Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011

381
Driving the Blues Away: Yuan and Letting Go
in Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights
Elizabeth Crisp Crawford, Timothy R. Gleason, and Nan Yu
For Chinese born, Hong Kong-based flm director Wong Kar-Wai, creating
his frst English-language flm for an American audience, My Blueberry Nights
(2007), was an artistic and cultural leap. However, this was not the frst time
Wong has taken a risk with his work. His eight previous feature flms include
a gang drama, a period romantic piece, a science fction epic, and a tale of gay
lovers living in Argentina. He frequently fuses Eastern and Western art cinema
and frames his characters with stunning visuals (O’Hehir, 2008). However,
flm critics reviewing My Blueberry Nights found the flm to be lighter and
more sentimental than his previous flms (Coleman, 2008; O’Hehir, 2008).
Although the story is relatively uncomplicated when compared to his previous
flms, My Blueberry Nights is rich with Chinese relational philosophy and uses
the rich visuals to communicate a deeper cultural meaning. Unfortunately, My
Blueberry Nights received harsh reviews, because the rich but subtle Chinese
symbolism did not translate well with an American audience.
Criticism of My Blueberry Nights
At best, My Blueberry Nights received mixed reviews from flm critics.
The majority of the negative reviews accused Wong of prioritizing style over
substance. According to The New York Times flm critic, A. O. Scott (2008),
“Mr. Wong and his inematographer, Darius Khondji, make America look so
pretty that you may have trouble recognizing it.” Scott continues by stating,
“To claim his fashion magazine sensibility for the cause of high art is a way
of ascribing nutritive value to eye candy.” The Washington Post critic Desson
Thompson (2008) wrote, “My Blueberry Nights is for people who want to see
how cute singer Norah Jones looks in different hats.” Sean Gandert (2008) of
Paste Magazine wrote, “My Blueberry Nights is stunningly almost unbeliev-
ably beautiful, but this only emphasizes the slightly sloppy editing and hit-
or-miss acting.” Gandert continues by stating, “The flm ends up feeling like
someone else’s clumsy attempt to imitate [Wong Kar-wai’s] style while missing
out on his obsessive perfection and emotional depth.” Meghan Keane (2008)
of the New York Sun wrote of My Blueberry Nights, “The image of beautiful
women in oversize sunglasses leaning against convertibles is not an accurate
depiction of Americana but it doesn’t make for a bad visual.”
Although critics seem to suggest that My Blueberry Nights’ superfciality
and emphasis stunningly beautiful visuals makes this flm inferior to Wong’s
greater body of work, there are marked similarities between My Blueberry
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
382
Nights and his previous flms, which are creative ties that tend to help identify
auteurs like Wong. In the academic sphere, Wong’s acceptance as an artist of
flmmaking is widely accepted (Gleason, Tang, and Giovanetti, 2002; Brunette,
2005; Teo, 2008). An aspect of auteur flmmaking is the implant of similar
qualities in different flms. An auteur’s flms vary but look like siblings of
different ranges of familiarity.
Using the perspective of the auteur approach enables an exploration into
the way Wong weaves Chinese philosophy and thought into his exploration of
relationships in My Blueberry Nights. The acceptance of Wong as an auteur is
simply to recognize Wong has control over the flm. Not every flmmaker is
an auteur, so not every director has control over his or her flm. Recognizing
Wong as the auteur, or author, enables one to argue that he is the artistic force
behind the flm and that My Blueberry Nights has a range of emotional depth
that is similar to his other works. Additionally, recognizing auteurship is ac-
knowledging Wong imprinted his personal style onto My Blueberry Nights in
the same way that he imprinted himself in his previous flms. Chinese culture,
character relationships, and aesthetics are some of the personal elements Wong
typically brings to his flms. And, like his other flms, My Blueberry Nights
is a rich text and is open to multiple interpretations. The focus in this paper
is to demonstrate how Wong uses his flmic “pen” in My Blueberry Nights to
explore the complexity of human relations from a Chinese perspective. This
paper will also demonstrate that My Blueberry Nights contains an emotional
and relational depth that is similar to Wong’s greater body of work.
Defning an Auteur Approach
History of Auteur
The auteur concept frst appeared in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 seminal
article, “La Camera-Stylo,” in L’Ecran français, a French socialist flm maga-
zine. It suggests the director is the “author” of a flm. According to Astruc,
the auteur is characterized by a uniform visual style and theme (Pearson,
1997). In “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Andrew Sarris called for a
more thorough conception of the term auteur (Sarris, 1962). Auteur theory, as
Sarris named it, was created by a group of Cahiers du Cinema contributors.
This critical group gave Cahiers du Cinema recognition as the foremost flm
magazine. Unlike other Cahiers du Cinema contributors, Sarris situated flms
in their social and political context, as well as within the economic framework
of the industry (Cassetti, 1999).
The idea of the auteur developed within the framework of the Nouvelle
Vague (Casetti, 1999). Film was equated to all other forms of expression.
And the images that appeared on screen were “personalized” as a result of
“individual” meaning. Film is interpreted as “a testimony to personality that
manifests itself despite and through any form of conditioning” (Casetti, 1999:
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
383
79). Filmmaking became a means for expressing the feelings, obsessions, and
thoughts of the individual creating the sounds and images (Casetti, 1999).
Sarris proposes three criteria for a director to be considered an auteur.
