The Middle Age of Wong Kar-Wai

Wong Kar-Wai is cursed by the sort of foamingly mad fans who will keep a filmmaker treed for life. As one of this barking group, I'd say that the devotion is inspired by both the Hong Kong director's unmistakable visual language and by his capacity as an expert chronicler of romantic alienation. Couple Wong's obsessive attention to stylistic detail -- aching slow-mo, ravishingly saturated color palettes and costume design, all set to the naked confession of pop songs -- with the immortal rhythms of romance gone wrong, and it's no surprise that Wong's work would inspire the vigilance of a jealous lover: He's mine!

Wong fans have been working up pleasurable, proprietary rage at the director's latest film My Blueberry Nights, also his first English-language feature. But the thing is too slight a confection to merit the fury -- how mad can you get at such deliberate inoffensiveness? It's like trying to burn Norah Jones, Blueberry's erstwhile star, at the stake. That Wong has cast the adult-contemporary crooner as the lead is a cue to just how atmospherically innocuous and contentedly middle-aged this film feels. Instead of boiling bunnies or incinerating his car, irked fans should just eye the door while singing that ditty about the old gray mare under their breaths.

Wong ain't been what he used to be for a while now. Gone are the days of being wild -- Leslie Cheung screeching like a holy terror in Happy Together, the gun fights or flash martial-arts moves of As Tears Go By and Ashes of Time, Faye Wong wrestling a giant Garfield stuffed animal and jumping on the bed in Chungking Express. Wong has always dealt with the same thematic material, but he just used to have more energy about it than he does now. His obsessions: the asymptotic almost, the shattered lovers who turn too quickly to others, the people on rising and falling trajectories, going the wrong direction, at the wrong time, trapped in the wake of personal and political history. Like the mournful cop who talks to cans of pineapple in Chungking Express, Wong's characters were always looking for love without an expiration date, and failing miserably.

And gorgeously as well. Wong turned from sped-up film to more slow-mo shots with In the Mood for Love, his best-known and most critically acclaimed film. This story of repressed love plays out like torturous filmic foreplay, the kind without climax. Wong had always been fond of replaying snippets of music and variations of scenes, of featuring recurring characters over the course of several movies -- in In the Mood, Wong made ample use of these techniques to create a sumptuously smothering vision. In the Mood is perfect feel-bad fare for the freshly dumped or the hit-and-run victims of unrequited love -- nobody is more self-centered and self-referential than those cast out of affection, and no one is more eager to see heartbreak turned into haute couture. "Turns out all lonely people are the same," as one character says in his desolate Happy Together (the protagonists are neither happy, nor are they together), and what pining-prone viewer wouldn't want to identify with Wong's stunning stars and their sadness?

In the Mood distilled Wong's talents but abandoned the antic, strange verve that kept his work from becoming inert -- it was so beautiful, however, that most fans found it a fair trade-off. Sadly, Wong's follow-up 2046 tipped into onanism, with Tony Leung writing about writing, and sleeping with many to forget the one, and on and on in a complacent, self-indulgent dirge. Wong loves to play with time -- perhaps the scene that best captures the delicious tension in his films is from Chungking Express, where Wong films a brooding cop drinking coffee in half motion as everything around him zips forward in triple time. The scene is a perfect evocation of the internal landscape of the lovelorn -- stuck in the past and buffeted by the onward-rushing present. But in 2046, Wong slowed down his film so much that he lost the energy he generated from alternating narrative slack and speed, a problem that also afflicts his syrupy My Blueberry Nights.

My Blueberry Nights begins with familiar romantic turmoil -- Elizabeth (Jones) is coping with the aftermath of a messy breakup. Her main confidant is Jeremy, a messy-haired, charming English expatriate (that hambone Jude Law) who runs an improbably cute coffee shop -- they bond, night after night, over leftover blueberry pie and ice cream.

Wong supplies a bit of narrative tension by sending Elizabeth on the road on a heal-thyself journey, from which she writes postcards to the besotted Jeremy. She lands in Memphis, taking in the honky-tonk heartbreak between a drunken cop and his estranged, saucy-britches wife -- David Straitharn and Rachel Weisz put in a game effort, but their storyline comes across as an overheated vignette rather than a real character study. Elizabeth then heads on to Nevada, where Natalie Portman gives the film a good jolt as a poodle-permed, frosted-blonde poker player with a whole deck of lies up her sleeve. Portman is brash, loud, cocky but with wounded eyes, and unfortunately for Wong, she shows just how lifeless Blueberry is, along with its affect-free star, who seems to have been chosen on purely aesthetic grounds. Jones sleepwalks through the film -- indeed the best part of her performance may be when Elizabeth is sleeping and Jeremy kisses the remains of a blueberry-pie feast off her lips.

Yawn.

Blueberry is buffed to a high sheen -- Wong has replaced his brocaded Chinoiserie with a glossy version of Americana, as if the art director for Rolex had been commissioned to make ads in picturesque diners along Route 50. Despite its relentless luxe prettiness, Blueberry manages to be both thin and talky. Contrast this to In the Mood where the power of Wong's visual language runs in counterpart to his characters' relative reticence -- his camera reveals everything its subjects cannot. Maggie Cheung's Mrs. Su, for example, is an exquisite, two-part creature -- her impeccable manners are belied by her wardrobe's Expressionistic colors, the way her cheongsam cling to her body, so many sighs turned to silk. Leung's long-suffering Mr. Chow can't express his love for Mrs. Su, so instead he's always shown with a cigarette, the exhaled smoke showing the secret, burning shape of his soul.

Much of the appeal of Wong's films lies in just this reticence, in their fragmentation and empty spaces. They're structured with holes, much like the one in a wall at Angkor Wat into which Mr. Chow whispers the tale of his secret love -- holes that allow the projection of the viewer's own interpretive sadness. In stark contrast, the Blueberry-era Wong lets Elizabeth and Jeremy patter on in the most banal fashion and illustrates the so-called sensuality of their connection with porny shots of ice cream sliding into blueberry-pie filling, lit by smeary red neon lighting, ad nauseum. When Wong quoted from the In the Mood soundtrack -- he recasts an iconic piece of music ("Yumeji's Theme") from that film for his new, paper-doll couple -- I grumbled into my popcorn and looked at my watch. Who cares if they'll have any more blueberry kisses?

Perhaps it's unfair to ask the master of sepia sentiments to make something new. Yet that's exactly what he used to do -- his films were fueled by a live-wire vitality even as they mourned the passing of the past, married overripe visuals with spare dialogue, and captured moments of intense and particular emotion in a universal pop vernacular. Pining over the loss of the director's new-wave nostalgia -- a very Wong emotion, that. But Wong needs to recover the energy that charged his slow-mo shots and exquisite art-direction with such electricity. Because if he doesn't ? Well, we just might pick ourselves off the floor, wipe our eyes -- and get over him at last.

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