Hong Kong's Great Visual Stylist is in the U.S. for My Blueberry Nights

He’s not exactly a household name, but movie buffs know Wong Kar Wai as one of the most distinctive stylists working in film today. Born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, Wong worked as a screenwriter during the 1980s, making his directorial debut with the 1988 crime melodrama As Tears Go By. By 1994, when his epic martial-arts film Ashes of Time blew way past its original shooting schedule and budget – Wong made an entire feature film, Chungking Express, during a break in post-production – he had earned a reputation as a technically skilled, highly unconventional director who works largely in improvisational mode rather than adhering to a screenplay. His genre films defied genre conventions, and he eventually started specializing in melancholy love stories that swipe motifs from sources as disparate as gangster movies and science-fiction epics. His biggest hit in the U.S. to date was 2000’s In the Mood for Love, a straightforward but haunting tale of unrequited love set in Hong Kong in 1962.

For My Blueberry Nights, shot on location in New York, Memphis, and Las Vegas, Wong made some big changes. After a run of seven straight films made with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong worked this time out with Darius Khondji. Instead of working with actors from his stable of frequent collaborators, he cast singer Norah Jones in the lead role, and surrounded her with British and American co-stars including Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz. And, of course, it’s his first film in English – he hired a co-screenwriter, American crime-fiction author Lawrence Block, for the sake of authenticity. Next up for Wong is a restoration, re-edit and re-release of Ashes of Time, and then one of two new projects: a long-gestating remake of the 1947 Orson Welles film The Lady From Shanghai or The Grand Master, about the teacher of martial artist and wildly popular movie star Bruce Lee. F&V asked him about his first time working in the U.S., why digital cinema is “too perfect,” and the future of film-watching.

F&V: How did you make the decision to shoot a film in the U.S. in English?

WONG KAR WAI: There are two main factors. First, it was because of Norah Jones. Obviously I cannot make Norah speak Chinese, so I had to make this film in the United States, in her language. Second, it took me five years to work on my last film, 2046, and after that I wanted to do something entirely different. The idea was to shoot the film in a foreign language, in a foreign county, on a very short production schedule – and also the chance to work with a brand-new crew and cast. It was very attractive to me at that point.

So you definitely wanted to work with Norah Jones, and that necessitated …

I would say she’s the origin of this project. It’s just because we had a conversation together. I was in New York and we had a meeting, and we were both intrigued by the idea of making a film together. We were attracted by doing something different from what we usually do. For her, it’s her first acting role, and for me it’s my first English-language film.

And you’re working in a different filmmaking environment from what you’re used to. What kind of adjustments did you have to make to your working style?

I had to work with a writer [Lawrence Block]. Basically, I needed someone to help me to work on the script, to provide a lot of insight and authenticity for the characters. And I needed to involve all my cast. When you work with a language that is not your mother language, the expressions and writing can be a bit stiff and self-conscious. But at a certain point it can make you realize you’re more open to your collaborators. If I make the film in Chinese, I know exactly where I’m going and what these lines mean and what this gesture means. To work in this country and this language allows me to say, “Well, I think you know better than me,” so I will be more open to my collaborators’ advice.

Another collaborator on this film was Ry Cooder, who provided some songs and a score. It reminded me of Paris, Texas, which was also made by a filmmaker – a European filmmaker in that case [Wim Wenders] – with his own take on the U.S. How did you choose him to provide music?

I’ve been a fan of Ry for a long time, way before Paris, Texas. I was very impressed by the music he made for a Jack Nicholson film (1982’s The Border). What Ry’s music contributes to the film is a sense of lingering. The approach in this film is that the music serves like a background or a reference for time and place, especially – in the South you have Otis Redding and Ruth Brown, and in New York we have Cat Power. The film has four chapters, and I wanted the audience to figure out that she’s in another town. She’s in this part of the country.

After shooting many films with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, on this film you had Darius Khondji. What was that relationship like?

I worked with Darius before this film, on several commercials, and we always wanted to make a feature together. My Blueberry Nights was the right project to make it happen. He’s also a foreigner – even though Darius has worked in this country on a lot of films, he’s French. And he also provides a very interesting perspective to this country. We traveled across the country three times in a row. We would just get a car and go for 15 hours a day. We took a lot of pictures together, so we share our point of view. That’s why we published a book afterwards for this film. It’s an interesting process to work with a DP who shares so many hobbies with me – eating, music, and … tea. (Laughs.)

Tea is important to any successful collaboration. So the book collects those photographs you took as reference?

Yes. We decided to publish the book for charity purposes and donate all the revenue to an entity called Restaurants of the Heart that provides food for people who need it. [Ed. note: My Blueberry Nights: Location Scouting Trip was published last year in France.]

The visual style of your films – the saturated colors, the way the camera moves, looking through glass or at reflections – is very much present in My Blueberry Nights. What specifically is in the frame, how should the colors look – is that a conversation that you had with Khondji?

Not so much about that. Darius is a very sensitive DP and very talented. And also, given the schedule and the locations that we shot in, it seems to me the final look of the film was a natural choice. When we shot in New York, the restaurant was so small it was hard to squeeze in all these cameras and a big crew, so we shot mainly [from] outside. It also makes sense to the story, because at that point we are still behind something, to observe what’s going on. And then the frame of the pictures – New York is pretty much like Hong Kong. It’s a vertical city, with vertical lines. And then when the character Elizabeth moves on to other parts of the country, we see the vertical lines become horizontal. And that’s why we shot in Cinemascope [2.35:1 aspect ratio].