The frst criterion is the technical competence of a director. To qualify as a
great director, one must be at least a good director or possess the technical
competence necessary. Second, the director must possess distinguishable
personality with certain elements of style (Sarris, 1971). Over a body of work,
directors should demonstrate recurring stylistic characteristics that function as
a signature (Pearson, 1997; Casetti, 1999). The fnal quality is an intangible
interior signifcance. Interior meaning derives from the tensions between the
director’s personality and his art. The idea of interior meaning is similar to
Astruc’s defnition of mise-en-scene (Sarris, 1971). However, Astruc’s def-
nition comes short of the author’s vision of the world and his or her attitude
toward life (Pearson, 1997).
According to Sarris, interpreting flms as expressions of directors’ visions
does not credit directors with total creative expression. Every director, in the
United States and the world, is confned by both the craft and the culture. This
concept suggests that directors’ visions are never truly realized as pure per-
sonality expressions, because they are unable to escape cultural and cinematic
conditions (Sarris, 1971; Pearson, 1997).
Wong Kar-Wai as an Auteur
The flms of Wong Kar-Wai are marked both by striking visuals and ro-
manticism, and they explore both the visible and the invisible. Wong’s flms
capture dancing lights, refections, the motion of city streets, landscapes, and
expressions on his characters’ faces. In addition to the captivating visuals,
Wong’s flms endeavor to document the invisible as well a broken heart,
longing, and even the character’s perceptions of the tempo of time passing.
The techniques that Wong employs do more than communicate visually;
they use visual poetry to amplify moments that are too agile or subtle to be
captured in most flms but are too important to be forgotten by the characters
(Coleman, 2008).
As a visual artist, his most favored tool is the fading dissolves that transi-
tion between different moments and scenes. According to Coleman (2008),
It may be said that Wong’s most repeated punctuation mark is a visual realization of
an ellipses. It is that ellipses that most distinguishes and beckons, and perhaps even
frustrates those unacquainted or impatient with the director’s marked, seemingly
innate form of ever-burgeoning nascence of being. To label it an indulgence is
a poor misreading; Wong’s cinema glistens like that body of water, in which the
characters both struggle and thrive. Mastery of the waves, the ebb and fow, may
be temporary (perhaps truly temporal), but the thrill guarantees that the characters
slowly unlearn their own histories, and resume their swimming.
Therefore, much of the meaning of Wong’s flms is implicit or gained from
the context in which the characters fnd themselves. Wong communicates his
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
384
meaning as adeptly through what remains unsaid as what is actually said.
Meanings in Wong’s flms are communicated intuitively and emotively through
the context and the characters’ actions.
The use of everyday objects as romantic and emotive symbols is charac-
teristic of Wong’s flms (Coleman, 2008). Similarly, in My Blueberry Nights,
Wong uses food as a romantic symbol the most powerful symbol being the
blueberry pie. Throughout the scenes that feature Elizabeth (Norah Jones) and
Jeremy (Jude Law), Wong inserts shots of vanilla ice cream melting through
warm blueberry pie. Although there could be a variety of interpretations of the
meaning of the ice cream melting through the warm blueberries, it seems to
demonstrate the mixture of feelings. There is the warmth of the new relation-
ship that is forming between Elizabeth and Jeremy, and there is the loss that
both are feeling in regards to their former romantic attachments.
In addition to exploring emotions, My Blueberry Nights is Wong’s attempt
to understand America. And, through his American journey, Wong fuses West-
ern and Eastern culture. He uses the road trip that takes the audience across the
United States to explore some of the most iconic facets of American culture.
Wong’s story travels from New York, to Memphis, to Las Vegas. Wong takes
his main character, Elizabeth, on a trip that helps her understand herself and the
nature of romantic relationships, while capturing some of the most iconic views
in the United States. For these reasons, reviewers describe My Blueberry Nights
as Wong’s postcards from America. Wong said of My Blueberry Nights, “It’s
a new landscape. It’s a new background, so it’s refreshing” (Feinstein, 2007).
Chinese Culture and Relational Tensions in My Blueberry Nights
One of the most unique features of My Blueberry Nights is the perspec-
tive Wong brings to relationships. Being a Chinese flm director from Hong
Kong, one would expect that Chinese culture would affect his understanding
of interpersonal relationships. Wong’s cultural perspective is evident in his
treatment of relational tensions and his exploration of the forces that bring
people together and drive people apart.
Relational Dialectics
One of the relational themes evident in My Blueberry Nights is the tension
between closeness and autonomy. Relational dialectics offers an approach that
explores this relational tension. The historical roots of dialectics lie in Chinese
philosophy. Dialectics is an interplay between opposing forces (Baxter and
Montgomery, 1996). Therefore, dialectic scholars often fnd ways to uncover
unity in opposition.
Taoist philosophy provides further inspiration for the dialectic approach.
From a Taoist perspective, the social and physical world is a patterning of forces
that are spiraling back-and-forth in which any given force contains seeds of its
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
385
opposite. When a circumstance is characterized by an extreme, it is destined
to turn around and change into its opposite (Baxter and Montgomery, 1996).
Thus, reality is a process of unity, in which opposing forces are inseparable
while in opposition.
This concept of unity in opposites is illustrated in the concept of the yin
and yang. The yang principle stands for the creative, forwarding, dominating,
manifesting systematic force and has the male and heaven as its primary images
(Cheng, 1987; Baxter and Montgomery, 1996). The yin principal stands for
the receptive, repressive, hidden, informed, and background force that has the
earth and the female as its main images (Cheng, 1987; Baxter and Montgomery,
1996). The symbol of the yin-yang, also known as the “Supreme Ultimate,”
captures a rotational dynamic in which the dark yin and the light yang of the
universe are in continual interchange and motion (Cheng, 1987; Baxter and
Montgomery, 1996). In addition, these concepts are essential for understanding
one’s own nature, as well as the nature of others (Cheng, 1987).
