Arts & Culture

Would Critics Be Kinder to ‘My Blueberry Nights’ if the Characters Were Asian?

What's wrong with these people? The question has lingered for some weeks now in the organic popcorned air of the nation's art houses, rather like Wong Kar-Wai’s own trademark cigarette-smoke curlicues, ever since the director’s My Blueberry Nights finally opened … Read More

By / April 17, 2008

What's wrong with these people?

The question has lingered for some weeks now in the organic popcorned air of the nation's art houses, rather like Wong Kar-Wai’s own trademark cigarette-smoke curlicues, ever since the director’s My Blueberry Nights finally opened stateside, almost a year after premiering at Cannes.

Indeed what's with these interchangeable sloe-eyed zombies—Norah Jones, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, and (symptomatic cameo alert!) Chan "Cat Power" Marshall—slinking around strangely inert urban backdrops, apparently motivated by nothing so much as the will to power of their own extravagant cheekbones? What's with Jude Law, meant here to evince some sort of alternative soulful masculinity, regarding his unrequited's postcards from the road less as texts than textiles? And what, for that matter, about that road trip, the doughnut-hole in a pastry-soft plot, or the stutter-step slow-mo takes of nothing much in particular, or the sound that often trails the lips, in the service of characters who speak almost exclusively in ellipses?

What's wrong, of course, is that this is a Wong Kar-Wai flick, filled with the inspired Wong Kar-Wai flourishes—random-access memory, cuisine and couture as coitus—that have made Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046, et al. probably the most admired and altogether geisty cinematic corpus since the end of the cold war. If, as most every responsible reviewer has concluded, Blueberry trades in the sensuous sublimity of those films for an air of profound silliness, it's not really a matter of the craftsman becoming a hack. No, upon some reflection, it's obvious what ruins the latest Wong Kar-Wai movie, so superficially like all the others: The swoony knuckleheads on the screen are white, and speaking English.

Which is to say, what's wrong with me? Why do Asian matinee idols doing narratively inexplicable things for my fetishist–aesthete's delight scream “genius” when Caucasians doing the same barrel head-first over the cliff of camp?

Natalie Portman, with awful blonde wig and indeterminate drawl, gamely chews up the set as card-shark vamp Leslie, but her remarkably corporeal performance—all coquettish flirts, petite curves, and impossibly symmetrical features —only underscores how rice-paper thin her character, and really all the characters here, turn out to be. Zhang Ziyi—Portman's Chinese doppelganger, if you think about it—had to resort to all the same stunts in 2046, but her role somehow felt both brilliant and fully-formed. In the same film, Su Li, played by the veteran vixen Gong Li, smoldered with unresolved mystery; Blueberry's similarly named Sue Lynn, played by the similarly fiery Rachel Weisz, devolves into flat tramp without a cause.

Then, of course, there's Wong's male muse Tony Leung, with his sublimated longing and impassive stoicism. Jude Law's rendition of the same comes off vaguely constipated.

Some observers, in registering the letdown of My Blueberry Nights, have explicitly disclaimed anything lost in translation; "The disappointment here," explains the Village Voice's Michelle Orange, "doesn't have much to do with Wong doing America–he's been doing America for years, even in Chinese." Far be it for me to deny anyone their critical aphorisms, but Orange's universalist—or rather, Hollywoodist—take strikes me as a bit of liberal naïveté. I'm not one for linguistic determinism, but perhaps the reading of subtitles potentiates the suspension of disbelief necessary to appreciate an auteur as dreamily insouciant to plot and pacing as Wong. Then again, I have a pretty complete working understanding of Mandarin, and even I never found Happy Together or In the Mood for Love anywhere near as maddening as Blueberry.

The source of Wong Kar-Wai's American failure might better be glimpsed in a stray passage from the New York Times review of the Cannes cut. "And the characters," wrote A.O. Scott, "are correspondingly relaxed, even in their moments of distress. Whereas their Asian counterparts in other Wong Kar-wai movies — Gong Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung — show emotion through masks of mystery and reserve, Ms. Jones and her co-stars invite and promise easy empathy."

Scott, of course, gets it completely wrong and exactly right; the characters in My Blueberry Nights are in fact pure mystery and reserve, which is precisely why the movie seems so underbaked and faintly ridiculous to American audiences. Why this wasn't the reaction to Wong's earlier work gets into all sort of nasty unmentionables—Oriental exoticism and unknowability, the "natural" blankness and indiscernability of the Asian face—but I don't really mean to suggest any insidious bigotry on the part of his Western fan base, least of all myself.

Still, it's a thought worth pondering, and one that (almost) makes My Blueberry Nights worth watching: Like Korean horror or Japanese anime or Chinese wuxia, is it possible that Wong Kar-Wai's international ascendance reveals, above all else, a silent longing for the inscrutable—Hong Kong neon, femme fatales bound in cheongsams—in a shrinking world all too obvious with meaning? If so, are we still allowed to watch?