Monday, March 16

Review: My Blueberry Nights (2007)

My Blueberry Nights
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring Norah Jones, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Jude Law, Natalie Portman

It is 1997. I am sitting on the carpeted floor of a darkened conference room, the only light coming from a TV screen. Faye Wong is carrying a transparent bag bursting with goldfish. I know this scene by heart. Still I smile for what's coming next. I hear someone calling for me. I lower the volume. I have disappeared for the day.

It is the year 2000. W looks at me questioningly as we step inside Chungking Mansion's damp and rancid elevator. It chugs upward like a disgruntled old man. The elevator doors open to a dark hallway; the fluorescent lamps above flickering ominously. Just like in the movie, I whisper to W.

It is 2008. W is fixing the DVDs on the shelf. He picks up the still sealed My Blueberry Nights. When are we gonna watch this, he asks. I explain to him that that is my Open-in-Case-of-Emergency DVD.

I'm the kind of man who likes to prepare for things. I bring an umbrella two days before it is expected to rain. I take an antacid before I begin drinking. I even prepare for loneliness. Wong Kar Wai is my ticket, my escape to a kaleidoscopic landscape of lights when things don't go according to plan.

Last night, I finally saw My Blueberry Nights.

Plot takes a backseat in Wong Kar Wai movies. The men and women that populate his worlds are either at a stand still or moving at a blur, the smudged faces, arms and legs do not necessarily imply speed or motion but most often than not it is the passing of time that stretches and distorts faces familiar and often loved. The past and present are fluid; a minute is a week, a week is a month. And along with the passing of time comes a growing distance.

Time and distance are constants in WKW movies. In Chungking Express, Cop 223 laments, Somehow everything comes with an expiry date. Swordfish expires. Meat sauce expires. Even cling-film expires. Is there anything in the world which doesn't? A caption in In the Mood for Love read He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct. Navigating through time and space to find love, WKW seems to say, is our lot in life.

In this respect, My Blueberry Nights traverses familiar territory. Norah Jones is Elizabeth, Lizzie or Beth, a young woman propelled by a broken heart to travel great distances to get closer to herself and inevitably, closer to a man, Jeremy (Jude Law) who insists on standing still so he could easily be found. Lizzie's soul-searching first lands her a bartending job in Memphis where she encounters a broken man, played with stubborn frailty by David Strathairn, who refuses to let go of his ex-wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), a character reminiscent of Brigitte Lin's in Chungking Express. In a different state, Lizzie brushes against a compulsive gambler named Leslie (Natalie Portman) who is as much addicted to raising the stakes as she is at reading people like cards. If there's anything to fault My Blueberry Nights with, it's the clunky writing of the Las Vegas road trip that oftentimes drifts toward melodramatic rather than melancholic, explaining motives rather than hinting at them.

But WKW is more of a painter of emotions and My Blueberry Nights has a palette that sings.

Reds, blues, greens.

Neon signs, traffic jams, syrup.

Reflected, refracted, overlapping.

He just doesn't paint with light but also with music, predominantly with Norah Jones' blues and Cat Power's swirling, translucent smoke. The repeated riffs and refrains have lost their claustrophobic nature and instead are sighs of relief, the cool breeze that escapes from a slightly open door. There's a sheen of sweetness that covers the movie that understandably turns off a few viewers who are used to his deeper, melancholic hues, but we are seeing America through Lizzie's eyes, who, even after the heartbreak and the tragedies she encounters on the road to self-discovery, is more of a wide-eyed observer and possibly still views the world through rose-colored glasses.

At the beginning of the movie, Jeremy explains to Lizzie why he keeps the keys that the customers (of the cafe he is running) leave behind, If I threw these keys away then those doors would be closed forever and that shouldn't be up to me to decide, should it? Lizzie insists on a reason why the keys continue to gather dust, untouched. Jeremy continues, It's like these pies and cakes. At the end of every night, the cheesecake and the apple pie are always completely gone. The peach cobbler and the chocolate mousse cake are nearly finished... but there's always a whole blueberry pie left untouched ... There's nothing wrong with the blueberry pie. Just... people make other choices. You can't blame the blueberry pie, just ... no one wants it.

It is 2009. I am standing on a balcony high above the city. It has been 6 hours since I started writing this review and as the sky slowly deepens from blue to purple, the lights blink awake. It's a little bit silly now, the idea of time, distance, and the colors that curtain our lives even if we're not looking. But there it is, right below me and far in front of me. The choices I make. The world I want to see. And if I squint a little, the lights, shapes and shadows bleed together. Just like in the movie.



Andy Briones said...

I tried watching this film, but for some reason, I wasn't able to finish it. Didn't get to the part with Natalie Portman. How was she? She's really good with edgy roles; I like her in Closer and Paris, je t'aime.

Norah Jones sucks as an actress. I think she's the reason why I didn't finish this film. :p

Thor Balanon said...

@Andy: Natalie Portman was okay but the writing of her segment was so disjointed that it took away from her "presence."