Researchers who subscribe to a dialectical perspective have been con-
cerned primarily with the internal contradictions or the tensions in an inter-
personal relationship. The three prominent internal dialectics are the tensions
between connection and autonomy, predictability and novelty, and openness
and protection (Baxter, 1996). The internal tension between connection and
autonomy relates to the need for relational partners to sustain interdependence
and independence in their relationship (Baxter, 1996). The internal contradic-
tion of predictability and novelty relates to the need to sustain certainty and
uncertainty in the relationship. The third internal contradiction of openness and
protection is the need for individuals to sustain candor and discretion in their
relationship (Baxter, 1996). The primary tension that Wong explores through
the characters and relationships in his flm is the tension between autonomy
and connection. In spite of this tension, the Chinese believe that fate will bring
people together if the relationship is predestined or meant to be. The role of
fate in the tension between autonomy and connection is further demonstrated
through the Chinese concept of yuan.
The Role of Yuan in Chinese Relationships
The relationships in My Blueberry Nights also demonstrate one of the
traditional Chinese cultural beliefs about interpersonal relationships, namely
yuan. The word yuan means “predestined relationship” or “affnity” (Yang and
Ho, 1988). In Western culture, the concept of yuan could translate as fate or
destiny. Scholars have analyzed the functions of yuan in maintaining social
relationships. For example, Yang and Ho (1988) indicate, “A person who at-
tributes his or her state of interpersonal affairs to yuan would see it as a part
of fate predestined and unalterable […]. This is why acceptance, forbearance,
and resignation have been so highly regarded as virtues in traditional Chinese
society” (271). Many Chinese phrases depicting relationships between men
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
386
and women are combined with the word yuan, such as yinyuan (a predestined
marital relationship), liangyuan (a blessed relationship), yuanfen (a predeter-
mined connection), and nieyuan (an ill-fated relationship).
The beliefs of yuan are associated with the Buddhist concept of karma
(law of causality); people’s destiny, fortune, and misfortune are all determined
by previous deeds (Chuang, 2002). Acts of kindness or cruelty toward another
might simply result from a momentary inclination. However, for people who are
habitually good or evil, the Buddhist doctrine of yinguo comes into play: good
deeds will beget good results and bad deeds will beget bad results. A person’s
good moral record will be blessed with fortunate relationships; a person with
a poor moral record will have unfortunate relationships.
In the belief of yuan, an external force infuences the development and
the end of a relationship. A good yuan can lead to a successful relationship
and a bad yuan can cause relationship deterioration, because everything was
already pre-determined. According to Yang and Ho (1988), there are four condi-
tions that each have to be met for lovers to have a longlasting and successful
relationship: 1. They have to meet at the right time and the right place; 2. the
affection and the attraction must be mutual and enduring; 3. opportunities to
pursue the relationship must be present; and 4. external factors that prevent
them from developing the relationship (e.g., parents’ opposition, a third party’s
interference, and serious illness) must be absent or removed. In addition, people
who believe in yuan would attribute a failure of a relationship to a bad energy
or chemistry. Therefore, instead of forcing the continuity of a bad yuan, they
would end the relationship, which is previously doomed.
Yuan can also be applied to relational quality. Enduring relationships based
on liangyuan (i.e. a blessed relationship) are characterized by harmony and
mutual satisfaction. However, relationships based on nieyuan (i.e. an ill-fated
relationship) will be incomplete, disastrous, and painful. Examples could be
a tumultuous marriage, tyrannical parents, willful children, and friends who
plot against each other (Yang and Ho, 1988).
Ultimately, attributing the success or failure of relationships to yuan serves
important social functions for the Chinese. If a relationship is successful, at-
tributing the success to yuan minimizes jealousy because the relational partner’s
attribute the relationship’s success to fate. However, if the relationship is not
successful, it diverts blame from the relational partners. Although maintaining
harmony is a positive function of yuan, it can also have negative outcomes
because it could discourage people from recognizing their personal problems
or taking action to improve their individual situations (Yang and Ho, 1988).
Wong’s Relational Perspective in My Blueberry Nights
My Blueberry Nights demonstrates a Chinese view of the cycle of human
interpersonal relationships. The flm explores the relationship between auton-
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
387
omy and connectedness, as well as the concept of yuan through the portrayal
of various characters and their relationships. These relationships, in order of
appearance, are Elizabeth and her ex-boyfriend, Jeremy and his exgirlfriend,
Elizabeth and Jeremy, Arnie and Sue Lynne, and Leslie and her father.
Elizabeth and Jeremy I
Elizabeth frst meets Jeremy while searching for her ex-boyfriend in a
café in New York City. Elizabeth tells Jeremy, who runs the café, that her ex
is “5’ 11” with dark brown hair,” and he likes meatloaf. The last time they
were together he had meatloaf, which leaves Jeremy to remember he ordered
two meatloaves on a separate occasion. Naively, Elizabeth states aloud her
boyfriend must have been hungry. Jeremy sets her to a state of worry because
he did not eat both himself. It is in this exchange that Elizabeth’s sense of con-
nection to the relationship plunges, leading her to confront her ex-boyfriend
via telephone about his possible infdelity. She tells him to drop dead, an indi-
cation of her move towards autonomy, but her desire for connection remains.
In anger, she leaves her ex’s keys on Jeremy’s counter. The action of leaving
the keys reveals a desire for separation on the surface level, but her emotion
reveals her desire for her ex despite their nieyuan (i.e. an ill-fated relationship).
