- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is well known — some might say notorious — as an improvisational filmmaker who often shoots without a completed script.

Though his English-language debut,” My Blueberry Nights,” opening today, had added structure provided by an American co-writer, he found that sometimes constraints can lead to the most interesting experiments.

“The film is based on a short film I made a few years ago about two persons in a diner in Hong Kong,” he explains by telephone from New York. He wanted to turn it into a feature set in a New York diner. “Somehow we realized it would be too expensive to shoot the whole film in New York, so we had to expand the story, so [the woman] takes this trip across the country.” A small budget, strangely enough, turned a chamber piece into a road-trip film.

“The idea,” Mr. Wong says, “was to shoot the film like a band tour.” That made perfect sense because the protagonist of the film, a young woman named Elizabeth who flees New York after discovering her boyfriend has cheated on her, is played by singer Norah Jones in her film debut.

“My Blueberry Nights” also stars Rachel Weisz, David Straithairn and Natalie Portman as people Elizabeth meets on her journey and Jude Law as the guy waiting patiently for her back at home. Mr. Wong met Miss Jones a few years ago in New York. “We both came up with the idea of making a film together,” he says.

Miss Jones was game to do anything Mr. Wong suggested. “It could be very intimidating for a first-time actress to play a character with some of the best actors of her generation, Jude Law and Natalie Portman,” he says. “I think she handled herself beautifully … I believe she’s got several offers now.”

Mr. Wong, Shanghai-born but Hong Kong-based since age 5, went on a tour of his own in developing the film. He took three cross-country trips with his director of photography, Darius Khondji (“Seven”) and location managers. “We’d get into a car, lock ourselves in, and drive 15 hours a day, from the East Coast to the West Coast because I needed to understand the journey,” he says.

He learned a lot about America on those trips, he says. As he moved from one state to another, he noticed that the musical sound, represented by radio playlists, was different. “It was interesting to use music as a reference to place,” he says.

Cat Power, who also makes her film debut here (“I don’t see them as musicians, I just see them as great faces and great talents,” he says of her and Miss Jones) contributed to the New York soundtrack, while blues anchor the Memphis scenes.

Mr. Wong chose a roots musician, Ry Cooder, to tie the film together. “I think the music of Ry Cooder feeds the film, feeds the yearnings of the journey,” he says. Mr. Wong didn’t choose to film in Memphis because of its illustrious musical history, though: He wanted to pay homage to playwright Tennessee Williams.

Mr. Wong is famous for his long shoots. His longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, apparently declared he would never work with him again after 2004’s “2046,” which crew members joked would not be finished until 2046.

This time, Mr. Wong had a schedule; Miss Jones had just two months out of her busy recording and touring schedule to devote to the film.

Mr. Wong’s films are stylish, atmospheric mood pieces. His 2000 masterpiece “In the Mood for Love” made walking up and down the narrow stairs of a noodle bar to pick up dinner the most sensual thing imaginable.

One might think this is the reason he takes so long to make a film: It can take time to establish a mood. He says, however, that he doesn’t spend painstaking amounts of time setting up shots.

“I don’t pay too much attention to this. Most of the time, it comes by instinct,” he says. With “My Blueberry Nights,” he couldn’t even consider doing it. “We have only seven weeks. We don’t have time to play with framing. Face the camera and shoot it,” he says with a laugh.

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