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The Reeler Blog

Wong Kar-wai Carries a Tune

By Ben Gold

In part, Wong Kar-wai cast jazz-pop singer-songwriter Norah Jones as his lead My Blueberry Nights because it gave him a partner: As a first-time actress and a foreign filmmaker making his first film in America (and in English), Jones and Wong are exploring new terrain together, an idea that the director said initially attracted him to her. But Jones brings another important component -- a musician’s innate sense of collaboration and improvisation -- that has always played an important role in Wong's work.

This reminds him of a song: Wong Kar-wai on the open road of My Blueberry Nights (Photo: Macall Polay / Jet Tone Films)

"[I cast] pop stars because they are exceptional people," Wong told The Reeler during a recent press tour in New York. "There are certain qualities in [them] that make them natural in front of a camera, and I think Norah is one of those people." It’s a strategy that worked well in 1994's Chunking Express, for example, in which Asian pop sensation Faye Wong repeatedly plays The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming." The lovelorn tension that permeates her character reoccurs in Nights, the story of a woman who, after a bad break-up, goes on a cross-country quest for identity. Before filming began in the States, Wong sent Jones a few photos of possible locations and asked her to pick a few songs to go along with them. At first, all Wong wanted was something to listen to as he traveled through America. But the songs Jones chose -- by musicians like Otis Redding, Cat Power (who eventually came to co-star as well) and Cassandra Wilson -- turned out to be an essential part of the film's DNA. Cat Power's "The Greatest," which plays while an F train speeds over Jones's head in Wong's fantasy Manhattan, became the essential expression of her character's loneliness.

These songs became so engrained in Wong's experience -- such perfect representations of mood, time and place -- that he played them during filming, which was especially useful for the actors. The production took on a sort of musical quality that influenced its very structure. "This [film] has an integrity-- you could say a musical integrity -- which is pretty palpable," said David Strathairn, for whom the songs became touchstones to help guide his performance as heartbroken police officer Arnie. "I noticed it, seeing it. I definitely felt that. It was like three different modulations on the same thing, what's why it has such a subtle power."

The musical correlation was immediately apparent to Jones, though, particularly in Wong's directorial style. Observing Wong as he worked, she saw a certain fluidity usually associated with jazz -- a style flowing with interpretation yet determined to capture a specific vision. Neither a songwriter nor, by his own admission, interested in traditional directorial concerns, his approach might be closer to making music than even he realizes. “The framing of the shot is the decision of the director, [but] I am never conscious of the color pallete, for this film especially,” Wong said. And while My Blueberry Nights -- his and Jones's moment of firsts -- might betray this, he insists he is not necessarily interested in new experiences either. "I don't challenge myself; I just want to express myself," he said. Spoken like a true musician.

My Blueberry Nights opens today in New York.

Posted at April 4, 2008 7:27 AM

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