After leaving his keys, Elizabeth cannot escape her desire to connect with
her ex as she angrily rushes to his apartment where she appears distraught while
focusing on his window from the street. On the opposite side of the frame
from the window is a one-way sign pointing her away from the boyfriend,
which is Wong’s hint that Elizabeth needs to regain her autonomy by ending
her unfortunate relationship. However, the fact that she is present outside of
her former lover’s window shows that she is not ready to let go. Jeremy’s café
is an ideal context for yuan (i.e. a predestined relationship). But the timing is
off, because Elizabeth is not yet ready for a new relationship because of her
ex-boyfriend. This situation could have created a good yuan, but the neces-
sary conditions for the completion of a good yuan haven’t been entirely met.
When Elizabeth returns to the café, she asks Jeremy if he picked up the
keys. Upon learning he hasn’t, she hits the front door frame with her hand,
which represents the border between her worlds. Inside the café offers some
sense of comfort, even if it is part of her past with her ex-boyfriend, because she
can claim this space due to her increased interaction with Jeremy. The outside
is dark and lonely, and it is a reminder of life without him a life lived alone.
Elizabeth and Jeremy smoke cigarettes outside the café, as she contem-
plates the woman who is now with her ex-boyfriend. Jeremy responds she is
pretty enough, but “not the type I’d prefer to have my pork chops with.” This
moment is the start of their relationship, because Jeremy has already, in a
polite manner, denounced the new girlfriend’s worth. The potential for a new
connection with liangyuan (i.e. a blessed relationship) has been established.
At this stage, Jeremy’s positive worth is his opposition to the ex-boyfriend,
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
388
but the relationship cannot progress until his positive worth is not dependent
on the ex-boyfriend’s negative value.
Still struggling between her desire for connection with her ex and her
knowledge that the relationship is effectively over, Elizabeth returns another
time, asking if the keys are still there. Jeremy tells her how he keeps all the
keys left behind, because he feels disposing of them closes the relationship. He
thinks people are often better off not knowing why their relationships ended.
He explains that love is like the choice of pie. On a given day, some pies are
chosen; others are not. But, the fact that one pie is chosen and the other left
uneaten does not mean that one pie is better than another. It’s just a matter of
individual preference. Feeling sympathetic for the blueberry pie that was left
uneaten, Elizabeth asks for a piece. As the flm progresses, the blueberry pie
comes to symbolize Elizabeth, because she empathizes with the fact that the
blueberry pie is rejected at the end of the night. Jeremy uses the blueberry pie
as a metaphor for yuan the breakup isn’t anyone’s fault; people just make other
choices. The breakup simply indicates that time has come to let go and start
again. However, Elizabeth remains reluctant to accept this unhappy outcome.
Jeremy’s back-story is revealed when Elizabeth asks him about some of
the keys in his jar. Unknowingly grabbing the keys of his former relationship,
Elizabeth learns he is from Manchester, England; he came to the United States
to run marathons, and he writes a journal of his experiences. He ended up op-
erating a café and he gave those keys to a Russian girlfriend. Like Elizabeth,
Jeremy also experienced nieyuan in his former relationship. To Jeremy, the
keys represent a connection to an unfortunate relationship that ended. While
commiserating, Jeremy and Elizabeth experience yuanfen, or a connection
established by sharing a similar situation.
After Elizabeth leaves the café, she returns to the corner outside of her
former lover’s apartment. While gazing at the building she narrates, “How do
you say goodbye to someone who you can’t imagine living without? I didn’t
say goodbye. I didn’t say anything. I just walked away. At the end of that
night I decided to take the longest way to cross the street.” This passage is
signifcant because crossing the street will lead Elizabeth to fnd herself and
will later lead back to Jeremy. Therefore, an apparent contradiction exists. She
is simultaneously seeking both autonomy and connection. As Elizabeth crosses
the street, an elevated train overhead clips by signifying the passage of time.
The metallic clacking elevated train transitions to the rumbling rhythm of a
streetcar in Memphis, Tennessee.
As Elizabeth starts her journey, her character transforms from being a part
of the action to being an observer of the relationships around her. She records
her observations in postcards that she sends back to Jeremy in New York.
Elizabeth and Jeremy’s yuan is developed through the postcards Elizabeth
sends. Even though they no longer call or see each other, Elizabeth shares her
feelings and stories with Jeremy.
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
389
Arnie and Sue Lynne
Elizabeth’s quest to let go of her past leads her to two jobs in Memphis,
one at a diner and another at a bar. While working, she meets Arnie (played
by David Strathairn), who is going through his own experience of relational
nieyuan. Arnie is a police offcer trying to quit drinking while getting over the
break-up of his turbulent marriage to Sue Lynne. Arnie has two tragic con-
nections that are inter-related, alcohol and Sue Lynne. He keeps the chips he
receives in a recovery group; every new member gets a white chip to represent
the intention to stay sober. These chips are similar to Jeremy’s keys in that
they represent an intentional break from an unfortunate past.
As Arnie sits at the bar, Sue Lynne enters the bar to confront Arnie about
a fght that he had with her current romantic partner. Unfortunately, Sue
Lynne’s unresolved relational strife has followed her into her next relationship,
demonstrating the Buddhist concept of yinguo (i.e. karma). To break free, Sue
Lynne tries to reason with Arnie and insists that Arnie has to let her go. Arnie
argues that, in spite of their separation and previous misfortune, they still are
husband and wife, and that she has unresolved obligations to him. Sue Lynne
tells Arnie that they don’t live together, talk to each other, and therefore, Arnie
is “nothing” to her. Through this statement, Sue Lynne is asserting that she
has no further obligation to the relationship. Arnie attempts to reconnect by
grabbing her and telling her that he loves her. Sue Lynne breaks away, hitting
Arnie and insisting that their relationship is over. As Sue Lynne leaves, Arnie
threatens her life. Sue Lynne calls his bluff by asking “Then what?” Even if
Arnie shoots her, he still cannot have her. Realizing that there is nothing that
he can do to win Sue Lynne, Arnie crashes his truck into a tree in an apparent
suicide. Death is the only way in which Arnie can let go of Sue Lynne and
escape his cycle of nieyuan.
