, you really do begin to appreciate what an achievement it really is.  The performances are excellent, and definitely the best I’d seen in a Hong Kong performance up to that time.  Even Jacky Cheung, whose performances vary wildly from downright embarrassing to pretty good, is almost flawless in his delivery.  He plays Yuddy’s best friend, a gawky kid who takes as much light from the charismatic Yuddy as he can, but who is always in his shadow.  He falls for Leung Fung-Ying (Carina Lau), one of Yuddy’s girlfriends, but is too awkward to make a play for her.

Maggie Cheung plays Su Li-Zhen, another of Yuddy’s conquests.  Up to this time, I had only seen her in light comedic roles (such as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in the Police Story movies) and it was quite a shock to see her in such a weighty role.  Of course, she had already worked on Wong’s previous film (as did a couple of other cast members), but she gives a stellar performance as a woman hooked on Yuddy.  Alongside her is the first of Wong’s anonymous cops, played by Andy Lau.  Lau is well suited to this type of role, and his character is easily the most likeable of the lot, and we want him to end up with the girl.  He dreams of being a sailor, but is tied to his ailing mother and has to put his dream on hold.  After apparently failing to woo Su Li-Zhen, he meets up with Yuddy in the Philippines for the film’s conclusion.

There are three other things that raise Days of Being Wild above its predecessor.  The first is the script.  Believable and unsentimental and short on melodrama, the film moves along at quite a pace, never feeling it necessary to lapse into silent brooding shots of the stars which can sometimes happen on Wong Kar-Wai films.  Secondly, this film marks the start of Christopher Doyle’s tenure as Director of Photography on Wong’s films, and his unique stamp is all over it.  The obvious example is the “big clock” motif that crops up from time to time all the way through the film, which is pretty hard to forget.  Lastly, and I realise I say this about most Wong Kar-Wai films, his use of music the film is superb.  I cannot think of this film without “Always in My Heart” by Los Indios Tabajaras going through my mind, accompanied by those shots of the forest in the Philippines going by from the train.

Days of Being Wild was the first Hong Kong film I saw that struck me as cerebral, and I was surprised that such a film could have been made there.  Of course, these days the territory has “grown up” nicely, and I thought that the film may have aged quite badly in comparison to the latest wave of Hong Kong directors.  In the end, I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it and found it still relevant.  With all the accusations of Wong Kar-Wai’s supposed pretension, it’s worth noting that the Andy Lau character bursts Yuddy’s bubble when he feeds him the whole “bird without legs” story by telling him “that shit only works on girls”.  The themes of captivity and freedom, choice and rejection are still as sharp as they were when the film was made.  That, along with the truly fantastic performances by the central cast ensure this film should have a place in Hong Kong cinema history.

I find it odd that even now, some people are utterly perplexed at the final scene with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai getting ready to go out from his low-ceilinged bedsit (along with another fantastic piece of music that I’m utterly unable to identify).  Days of Being Wild was to have a sequel, but the relatively low box-office return ruled that out (not unlike what would happen on his next film Ashes of Time).  This sequel was to focus on Leung’s character, so this tacked-on ending does tend to be redundant now.  Unless, of course, you believe this character is Chow Wo-Man, and that Wong made his sequel under the title In The Mood For Love, but that’s a discussion for another time!

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