I didn't mind Norah Jones' acting. It was, ehm, efficient. Her character was a sponge to emotions and point of views and that's exactly what I saw---an impressionable template.

Though I think Chan Marshall of Cat Power had a stronger impact as Jude Law's ex.

And besides, I'm a die-hard WKW fan. Had a great time watching this with a pint of Selecta Gold Hazelnut Brownie ice cream on my lap. Hahaha.

Andy Briones said...

Good thing I didn't say anything bad about Wong Kar Wai; didn't know you were a fan, ehehe.

I've only seen one Wong Kar Wai film (Happy Together). I have Eros, 2046, Days of Being Wild, and In the Mood for Love. I haven't seen any of them though; I've been procrastinating. Ehehehe.

He has a segment in Chacun son cinéma, right? I think they screened that before in Mogwai. Now that's one film I'm dying, dying, dying to see.

Thor Balanon said...

@Andy: Hindi ba obvious na fan ako from the gushing gush of words? Hehehe.

Wong Kar Wai is part of my growing up so there's a bit nostalgia attached to my fandom. It all began with 1994's Chungking Express. My Blueberry Nights is WKW lite; I would still recommend In the Mood for Love and 2046.

Got my copy of Chacun son cinéma in HK and it is a must-watch! Tsai Ming-liang’s It’s a Dream is my favorite. Surprised by the "bomba" quality of Van Sant's contribution. :p

Andy Briones said...

Fine, fine, fine — I wouldn't malign Wong Kar Wai from now on. :p :p :p

You have Chacun son cinéma? Lucky bastard. I've been wanting to see that film since forever! Mag-o-order nga sana ako online last year kaya lang I ran out of moolah.

Thor Balanon said...

@Andy: May dibidi din ng Chacun noon sa MCS, baka meron pa rin dun. Pag nadaan ako sa April (ang layo pa hehe) abisuhan kita. Daming labas na mga Criterion din ngayon. Takbo! Bilis!

Andy Briones said...

Where's MCS again? Lost nanaman ako. Ehehehe.

Thor Balanon said...

Nakow po. :p Makati Cinema Square, sa Mile Long. Hehehe. Malulula ka dun. Halos kumpleto mga Ingmar Bergman.

Andy Briones said...

My mom is an Ingmar Bergman fan. I got her The Seventh Seal and Port of Call last year. She's looking for Wild Strawberries, but I can't find a copy.

Hey, thanks for the Makati Cinema Square tip. I'll try to visit next time. Saan yung mas better yung selections: sa Quiapo o sa MCS? I live in Far-view, kaya madalas sa St. Francis Square na lang ako bumibili ng bootlegs. Unti nga lang selections nila; bad trip.

Dude, if you find a copy of Chacun son cinéma, get one for me. Kung wala, please, please burn me a copy. I'll pay for everything (pati for LBC). Ehehe.

Thor Balanon said...

Haven't been to Quiapo in awhile pero mas maraming arthouse movies sa MCS, which are the titles that rarely reach our third world shore. So MCS ka na. :D I live near F and yeah, kumonti na sobra ng hindi Hollywood sa selection nila.

Sige, paparaanan natin ang Chacun son cinéma. Might also amazon next month, will let you know.

Luis K. said...

Thor! What a coincidence. I, too, just recently shifted My Blueberry Nights from my "I've had this forever but I'm waiting for the right time to watch it" pile to my "Watched it" pile. :)

I don't understand the bad press this got, to be honest. I liked Norah Jones in it. I quite enjoyed her scenes in the diner with Jude Law. (But yes, Chan Marshall, oh wow.) For me the town drunk segment was the part that dragged. And yeah, it's not Chungking Express (what is?) -- but overall I was glad to have watched it.

Lovely review, btw. :)

Luis K. said...

Haven't been to MCS in so long. Are the best shops still at the very lowest floor, near the basement parking? :) The Book Sale there is decent too.

Hell, I should go tomorrow. The freedom of freelancing! ;)

Thor Bee said...

Thanks, Luis!

Maybe it's because we held back from watching it that "My Blueberry Nights" actually became sweeter. Lots of great lines, lots of great moments that made me sigh and run out for a pint of ice cream.

Yeah, the good ones are still in the lowest floor.


Andy Briones said...

My god, look who's back! I'm guessing you now have tons of backlog in your workplace? Ehehehe. :p

Thor Bee said...

Hey, Andy! Not yet back. Just checking my email once in awhile. Heh.

Andy Briones said...

Oooops, wrong number! Ehehehehe. :p :p :p

Theo Martin said...

I havent watched this. But fell in love with just one Wong Kar Wai film-- In the Mood for Love.

LUSH is the word to describe the fluid visualization of longing, heartache, and all the complexities of love. :)

Hay ang sarap magwallow sa depression kapag kasama si Wong Kar Wai. hehe. Is that good to my health? hahhaa! :) but sure is good to my senses. :)

Thor Bee said...

Theo, not necessarily good for your health but it does make the soul quiver. I love In the Mood for Love. It really is his best work but Chungking Express is closer to my heart.

WKW always has killer one-liners in his movies, the kind that haunts.