The tragedy of Arnie and Sue Lynne is that he simply cannot let her go
and end the cycle of nieyuan. This serves as a reminder to Elizabeth to let go
of her ex and not be like Arnie. And, Sue Lynne cannot make peace with Arnie
at the end of their marriage. After Arnie’s death, Sue Lynne says to Elizabeth,
“He was so crazy about me that I couldn’t breathe.” Elizabeth asks Sue Lynne
if she hated Arnie. Sue Lynne says, “I didn’t hate him. I just wanted him to let
go of me.” Sue Lynne continues by saying that she used to daydream about
him dying, because it was the only way that she could imagine being free of
Arnie. But, now that he is gone, his absence hurts her more than she could
have ever known. Ironically, Arnie’s need for connection is exactly what drove
Sue Lynne away. And, once Arnie let go, Sue Lynne feels more free to express
her true feelings for him.
The story in Memphis ends with Sue Lynne paying Arnie’s bar tab. Paying
the tab is a way in which Sue Lynne is attempting to settle the score in their
unfortunate relationship. From the Chinese perspective, making amends for
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
390
a previous wrong would be the best way for Sue Lynne to establish a more
positive pattern for the future or a better yuan. Wong included a similar scene
in Chungking Express. In Chungking Express, Cop 223 gets closure in his
relationship by paying his ex-girlfriend’s bill at the local convenience store.
He thinks he is just paying for her drink, but the bill totals about 200 dollars.
Likewise, in My Blueberry Nights, Sue Lynne ends the story by paying Arnie’s
tab of more than 800 dollars. In both cases, paying the tab seems to settle a
relational debt and allow for healing and a return to emotional stability. Sur-
prisingly, Sue Lynne’s last request to Elizabeth is that she would keep Arnie’s
tab hanging so that he wouldn’t be forgotten too quickly. In an ironic twist,
Sue Lynne’s last line re-establishes a connection to Arnie.
Jeremy and Katya
The concept of yuan continues in the narrative that follows. Jeremy’s ex-
girlfriend Katya arrives at the café. She remarks that very little has changed.
Katya attributes the lack of change to Jeremy’s sentimental nature. Katya asks
Jeremy if he still has the keys. He responds by saying that he remembers what
she said about never throwing them away or closing those doors forever. Katya
responds that sometimes you might have the keys, but the doors still cannot be
opened. Jeremy then adds that even if the door is opened, the person that she
was looking for might not be there. The conversation between Katya and Jeremy
signifes the end of their relationship and their yuanfen. After the conversation,
both partners regain their autonomy, and Jeremy gains the emotional freedom
to pursue a relationship with Elizabeth. Another impediment to Elizabeth and
Jeremy’s Yuan is therefore removed, and they can now form a real connection.
The elevated train rushes by and the former lovers part ways.
Leslie and Her Father
The next stop on Elizabeth’s road trip is Ely, Nevada, where she is serving
and observing players with poker chips instead of sobriety chips. However,
instead of exploring turbulent romantic relationships, Elizabeth learns about
trusting others and trusting herself. Time in the casino seems to lag. The mu-
sic is monotonous and the clanking of chips and the images of clocks seem
to reinforce the illusion that time is passing slowly. While in Ely, Elizabeth
forms a relationship with Leslie (played by Natalie Portman), a street smart
card shark who tries to teach Elizabeth how to read other people. After losing
a round of poker, Leslie asks Elizabeth for a loan in order to have the chance
to change her fortune. Leslie offers Elizabeth her new Jaguar convertible if
she loses Elizabeth’s money in the game. After telling Elizabeth that she lost,
they head to Las Vegas together, so that Elizabeth can claim the car and give
Leslie a ride to restart her life.
As Leslie and Elizabeth travel to Vegas together, the two women discuss
the nature of trust in relationships. Leslie says, “Trust everyone, but always cut
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
391
the cards….you know what that means? Never trust anybody!” She continues
by saying that it was the best thing that her father ever taught her. Elizabeth asks
Leslie if she is so good at reading people, how could she lose? Leslie argues
that sometimes your rhythm can be off. Or else, you can read the person right
and still do the wrong thing. Elizabeth then asks if you can do the wrong thing,
because you trust the person. Leslie counters that you cannot even trust yourself.
Leslie’s philosophy on trust is illustrated by her relationship with her
father a relationship that is imbalanced. Leslie’s father is willing to be gener-
ous with her, but she remains distant. Leslie says that she can ask her father
for money or anything, but she says that she won’t. Leslie’s cell phone is
always ringing, but she never wants to take the calls. When Elizabeth picks
up, she fnds out a hospital in Vegas is calling to inform Leslie that her father
is dying. Leslie says that the story is a ploy that her father is using to get her
to visit him. Elizabeth asks what would happen if the phone call is legitimate.
Leslie asserts her autonomy from her father by responding that she doesn’t
care if her father lives or dies. However, Elizabeth doesn’t believe Leslie’s
display of indifference.
After Elizabeth persuades Leslie to visit her ailing father in the hospital,
Leslie refuses to enter, suggesting that Elizabeth should go instead, because her
father cannot hurt Elizabeth. Elizabeth agrees to go to the hospital on Leslie’s
behalf. When Elizabeth arrives at Leslie’s father’s room, she fnds that he is
already dead. Elizabeth returns to Leslie to give her the news, but Leslie is
reluctant to believe Elizabeth, insisting that her father put Elizabeth up to it.