We don’t talk much about the framing of things, because I think framing is something the director should be responsible for. It’s a matter of choice, a point of view. And the rest I just leave to Darius.

Did you do post-production back in Hong Kong?

No. It’s a very complicated process. We were the opening film for Cannes, so the schedule was actually very tight. Normally we are the last one to show up in the festival, but this time we wanted to make it different. So we did all this production in three different countries. While I’m doing final mix in Los Angeles [at Sonic Magic Studios in Culver City], my editor William is doing the editing in Hong Kong and grading in Thailand [at Oriental Post in Bangkok, which did a 4K DI]. So we have to communicate through telephone and Internet. It’s never precise to watch pictures on Internet, you know, so it’s a bad thing for the process.

But logistically you couldn’t all be in the same place, in the same room, to cut and grade.

I don’t think it was possible in Los Angeles, given the time we had to create a print. So we had to do it in Bangkok. All my films have had post-production in Bangkok. Also, we work in different time zones so we can use 24 hours fully.

This film went through a digital intermediate, and I think you did that on 2046 as well as your segment of Eros.


That’s a fairly new development for you, as well as many other filmmakers. Has it impacted the amount of work you can do on your pictures?

I try not to explore that. Especially for a production like My Blueberry Nights, it will give you a lot of excuses to say “Well, we’ll just leave it to post.” It’s something that’s good for films with a lot of effects, which you have to do that way, but for most films it’s only a kind of safety net. You have to make sure the light is right and the shot is right during shooting.

Do you see yourself relying more heavily on new digital technology? For instance, have you ever shot with a digital camera?

Actually, while we were shooting in Nevada we had a chance to get a very expensive digital camera called … I don’t remember the name.

The Genesis?

The Genesis. We shot in the desert. It’s very nice. It’s amazing. But somehow it’s not very practical for us. It’s too perfect for this film. So I think this equipment can be very useful and amazing to work with on some other projects but not this one.

When you say it’s “too perfect,” what are you missing? What makes the film image more attractive?

A kind of texture. I wanted to look at this film almost like a documentary. When you’re shooting with the Genesis, because it’s so fine – of course you can do adjustments in post, but we didn’t have time and resources to do so many different things afterwards. So I might as well do it on film, so I know exactly what will turn up.

Some directors – David Fincher is sort of the poster boy for digital cinema – like the digital cameras because they don’t have to change film mags every 10 minutes and can capture a certain kind of performance by just letting the camera run. Would that appeal to you?

As long as you have the luxury of time and resources, that’s fine. But when you’re working with a very tight budget and a limited time, I think you have to do it straight on.

On an unrelated note, I understand that you’re revisiting 1994’s Ashes of Time. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is and why you’re doing it?

Mainly because the negative of the film – we don’t own the film. And we realized the negative and the master of the film were locked in some warehouse. So we were trying to save the film, and I was trying to get bits and pieces from different parts of the world and put the film back together. At first we just wanted to restore the film, but once you open the doors, you try to revisit the whole thing and see what you can do. That’s the reason we want to release a new version of the film.

Were you able to find all of those original elements?

Sadly, we cannot find them all. But at the same time we discovered some things we hadn’t used. So it’s interesting.

And you’re restoring the footage at the same time to get a new international release. Which is a great way to see that film, because I’ve only seen it on home video, and I’d imagine it loses a lot in translation.


Do you have any thoughts about digital exhibition, and films being seen through new digital-distribution channels?

I have nothing against that. The only thing is, I’m not that digital person. I still think we need to watch film in the cinema, in the traditional context. To watch it on a cell phone, or on other media, it’s something that I’m not familiar with, and I don’t normally do. But I can sense that because my son is now watching everything – he gets all his information through the Internet. I think that’s the future.

I see a lot of your short films I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see on YouTube.

Right. (Laughs.)

On the one hand, it’s great because you get a sense for what you’re doing. You see the colors and the compositions. But on the other hand, you’re watching it a highly compressed state, and I’m never sure if I’m really seeing what you and your cinematographer intended.

Sometimes, when you’re working on a film, you notice so many details when you watch it on the big screen. So to watch it on the Internet is a way of knowing, but not actually going into that film. We know there are a lot of things going on – we know what the latest work of certain directors is. But until you look at it in its original format, it’s hard to tell.

We’re also seeing more versions of films. We just talked about a new rethinking of Ashes of Time. And I think Chungking Express was in slightly different versions, depending on where you saw it.

In those days we always had to have a kind of reasonable explanation at the end. If it was a genre film, like a gangster film, even though the film ends with the gangster running away, there will be certain implications that they get caught in the end. Chungking Express, in some territories, had to be released so that the Brigitte Lin character is a smuggler of diamonds. It is actually drugs, heroin. But in some territories, you can’t use heroin, so you have to change all these close-ups to diamonds.

Do you ever run into that with more recent films?

Once you make a film and get it into distribution, there will be a lot of things that you have to deal with. At that point, you just realize, “Well, I just want the film to be seen.” And I’m sure people will see the other version some way. Somewhere. Somehow.