Visiting Shanghai for New Year’s, I was surprised to see the new Wong Kar Wai film “My Blueberry Nights,” already showing. This is the Hong Kong director’s first major English-language work and features A-list actors, Jude Law and Natalie Portman, as well as boasts the film debut of the singer Norah Jones. That’s about as high profile a Hollywood project as you can get, which means that people are going to view it with equally large expectations. The biggest question here is can Wong Kar Wai practice his craft successfully in a foreign language? Back in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to see for myself.
I’ve been a fan of Wong Kar Wai’s work for over a decade. For me his last two films, though enjoyable, didn’t feel like he was covering any new ground. In contrast, undertaking a Hollywood feature with top-notch international talent is definitely a departure.
The answer to whether he can direct in a foreign language is a resounding yes. The tender first-time performance by Norah Jones, the charismatic storytelling, and the small twists that hook you emotionally to the plight of the characters, were just as masterfully orchestrated here as they are in his Hong Kong works.
If I were to offer a one-sentence summary to those familiar with the director’s films, I’d say that “My Blueberry Nights” is an Americanized remake of Chung King Express. I base that on the cinematic formula that was employed, including the same visual style, musical interludes, camera work, dialogue, and narrations. The change of venue from frantic urban Hong Kong, to meandering down South and an off-hour cafe somewhere in 718 New York, mellowed the intensity of the film (but not in a bad way,) in comparison to Chung King Express.
My main criticism: the pacing wasn’t right for the first quarter of the film. The music, though excellent, was brought in somewhat forced at the early stages. There were too many visual tools used in the first fifteen minutes, which made the movie a little disjointed and difficult to follow. (I can see why jet-lagged Cannes festival-goers may have not been able to hang.)
Wong Kar Wai fans will find the film particularly interesting. Stylistically, “My Blueberry Nights” is nearly a direct translation of the director’s Hong Kong cinematic tricks. On the whole, “My Blueberry Nights” has a slow start but warms up in the middle and finishes strong, rewarding the viewer with an elegant, contemporary love story.