THERE IS, SURELY, NO MISTAKING A Wong Kar Wai movie. In the course of the last two decades, his dazzling films have blended cutting-edge style and exquisite, old-fashioned romanticism to map out all the dark uncharted corners of the human heart. Their sinuous narratives are populated with urban nighthawks: love-lorn cops, impossibly elegant women in gorgeous cheongsams, suave oriental gamblers with slicked back hair.
Collectively, they have created an instantly recognisable universe, securing the Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-based director a spot in the vanguard of world cinema.
Now, however, Wong has made something to confound all expectations. My Blueberry Nights is his first film in English, his first to be shot in America and his first to eschew the big names of Asian cinema – to star, indeed, a totally untried acting talent, the Grammy Award-winning singer Norah Jones, who had never before appeared in a movie.
It is an especially dicey transition for a director whose previous films are so deeply rooted in his own past. Wong's parents moved to Hong Kong in 1963, when he was five, and he grew up in a rapidly expanding community of Chinese expatriates. This chaotic inner-city maze, with multiple families crowded into a single apartment, was the vivid inspiration behind the nocturnal, rain-slicked streets, neon-lit shopping malls and shadowy tenement buildings of earlier films such as Chungking Express or In the Mood For Love.
Wong admits that My Blueberry Nights, by contrast, represents an outsider's fantasy of an unfamiliar country, formed at one remove by his fascination with American exotica. "I know Hong Kong so well and each corner has certain memories," he says. "The United States is very different. Because I spent so much of my childhood in cinemas and watched so many American films, going there is like a cinephile's trip.
"I can never consider myself as an American film-maker. But, for me, My Blueberry Nights gives me the chance to pay tribute to American culture. And not only film, but also painting, music and writing – all the things I admire." There's just one cultural artefact that Wong confesses not to be to his taste: blueberry pie. "I don't like sweet things."
In fact, My Blueberry Nights does have its origins in the Far East: a lost episode from In the Mood For Love. In it, a woman who can't shake off her emotional addiction to a lost lover goes every night to a bar to pour out her sorrows to its proprietor, while failing to notice the new love blossoming under her nose.
"That chapter didn't make it into the earlier film. The only chance an audience has had to see it was five years ago when I gave a masterclass in Cannes," says Wong, who has no plans to revive the segment (though it would make a fabulous extra on the My Blueberry Nights DVD). He continues, "I still think it was a very interesting idea, and so I adapted it to this story, moving the location to New York."
The New York bar is the jumping-off point for a road movie that takes Jones across America. It focuses on two locations: Memphis and Las Vegas. "I chose Memphis because, the night we arrived there, we went to a bar and saw all these streetcars going past," Wong says. "I was really impressed. I said, 'This reminds me of a Tennessee Williams story.' " The second stopping-off point is Las Vegas. "It is very distinctive and iconic – the nights and days are very different. It's like a big film set."
The film is another first for Wong: his first without Christopher Doyle, the flamboyant Australian cinematographer who shot seven of the director's films and whom many credit with creating their lush, dreamy, free-floating look. Doyle was apparently exasperated by Wong's slow perfectionism: the final straw was his previous film, 2046, which took five years to make.
Wong now insists Doyle was not the man for this particular job: "Chris is not interested in food. I've worked with him for 15 years and I've never seen him eat anything except potato chips." His new cinematographer, Darius Khondji, opens the film with a long, luscious, slow-motion close-up of vanilla ice-cream melting into a sticky blueberry pie.
"Both of them are very sensitive to light and not only concerned with the technical side but also the characters, the faces and relationship between people and space. But Darius has a certain touch which gives me a new angle." Still, you would scarcely know the difference from looking at the film. The choice of Jones is another matter.
In the unforgiving glare of Cannes, where My Blueberry Nights was last year's opening movie, some pronounced her performance gauche. On the other hand, she certainly has a very sweet screen presence, which glows increasingly as the story continues. Wong wisely surrounds her with seasoned actors: the ever-excellent David Strathairn as another love addict, a cop drinking himself to death to forget his unfaithful wife (Rachel Weisz), Natalie Portman as a savvy professional gambler who bets unwisely in her own emotional life and Jude Law as the simpatico New York bar-owner who waits patiently for Jones to come back to him.
Jones also suggested ideas for the soundtrack, to which she contributed a song, and even, Wong says, for the locations. "I asked Norah, 'Is there any specific place that you recommend?' because she spends a lot of time on the road with her band. She said, 'There's a place near my hometown Texas that's very interesting: it's called Love'." With a name like that, Wong needed no further urging. "We drove around for 14 hours trying to find it, and when we ended up there, it was just a gas station. But it was a very good experience, because when you see the road signs you are full of anticipation about it."
That sums up Wong's films; they are all about yearning and desire that are more potent than any possible consummation. But can his notion of love be transferred so seamlessly to an Occidental setting? Wong's answer is ambiguous. "Twenty years ago in China, when you said 'I love you' to someone, it was kind of gross. There was the feeling it should be conveyed with a simple touch – something understood and unspoken. In the West, if you love someone you have to speak out." But, Wong adds, "The film is not really about losing love, but about quitting. How can you stop following a certain path in your life? Start a new chapter?"
Perhaps My Blueberry Nights signals Wong's need to do exactly that, as his own familiar past and memories slip away. "Hong Kong has changed a lot after 1997, and it's still changing. And China is changing too, so fast" he says, a touch sadly. "To make our film outside Hong Kong at this moment was to have some perspective, and the distance to look at it."
He has two new projects, each of which he has been working on for some years, and is typically undecided about which will be next. One is The Lady from Shanghai, which has nothing to do with the Orson Welles film of that title, but is a Hitchcockian period drama set in the early part of the last century. "Hitchcock is my god," Wong says. Nicole Kidman was to have starred, but the actress's pregnancy now makes that unlikely. On the other hand, at the rate at which Wong works, her child will be in college by the time the script is ready.
The other, called Grandmaster, is about Yip Man, the mentor who taught Bruce Lee the art of kung fu. "He's a legendary person. I haven't seen a film about the martial arts school, and he has a very interesting story." The action genre has been lent an arthouse credibility by the likes of Ang Lee and Yimou Zhang, and a kung fu extravaganza by Wong would certainly be something to see.
But would he make another film in America? Wong chooses his words carefully. "At first I wondered about the unions. There was one person always behind me saying 'Lunchbreak! Lunchbreak!' Normally I shoot 14, 20 hours a day. In the end I realised that all people working in this business really have a passion for cinema. The language is different but the spirit is the same."
• My Blueberry Nights previews at the Grosvenor on 18 February as part of Glasgow Film Festival, and is in selected cinemas nationwide from 22 February
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