Once Leslie believes the news, she decides that she cannot give Elizabeth
the Jaguar, because it was a gift from her father. This gift reveals her father’s
true nature. Leslie stole the Jaguar to see if her father would turn her in to the
police. Instead, her father sent her the title to the car. The car is a symbol of
her father’s love. And, now that her father is dead, she can no longer deny his
love. She vows to drive the car until it breaks. Leslie then confesses that she
won the poker game and agrees to give Elizabeth her fair share of the win-
nings so that Elizabeth can buy a car. Leslie is redressing previous wrongs
and showing her fnal respect for her father by cherishing his gift. Leslie also
keeps her word by effectively giving Elizabeth the car she won by giving her
the money to buy a used car.
At the used car lot, Leslie tells Elizabeth that she needs to stop taking
people at their word. Elizabeth tells Leslie that she needs to start trusting
people. Leslie accuses Elizabeth of being gullible and trusting when she buys
the car. Elizabeth writes to Jeremy that she has been learning how to not trust
people, but she is glad that she failed. Elizabeth continues by saying that we
depend on others as a mirror to defne ourselves and tell us who we are. She
says that each refection makes her like herself a little more. Perhaps, learning
to trust others and herself again was the fnal step that Elizabeth needed to take
to regain herself after her breakup. After buying the car, she leaves Vegas and
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
392
starts to head back to New York. Elizabeth’s new car and her willingness to
trust again serve an important purpose because they are conditions required
for the completion of a good yuan.
Leslie is the last relationship Elizabeth encounters before she returns to
Jeremy. The experience makes Elizabeth realize that she always trusted people
and maybe this is why she could not let herself forgive her ex-boyfriend. When
she realizes this, she heads back to New York and starts her good yuan with
Jeremy. Throughout the movie, Jeremy and Elizabeth cannot give up their
connection in spite of their physical distance, and this persistence suggests
that they were meant to be together (i.e. liangyuan, a blessed relationship).
From a Chinese perspective, the love between them was pre-destined in that
they would come together eventually.
Elizabeth and Jeremy II
Elizabeth returns to Jeremy, fnding her place at the café is still reserved
for her. She requests her usual blueberry pie. Elizabeth notices that the keys
are missing. Jeremy responds that they were returned to their owners and asks
if Elizabeth would like her keys back. She responds that she doesn’t need them
anymore. This action symbolizes the ending of her nieyuan. By this time, all
the external factors that prevented them from being together have been elimi-
nated, such as “former relationship,” “lack of trust,” “lack of chances to be
together”… etc. This means they have fulflled all the conditions to develop
a good yuan. Elizabeth then explains to Jeremy the reason why she had to
leave that she didn’t want to be the same old Elizabeth anymore. Jeremy and
Elizabeth reminisce about when they frst met and reestablish their closeness.
Elizabeth narrates, “It took me nearly a year to get here. It wasn’t so hard to
cross that street after all.” The timing is now right for both Elizabeth and Jeremy.
At the end of the flm, all of the conditions for a good yuan have been
met: 1. The café is the right place, but the timing was not right at the begin-
ning of the flm, because Jeremy and Elizabeth both had complicated former
relationships. 2. The postcard/phone calls (from Jeremy) demonstrated two-
way affections. 3. The opportunity to pursue a relationship cannot arrive until
Elizabeth returns to Jeremy’s café at the end. 4. Before the end of the flm,
Elizabeth and her ex, and Jeremy and his ex, erased the external factors that
prevented them from developing their new relationship. Therefore, after gain-
ing autonomy by “letting go” of their previous relationships, Elizabeth and
Jeremy were able to establish a true and lasting connection.
Discussion
Wong Kar-Wai describes My Blueberry Nights as an American road trip
movie that travels from New York to Las Vegas. It is also Wong’s tribute to
America. But his tribute is not that of a native it is a tribute from a visitor.
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
393
Wong says,
I think no matter where we live, we all grew up with fragments of American
culture. I think that the most joyful aspects of making this movie was the joy of
revisiting those fragments and paying homage to them. It’s very hard for me to
think like an American. No matter how many trips I take, it’ll take a lifetime. I
will only be a traveler or a visitor (O’Hehir, 2008).
Perhaps because the fact that this flm is an homage to Wong’s favorite
facets of American culture led to it being criticized as “lightweight and sen-
timental” (O’Hehir, 2008). According to Scott’s (2008) review in The New
York Times, “The smoky Tennessee juke joint and the cute little Manhattan
bakery-cafe look like theme restaurants catering to the tourist trade, and even
the highways snaking through the mountains and deserts have the inauthentic
glow of rental-car advertisements.” Scott continues by writing that Wong
and Darius Khondji, his cinematographer, make the United States appear so
beautiful that Americans might have diffculty recognizing it.
The story of My Blueberry Nights is told from Elizabeth’s perspective.
Wong frequently uses characters’ perspectives via voice-overs to tell the story,
most notably in Ashes of Time (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046
(2004). However, Elizabeth does not seem to belong to any of the locations in
the story. One is really not clear about where she is from, although it seems that
she came from New York. Wong describes Elizabeth’s character as the person
for the audience to identify with. However, on some level, Wong Kar-Wai
seems to make his own observations of American culture through Elizabeth’s
character. The flm also explores a Chinese perspective on American relation-
ships. One of the most typical visual elements that characterizes Wong’s work
is the refection. Before Elizabeth starts on her journey, she sees herself in the
refection of the glass bowl that contains Jeremy’s keys a symbol of broken
relationships or relationships characterized by nieyuan. Elizabeth doesn’t like
what she sees in the refection, so she starts her journey. On her road trip of
self-discovery, she uses several variations of her name including Elizabeth,
Lizzy, Betty, and Beth. Her name changes with her location. In addition to
making observations about others, Elizabeth also discovers herself.
