Wong Kar Wai’s pop stars

Musicians who dabble in acting fascinate me. It probably has to do with never remembering a time before Madonna or music video. What makes a movie star different from a pop star? Acting ability might be considered as the obvious difference, principally because it involves being present in a moment with someone else instead of being caught up in how you look on camera (in theory, anyway). Shimmying and lip syncing in front of a white screen is not cracking wise with Rosie O’Donnell in the dugout, even if MTV forever changed how blockbuster movies look and how people act in them.

Granted, Madonna was always at her best when she didn’t bother losing herself in someone else. Even if she had any interest in doing that—her reinventions are personal—it can be difficult to transform from one of the best known pop stars of all time into somebody else. That’s why her performance as Mae Mordabito in A League of Their Own remains a favorite because she gets to deliver the line “Hi, my name’s Mae, and that’s more than a name, that’s an attitude” and pitch a self-obsessed and sexxee Italian American dancer-turned-ballplayer as meta-commentary. She also tears up when she refuses to return to taxi dancing after hearing that the league may shutter due to poor ticket sales. This is her least convincing scene in the movie—Madonna would never cry about returning to the humility and degradation of a past life because she would just co-wrote a song about it.

This makes me think that there’s little difference between the two vocations. I enjoyed Salt, but I never forgot I was watching Angelina Jolie for a second. That’s exactly how I felt about Girl, Interrupted, as much as people wanted to compare her to Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro at the time (they always want to compare us to men). Angelina Jolie is a good actress. But Angelina Jolie is never not Angelina Jolie, whether she’s playing a distressed single mother, a sociopath, a videogame heroine, a lesbian supermodel drug addict, a Type-A television reporter anticipating her own death, or Mariane Pearl.

The awkwardness of negotiating the medium specificity of performance is what interests me. I watched Something Wild solely on the basis that Suburban Lawns’ Su Tissue mumbles through her cameo. But casting is the other part of what interests me about musician actors. What do directors see in certain musicians that they want to capture or incorporate into their films? Certainly Jonathan Demme gets some hipster credibility from casting Tissue or Sister Carol in a movie, just as he does in creating one of the best concert movies of all time with the Talking Heads or directing my favorite New Order video.

But what happens when a director casts a musician as the protagonist or lead actor in a film? This question looms over Wong Kar Wai’s breakout feature Chungking Express and the flatly received My Blueberry Nights, his first film with an ensemble of American and English actors. The issue of reception warrants mention. Despite both films possessing Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s love-drunk visual style and featuring stories about women played by pop stars who brush past love and run away from it before returning to make the commitment when they know what they want, one was heralded as a cinematic triumph and the other was dismissed as “that movie with Norah Jones.”

For what it’s worth, I like both films quite a bit. They ache and bend seductively and, through creative use of editing and framing, seem to possess an associative non-linearity despite the narratives unfolding mostly in chronological order. They also make exceptional use of pop music—a hallmark of Wong’s cinematic storytelling—with the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” serving as the theme to one character’s wanderlust and Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”—a song with a heroic build-up—representing the tragic one-sided love an alcoholic police officer has for his ex-wife.

And they have killer final scenes. Chungking Express ends with a flight attendant (Faye Wong) drawing a boarding pass on a napkin for a smitten police officer (Tony Leung) to whenever she wants to take him. My Blueberry Nights concludes with callbacks to earlier portions of the film—sensual close-up shots of melting pie a la mode from the opening credits and a promising kiss between broken-hearted Elizabeth (Jones) and cook Jeremy (Jude Law) her potential new lover. The first time, a kiss from Jeremy sets Elizabeth in motion, first as a waitress and barmaid in Memphis and then as a waitress in Las Vegas.

The pretense is that she’s working to save up for a new car. But in reality, she is recovering from a break-up and doesn’t want to launch into a new relationship before giving herself time and space to figure herself out first, hence why she goes by Lizzie during her time in Tennessee and by Beth while in Nevada. Faye, who meets Cop 636 while working at a snack bar, demonstrates her love for him by sneaking into his house to tidy up while he is at work. She acquires entrance by stealing a set of spare keys left in a break-up letter from his flight attendant girlfriend that she leaves for him at the snack bar. But when the police officer commits to an actual date, Faye decides she needs to see California for herself and takes a job as a flight attendant before reuniting with him.

Though the pay-off to how these two couples get together is central to both films’ charm, it should be noted that they are but one story that Chungking Express and My Blueberry Nights are telling. The former splits the film in two, exploring the romantic angst of two recently dumped police officers and the two very different women—a blonde wigged drug dealer, a waitress whose hairdo puts the “pixie” in Manic Pixie Dreamgirl—they fall in love with. The latter demarcates the protagonist’s journey by nickname, geography, and a different set of wayward supporting players. However, the films are remarkably similar in theme and content despite differences in reception.

Why might they be viewed so differently? Certainly their placement in the director’s oeuvre plays a part. Film audiences were jolted by Wong’s impressionist style upon seeing Chungking Express—still an impossibly cool-looking film nearly 20 years after its release—but became familiar with it come My Blueberry Nights. I think the matter of translation plays a part as well. Put simply, Faye Wong means differently to particular audiences. It’s hard for me not to register her character’s quirkiness and driftlessness as akin to what we now associate with white female hipsters like Zooey Deschanel, but I don’t speak the language. Anthony Fung did a reception study on Faye and her impact as a pop star on young Chinese women following the influence of feminism and capitalism during the late 20th century and made a comparison between Faye and Madonna in terms of her impact on gender politics as well as her fragmented identity as pop star, iconoclast, and mother and the ways in which she distanced herself from her fans. But the cultural contexts surrounding her casting may signify differently depending on the film market and audience.

Time period seems to play a role as well. Given the film’s mid-90s release, it is probably no accident that Faye is covering an alternative rock love ballad and not “Take a Bow.” Wong was also associated with the Cocteau Twins. The same year Chungking Express came out, Wong released a cover of “Bluebeard,” renamed “Random Thoughts,” a song known by fans of the group that marks a shift in lead singer Elizabeth Fraser’s songwriting. Following the birth of her daughter and the dissolution of her relationship with band mate Robin Guthrie, her lyrics became much more direct. “Bluebeard” is anchored by the question “Are you the right man for me?,” a question Faye’s character in Chungking Express seems to be asking herself.

I wonder then if Othering plays a role in how Chungking Express is received relative to My Blueberry Nights. I also think that casting Norah Jones—who cannot seem to distance herself from Come Away With Me‘s Starbucks shuffle and fusty accolades—forces certain audiences to confront their anti-pop baggage. The inclusion of Jones’ “The Story” on the soundtrack further exacerbates matters. How would people feel if Cat Power, who appears briefly as Jeremy’s ex and lends “The Greatest” to the soundtrack, played the lead instead? Jones’ performance in her first scene is strident and broad, but she loosens up and develops as the film and her character’s journey unfolds. Or maybe people feel that Wong doesn’t need to tell the story twice. But when both films have final scenes literally dripping with romantic and erotic possibility, you want to replay them like your favorite pop song.

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