Saturday, April 14, 2012

Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights (2007)

This movie is kind of a disaster.  It's bad in a way that makes me start doubting my reaction for Wong Kar-Wai's other films.

There are a couple of problems, as I see it.  First, the dialogue is atrocious.  This is a writing problem.  Wong is famous for working with only a minimal script, which he changes/fills out/improvises as he goes along.  In this case, that technique doesn't seem to have served him well.  All the characters and scenes are underwritten.  This leaves the good actors in the film mostly emoting madly (David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz) or mugging cutely (Jude Law) to make up for the lack of anything else to do, and the mediocre actor (Norah Jones) fading into the scenery.

None of the story arcs carry any emotional weight.  We just don't care about these characters;  they're either clichés or ciphers, and not in a good way.  And this is what makes me start to doubt Wong's other films.  I don't speak Chinese, and so let's be honest:  I actually have no idea if Tony Leung is a good actor or not.  Any emotional impact I'm getting from In the Mood for Love or Happy Together comes from subtitles (which hide more than they reveal, by their nature:  this is not xenophobia about foreign films, this is experience in watching Japanese films and noting the discrepancies between dialogue and subtitles) and reading those aspects of the performances that are extra-verbal (which I could well be misreading).  It's entirely possible that the dialogue in the other films could be just as bad, the characters just as poorly improvised, the performances just as drastically overmodulated, and I'd never know it.  Of course this is always an anxiety I have when I watch a film made in a language I don't speak:  I care enough about language never to be able to write it off entirely.  But usually I can suppress the anxiety;  this film reawakens it, at least with respect to Wong Kar-Wai's work.

The other problem is that the visuals just aren't very interesting.  I suspect that even if I knew Chinese, and even if I did as a result discover that the dialogue in In the Mood for Love is just as bad as in My Blueberry Nights, I'd still find the former a much better film, and emotionally effective, because (it almost goes without saying) the visuals are so striking, and carry so much emotional weight.  But here the visuals are uninspired.  Pretty, even atmospheric, but not in a particularly striking or memorable way.  And so we're left to concentrate on the characters and what they're saying.  How much does this have to do with the change in cinematographers?  Has it really been Christopher Doyle's genius we've been responding to all along, and not Wong Kar-Wai's at all?


Matt said...

William Chang (production/costume design) was the real hero of ITMFL as far as I am concerned.

In all seriousness, rather than seeing WKW as an interface to Christopher Doyle, what about seeing him as a predecessor of contemporary mashup/remix artists -- able to draw stunning results from the right collaborators and raw materials, but lost and floundering with the wrong ones. That's certainly very far from the "director as auteur" ideal, but maybe it's time for a new ideal.

I mean, I'm looking at Christopher Doyle's filmography here, and nothing is jumping out at me as a "Whoa, he did THAT?" film. (Maybe "Psycho", but in that case my surprise is the bad kind.) Clearly he's very good at what he does, but I see no evidence that he could have done what he did in ITMFL without WKW to collaborate with.

Re the thing about acting -- you could argue that in one sense it doesn't even *matter* whether TL and MC are good actresses, or whether the dialogue is actually any good. Whatever the cause, the minimal dialogue and extremely subdued performances are pretty much universally acclaimed by the "World Cinema" audience, which is arguably who WKW is really playing to at this point.

Tanuki said...

Lots of good points in this comment.

Re "it's time for a new ideal." And how. That's why I try to remind myself to notice who's credited for what on a film, rather than just praise (or blame) the director for everything.

But, re WKW as predecessor of mashup/remix artists: isn't that taking us right back to auteur theory? My understanding is that the theory was advanced as a way to talk about themes, style, vision, meaning, and other aspects-of-a-film-that-presuppose-a-guiding-consciousness in an art form that was clearly, obviously, even hopelessly collaborative. So if we can talk about the mashup/remix artist as somehow being the one who draws the results from the collaborators and materials, aren't we right back at the auteur theory?

Re "the 'World Cinema' audience." That's what it's come to, isn't it? A kind of "world cinema" that, like "world music" in the early years of the term (at least) means, not true weird messy diversity, but a kind of hip, contemporary International Style with just a few local details here and there?

Matt said...

I admit, my understanding of cinema is totally "regular person who reads the New Yorker" level, so I may be completely misunderstanding what an auteur is supposed to be. But, for the record, the distinction I'm trying to draw is like this: A "traditional auteur"'s creative vision is focused on the *result* they want, and they draw on everyone's talents to realize it. A "remix auteur"'s creative vision is more about the *process* they want to follow. They don't so much draw on people's talents as let that talent run wild and then create interesting framings and juxtapositions of the results.

So where a traditional auteur works from a script and knows, basically, how she wants each scene to go and how it fits into the grand whole she's aiming at (although of course she also wants her cast and crew to come up with new ideas that reinforce this intended effect), WKW works from no or minimal script and just wants MC and TL to put on their costumes and then mope around a noodle stall in the rain and see what happens. He only figures out how to use it *after* it's in the can. -- This is my interpretation of what I've read about his process in interviews and so on, anyway.