In many ways, Wong’s characters seem to be his own versions of Ameri-
can stereotypes.However, Wong is not making fun of American characters,
because Wong has a tradition of using characters’ roles and/or jobs for his flms
as a starting point for moral tales: the gangsters in As Tears Go By (1988);
the playboy in Days of Being Wild (1991); the gay men in Happy Together
(1997); the historic assassins in Ashes of Time; cops and drug smugglers in
Chungking Express (1994); the modern assassin in Fallen Angels; a writer
in both In the Mood for Love and 2046. During Elizabeth’s frst stop, she
works in Memphis. Wong Kar-Wai admits that this vignette was a tribute to
one of his favorite American playwrights, Tennessee Williams (Lim, 2006).
The turbulent relationship between Sue Lynne and Arnie also represents an
American archetype of a bad relational cycle. However, their relationship is
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
394
still presented as another refection of Elizabeth. Initially she identifes with
Arnie the cop because his wife cheated on him and he is broken-hearted.
However, she later begins to see the relationship from the other side when she
talks to Sue Lynne. And, perhaps through her conversations with Sue Lynne,
Elizabeth comes to understand that both partners suffer when a relationship
breaks up. As the flm progresses, Elizabeth seems to become more calm
and objective about her relationships and the relationships that she observes.
This objectivity is evidence that Elizabeth seems to have adopted the Chinese
perspective on relationships that removes blame from relational partners and
places more emphasis on circumstance. A similar relationship problem one
of circumstances plagued the couple in Wong’s As Tears Go By, when a mid-
level gangster loses his life, and thus his girlfriend, when he makes a last move
protecting his junior gangster-in-training.
After getting a better understanding of partners’ needs in relationships in
Tennessee, Elizabeth travels to Nevada and confronts questions about herself.
In many ways, Leslie is Elizabeth’s opposite. Leslie is a confdent and cun-
ning card shark who has lost the ability to trust others and perhaps herself.
She seems to personify the Wild West and the desolate Nevada landscape.
Leslie’s character is a modern cowboy, and her black Jaguar is her trusty
steed. By observing Leslie, Elizabeth comes to understand the consequences
of not connecting with others and being completely autonomous. After some
refection, Elizabeth decides that it is better to trust others and risk being taken
advantage of than to give up relational closeness.
Ultimately, My Blueberry Nights is a flm about “letting go.” Wong
Kar-Wai said, “We rely on something, we are obsessed with something, but
sometimes you have to let go” (O’Hehir, 2008). However, there are obstacles to
“letting go.” The desire for closeness with the other person must be overcome.
And it takes time to overcome the longing to be close to the person who is
the object of desire. As Wong explores the theme of “letting go,” he explores
the pain of time passing without the other person, and the tensions that exist
in releasing the other person. To let go, one must let time pass alone, in the
absence of the loved person. Wong explores the eternal pauses in which one
overcomes this longing. This practice is in stark opposition to the common
American cinema trope where relational partners seek out a “rebound” rela-
tionship to heal from their previous wounds. Wong’s story of Arnie and Sue
Lynne seems to show that this approach does not work. The concept of letting
go again, a theme for Wong’s auteurship also appears in his earlier flms.
Like the characters in Wong’s other flms, each of the characters in My
Blueberry Nights lives in a world of loneliness and isolation. Elizabeth hopes
to escape her sad fate by leaving New York. Sue Lynne looks for hope in a
job and starting over without Arnie. At the end of the flm, Elizabeth tells
Jeremy why she left New York without saying good-bye: “You know I came
here the night I left. But I didn’t make it past the front door. I almost walked
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
395
in. But, I knew that if I did I would just be the same old Elizabeth. I didn’t
want to be that person anymore.” Elizabeth needed time and space to attain
her own autonomy, or sense of independence and self, and to
give her ex-lover his autonomy.
In many of Wong’s previous flms, the characters are imprisoned by isola-
tion (Bruenette, 2005). Maybe most signifcantly, the mute in Fallen Angels
demonstrates the passion to break free from his isolation. Like Elizabeth’s
postcard writing, the mute constantly videotapes his father to have as a record.
Elizabeth, unlike most of Wong’s characters, breaks free of her loneliness and
creates new connections by fnding her autonomy and, in doing so, discovers
that she is not alone in her struggles with relationships. She witnesses the
despair that comes through not being honest with oneself and the role that
distractions play in numbing the pain of being alone. Arnie uses alcohol to mask
his pain. Leslie cuts herself off from others and stops trusting. In both situa-
tions, the characters were concealing their unconscious despair. Both Jeremy
and Elizabeth face their individual situations with honesty. Jeremy develops
the courage to let Katya go and move beyond his past. And, he understands
Elizabeth’s need to discover herself. Elizabeth has the fortitude to face her own
pain and to try to understand the desperation of those around her.
My Blueberry Nights and Chungking Express, likely Wong’s best-known
flm, share some common elements and themes. Both flms explore tensions
between closeness and autonomy. However, My Blueberry Nights is unique in
its execution. My Blueberry Nights has a very linear plot, which is a break from
Wong’s other works that draw more inspiration from the French New Wave,
especially Chungking Express. My Blueberry Nights also lacks the fast-paced
cuts (e.g., Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) and fashbacks
(e.g., 2046) of some of Wong’s other flms. Elizabeth has a sequential journey
that leads her across America and back home again.
