‘Blueberry’ marks firsts for director

Starry cast powers Cannes opener

Language is no barrier in the films of Wong Kar Wai. In his most recent opus, “2046,” actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Ziyi Zhang flirt, argue, seduce and spurn each other in a bilingual haze; he cajoles in Cantonese, she pouts in Mandarin. A similar confusion besets some of the characters in “Days of Being Wild,” conversing in cross-streams of Cantonese and Wong’s native dialect, Shanghainese.

No one takes note of the discrepancy, and why should they? Wong’s cinema, predicated less on narrative and dialogue than on mood and style, speaks a heady visual language that is immediately recognizable to arthouse audiences the world over. In that respect, “My Blueberry Nights,” the Hong Kong auteur’s first English-language production and his first film shot and set in the U.S., may not be so radical a departure after all.

“It’s evocative to the point where words are just grace notes,” says thesp David Strathairn, who also describes Wong as “the master of mood” and “a visual artist of the highest order. Most films are a combination of word and picture, but he moves with picture, and the words are a guide.”

Or, as Wong’s longtime production designer and editor William Chang puts it: “It’s a very Wong Kar Wai film.”

From the wistful, romantic longing implicit in its title to its gorgeous cast of actors (who include Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman) enacting a moody tale of lost love and tentative new connections, “My Blueberry Nights” would certainly seem to fit the Wong mold.

Shot across a number of states including New York, Tennessee and Nevada, “Nights” took less than two months to film — a schedule closer to that of his freewheeling romantic comedy “Chungking Express” than those of his most recent films, “2046” and “In the Mood for Love,” whose shoots lasted a grueling four years and 15 months, respectively.

Even still, “Nights” once again exemplifies Wong’s traditionally untraditional methods, taking shape via repeated takes and continuous on-set experimentation. And as with “2046” and “Mood,” the director and his crew were still racing at press time to meet their deadline for Cannes. (Pic, produced by StudioCanal, will open the fest’s 60th edition in Competition tonight.)

Key personnel

Yet “My Blueberry Nights” is also a film of significant firsts. It’s the bigscreen debut of Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Norah Jones, starring as a heartbroken young woman who embarks on a cross-country road trip. And t’s the first film in nearly 20 years (since 1988’s “As Tears Go By”) on which Wong hasn’t collaborated with his regular cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, with whom he parted ways after “2046.” “Nights” was lensed by Iranian-French d.p. Darius Khondji, known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and David Fincher.

Khondji — who, like every other Wong first-timer attached to the project, leaped at the opportunity to work with the helmer — had to balance his adoration for the familiar Wong-Doyle style with his determination not to imitate it.

“I never had the feeling of stepping into another cameraman’s shoes,” Khondji says, adding that he and Wong took an unusually documentarylike approach to lensing the film’s locations. “I had to forget about his other films. You cannot start photographing a film and thinking about how the director’s other films were made. You just have to clear your mind of all of it.”

“Nights” is also Wong’s first film in some time to originate from a screenplay, albeit one that changed repeatedly during production. Co-scripted by New York-based crime novelist Lawrence Block, who counts Wong among his longtime fans, the pic was inspired by an eight-minute film Wong directed as part of a planned trilogy called “Three Stories About Food.”

“The short takes place in a delicatessen where not a great deal happens,” says Block. “His idea was, that would be the beginning and opening of the film, and the protagonist, (played by) Norah Jones, would wander all over the country having adventures and wind up back where she’d started … unless she didn’t,” he adds, in a sly dig at Wong, famous for his uncertainty about how his movies will end.

Uncertainty tends to reign with Wong — who, like no other filmmaker, discovers his films in the process of shooting and editing them. No less than his characters, who are usually either looking for love or trying to reclaim it, he has a touch of the romantic obsessive, returning again and again to the same moment, as if hoping to give it perfect and lasting expression.

Of one particularly intimate scene, a kiss between Jones and Jude Law that required multiple takes and different camera setups, Khondji says he could feel Wong “carving it and molding it like a sculpture.”

That kind of artistic freedom isn’t to everyone’s taste; it famously drove Maggie Cheung crazy on the set of “In the Mood for Love.”

Strathairn, one of several Western actors getting their first taste of the director’s idiosyncratic style, embraced it.

“It’s never repetitive, because each moment was a different approach to trying to find the thing — there was never anything that happened the same way twice,” he says. “He’s like this dogged and determined hunter, trying to trap something that is more often than not elusive, and that’s feeling and emotion.”

That said, Strathairn freely admits, “It was some of the hardest work I’ve had to do.”

In the movie, Strathairn plays one of many characters Jones meets during her road trip, their brief encounters playing out against the bars and diners of Memphis, Tenn. Such mundane, classically American backdrops recur throughout “My Blueberry Nights,” which, for production designer Chang, made the film both an adventure (“Oh, I have to leave home again for a long time” was his immediate reaction to the project) and, in terms of location scouting, something of a relief.

“We looked for locations that could easily be dressed up and offered many angles and possibility for filming,” Chang says. “The project came together very quickly.”

That assessment may contradict Wong’s reputation for working at a snail’s pace, but Khondji agrees.

“Kar Wai could work very fast if needed. Some scenes we would shoot very fast, in one sequence. There was no norm,” says Khondji. He describes the overall filmmaking experience as “liberating” and likens Wong to “a musician on tour.”

“Chris (Doyle) said his work with Kar Wai was like a jam session,” Khondji recalls. “This is how I felt all the time with him, like I was playing with a rock band around the United States. We followed him around and played with him as well as we could.”

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