You can be sure organizers of the Cannes Film Festival had knotted stomachs ahead of Wednesday night’s scheduled screening of Wong Kar-wai’s “My Blueberry Nights.” WKW films are always born in chaos, and he’s delivered a few wet prints to Cannes in the past: “In The Mood For Love,” which won two prizes in 2000, was still being subtitled the morning of the screening, while 2004’s “2046” arrived a full day late.
Despite this, they keep inviting Wong back, and it must be because his films are so damn good. Since “Chungking Express” became an underground hit worldwide in 1994, Wong’s reputation has grown with each new film, peaking perhaps with his Best Director prize at Cannes in 1997 for “Happy Toge- ther” (which did what “Brokeback Mountain” was acclaimed for — portraying mainstream actors playing gay lovers — almost a decade earlier).
Wong is viewed as an auteur in Europe — a director with an impressionistic approach to themes of time and memory, longing and loss. In Asia, he’s seen as the epitome of cool. Look at all those beautiful people — Tony Leung, Michelle Reis, Maggie Cheung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin — shot in rapturous compositions of melancholic moodiness by super-original cinemato- grapher Chris Doyle. Many directors have since aped Wong’s style (see Shunji Iwai) but without picking up on his soul.
Wong’s films — eight features over a decade plus — have always been easy on the eyes. This strategy allows people to relax and forget about the fact there’s really no story. A WKW film is about a mood, a feeling, a place, a time; and yet people, especially those of a romantic bent, seem to connect intensely with what he puts up on the screen.
A Wong film is about yearning, about wanting someone so bad and not getting them. There’s Tony Leung (“Big” Tony) in “The Ashes of Time” — a movie everyone from “Heroes” to “300” has cribbed from — playing a swordsman who drinks some enchanted wine to erase memories of his forbidden love, Maggie Cheung. Then there’s “In The Mood For Love,” where the other Tony Leung pines after his married neighbor Maggie Cheung; the whole movie was about him wanting her — consummation was almost an afterthought.
Most famously, there was Faye Wong in “Chungking Express,” gazing at beat cop Tony Leung with puppy eyes across the counter of the take-out joint where she worked. Faye Wong was a Hong Kong songstress at the time, just moving off the straight and narrow path of pop stardom, and Wong christened her new image as a funky, free-spirited pixie. Despite her acting inexperience, Wong — shooting in an improvisatory style and making up the script as he went along — drew a winningly natural and charming performance from the singer.
It’s easy to see Wong relishing a similar challenge with Norah Jones, whose own inclination toward the melancholic and romantic (“Come Away With Me,” “Wish I Could”) no doubt resonated with him. “My Blueberry Nights” had a short shoot — seven weeks — which marks a welcome return to Wong’s fast and free style of the mid-’90s, and a move away from the turgid five-year production that resulted in the muddled “2046.” Interestingly, Jones has been pushed to the background on the film’s advertising posters in favor of costars Jude Law and Rachel Weisz. It’s not like her face could sell anything, except, oh yeah, 34 million CDs.