Both Chungking Express and My Blueberry Nights make use of keys as
a central plot element and symbol. In Chungking Express, Faye takes the keys
that Cop 633’s ex-girlfriend leaves and breaks into 633’s apartment, trying
to improve his life and ultimately connect with him. Therefore, the keys both
symbolize a broken, past relationship and a way to gain access to another
person. However, the keys in My Blueberry Nights serve a related but separate
function. Again, the keys represent past relationships. Jeremy keeps the keys
from his own past and other past relationships in a glass bowl in his café.
However, the keys do not provide characters with access; instead, they are
used as a symbol of letting go of the past. At the end of the flm, Jeremy has
returned the keys to their former owners and no longer keeps keys in his café.
Because My Blueberry Nights is a more linear flm, Wong tracks the pass-
ing of time in a very methodical way by recording it in days and miles from
New York City. However, the passing time is recorded much more abstractly
in Chungking Express. For instance, Cop 223 uses his birthday, May 1, and
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
396
buying cans of pineapple with the expiration date of May 1 to mark the time
since his breakup and to provide him with a time period for mourning.
Conclusion
In an era of movies marked by the mass production of the lowest common
denominator, Wong Kar-Wai’s flms stand out as art. As this paper has argued,
Wong uses a soft touch to convey a hard topic the diffculties in establishing,
growing and maintaining relationships. While auteur theory rests on the idea
that an auteur’s movie is the product of an artist instead of studio group-think,
it does not ignore infuences on an auteur. It is inevitable that Chinese cultural
thinking would reveal itself in Wong’s flms. Most importantly, yuan, the force
that brings two people together, is employed to suggest why couples can or
cannot have successful relationships. In the case of Elizabeth and Jeremy,
yuan was resolved, and Wong suggests they will have a good future together,
a rarity in a Wong flm.
References
Baxter, Leslie A. and Barbara Montgomery. 1996. Relating: Dialogues and
Dialectics. New York: The Guilford Press.
Baxter, Leslie A. and Barbara Montgomery. 2000. “Rethinking Communication
in Personal Relationships from a Dialectical Perspective.” In
Communication and Personal Relationships, edited by Kathryn Dindia
and Steve Duck, pp. 31-52. West Sussex,England: John Wiley and Sons
Ltd.
Brunette, Peter. 2005. Wong Kar-Wai. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Casetti, Francesco. 1999. Theories of Cinema, 1945-1995. Austin, TX:
University of Texas Press.
Cheng, Zheng. 1987. “Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Human
Communication Theory.” In Communication Theory: Eastern and
Western Perspectives, edited by D. Lawrence Kincaid, pp. 23-43. New
York: Academic Press.
Chuang, Rueyling. 2002. “An Examination of Taoist and Buddhist Perspectives
on Interpersonal Conficts, Emotions, and Adversities.” Intercultural
Communication Studies. X1(1): 23-39.
Coleman. 2008. My Blueberry Nights. Coleman’s Corner in Cinema. Retrieved
Sept. 1, 2009, from http://colemancornerincinema.blogspot.com/2009/03/
my-blueberry-nights-2008.html.
Feinstein, Howard. 2007. “Cannes ’07: Wong Kar-wai on My Blueberry Nights.”
Filmmaker. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2009, from http://flmmakermagazine.com/
webexclusives/2007/05/cannes-07-wong-kar-wai-on-myblueberry.php.
Gandert, Sean. 2008. “My Blueberry Nights.” Paste Magazine. April
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
397
1. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2009, from http://www.pastemagazine.com/
articles/2008/04/my-blueberry-nights.html
Gleason, Timothy, R., Qi Tang, and Jean Giovanetti. 2002. “Wong Kai-Wai:
An International Auteur in Hong Kong Film-making.” Journal of Asian
Pacifc Communication. 12(2): 291-310.
Lim, Dennis. 2006. “The Master of Time: Wong Kar-wai in America.” The New
York Times. Nov. 9. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.
com/2006/11/19/movies/19lim.html.
Lyotard, Jean-François. 1979. The Postmodern Condition. Manchester, UK:
Manchester University Press.
O’Hehir, Andrew. 2008. “Wong Kar-wai’s Blueberry-pie America.” Salon.
com. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2009, from http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/
btm/feature/2008/04/03/wong/index.html.
Pearson, Matt. 1997. “Authorship and the Films of David Lynch.” The British
Film Resource. Retrieved from http://www.britishflm.org.uk/lynch/
eraserhead.html.
Sarris, Andrew. 1971. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” In Film Culture
Anthology, edited by P. Adams Sitney, pp. 121-135. London: Secker and
Warburg Publishers.
Scott, A. O. 2008. “On the Road, with Melancholia and a Hankering for Pie
and Ice Cream.” The New York Times. April 4. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2009,
from http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/movies/04blue.html.
Thomson, Desson T. 2008.”My Blueberry Nights.” The Washington Post. April
18. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2009, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/
movies/my-blueberry-nights,1138486.html
Yang. K. S. and Ho, David Y. F. 1988. “The Role of Yuan in Chinese Social
Life: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis.” In Asian Contributions to
Psychology, edited by Anand C. Paranjpe, David Y.F Ho, and Robert W.
Rieber, pp. 263-281. New York: Praeger.
Elizabeth Crisp Crawford is an assistant professor of communication at
North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. She earned her Ph.D.
in communication at the University of Tennessee. Her current research focuses
on visual storytelling and message strategy.
Timothy R. Gleason is an associate professor of journalism at the University
ofWisconsin Oshkosh. He earned his Ph.D. in communication at Bowling
Green State University. His current research focuses on visual storytelling
and photography.
Nan Yu is an assistant professor of communication at North Dakota State
University. She earned her Ph.D. in communication at Penn State University.
Her current research focuses on health communication and message strategy.
Asian Cinema, Fall/Winter 2011
398