Director poised for mainstream bow

'Blueberry' features bigger budget, Western stars

HONG KONG — Cinematographer Chris Doyle, who has worked with Wong Kar Wai on half a dozen occasions, says Wong’s filmmaking methodology is like a fat man’s feet. Even he cannot see what’s going on, but somehow they get him places.

This week, those feet take him back to Cannes, where he previously won the best director award for “Happy Together,” where in 2004, he scared fest honchos with his almost-not-ready “2046,” and where last year, he was president of the competition jury.

Although Wong had been working on this year’s pic, “My Blueberry Nights,” until the last moment, Cannes had sufficient confidence in Wong that “Nights” is not just in competition, it opens the festival tonight. That’s a big leap of faith, given Wong has not previously worked with a complete screenplay, nor in English.

“I am very happy and very proud to be working with Wong Kar Wai. We sincerely believed and trusted in him,” says Frederic Sichler, prexy of StudioCanal, the French group that fully financed the movie.

Doyle’s metaphor could be extended to say that Wong’s feet seem to take him back to the same places again and again. Wong dips into the same source material again and again to deliver his familiar themes of isolation and being a stranger. “Blueberry” is no exception.

A road movie with its starting point a smudge of cream on the chin of a woman who loves desserts, the film is an expansion of a short starring Cannes juror Maggie Cheung that Wong screened in Cannes in 2001. Short was intended to be part of a trilogy about food that has not yet materialized.

This is a familiar pattern. Wong’s fifth film, “Fallen Angels,” is widely seen as the missing act of his third pic, “Chungking Express.” Film No. 4, “Ashes of Time” is seen as an unofficial sequel to his second, “Days of Being Wild.” And his most widely known film, “In the Mood for Love,” was conceived as part of “2046” but was completed several years beforehand. “2046” in turn also bloomed from the very personal “Days.”

And when “2046” did finally arrive, it disappointed some critics by being both incomplete and so self-referential that some crix labeled it a “midcareer retrospective.”

Wong, a master of alienated, stylish cool — often delivered onscreen in no more than a fleeting glance — is both a perfectionist and a go-with-the-flow experimenter.

He is known for starting pictures with little more than a vague idea of what he wants to achieve, but he’s also someone who shoots scenes over and over from different angles and at different speeds.

Scenes and subplots may be lensed, but later dropped, only to reappear elsewhere. There are stories of thesps not actually knowing which film they are working on. Certainly Cheung, who had assumed she had a starring role in “2046,” barely flickered across the screen in that film.

Wong took so long to make “2046” that wags snarkily joked the title was the date it would actually be completed. In the end Wong had the last laugh. Fooled by some futuristic images that had been leaked out, many bizzers had understood the title to be a reference to the 50th anni of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese ownership. But it turned out to be the number of a hotel room.

“After all these years of working together, I’d say we have a very mysterious relationship. We don’t talk much but we usually have a good understanding of where the other one is coming from,” says Tony Leung Chiu-wai. “We also like surprising each other every now and then.

“(Wong) never writes a script with the intention of turning that exact script into a film. The script is just one interpretation of the story he wants to tell. He gets a lot of feedback from his actors, who help shape their own characters.”

Thrill ride

In his adopted Hong Kong, Shanghai-born Wong is able to maintain such maverick ways partly because his Jet Tone production shingle is linked to a key talent agency (see story, page A6), and partly because nearly every Chinese-language actor is thrilled to work with him. As he makes them look good, many work for scale or at reduced fees. (Wong’s relations with Doyle and Cheung have become cooler of late, but most industryites in Hong Kong assume that they will all make up again, since it will likely suit everyone to do so.)

Helping Wong’s iconoclastic cause, too, is his enigmatic persona. Hidden behind dark sunglasses, avoiding personal publicity and always being somewhere else, he makes being “in production” the epitome of his “genius filmmaker” lifestyle.

Another key to Wong’s ability to reinvent his favorite themes and to move on to his first scripted and completion-bonded movie has been a decades-long partnership with William Chang Suk-ping, who doubles as production designer and editor. Chang, who is almost as shy as Wong, apparently only wants Wong to tell him the mood of the scene before taking it from there.

On the few occasions that it is possible to ask direct questions of Wong, he is charming, direct and intelligent. But he shies away from explaining plots or details of onscreen visuals to lazy audiences, preferring they bring their own brainpower to bear on his canvas. He is most comfortable with interviews when they are done by email.

Whether he could move this difficult-to-pin-down attitude and his nonlinear storytelling into a bigger-budget arena was always going to be a test. But it’s one he appears to have passed.

International stars including Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Ed Harris were persuaded to play along, and singer-songwriter Norah Jones was convinced to make “My Blueberry Nights” her film debut.

The screenplay, co-written with crime writer Lawrence Block, was kept fluid and partially rewritten during the process. There was even a two-week reshoot in spring that reworked the ending. “Like any truly great talent, (Wong) has been able to raise himself to meet new challenges,” StudioCanal’s Sichler says.

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