Wayne Wang | Smoke | Blue in the Face | Because of Winn-Dixie
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Wayne Wang is a contemporary film director. Wang is one of the pioneers of the Independent Film in the United States.
Some common subjects in the films of Wayne Wang:
Wang's thriller plots tend to be triggered by a sympathetic character in trouble. One good guy character gets fairly innocently entangled with some menacing thugs, often through some mistakes of judgment or lack of prudence. These bad guys threaten this hero, intimidate him, cause him to go into hiding, and often seem to enmesh him in various financial schemes of theirs. Eventually the good guy manages to get out of their clutches, often a bit anticlimactically. There are no sweeping melodramatic conspiracies in Wang, à la The Fugitive or The Net, and no massive gunplay à la Schwarzenegger. The whole thing seems largely realistic, and somewhat frighteningly believable: the audience can easily imagine getting involved with these thugs, and being menaced by them.
There are also other sympathetic characters, who seek to help the character in trouble. These are also important characters in the film, and in Chan Is Missing and Slam Dance were the actual protagonists of the movie. In Smoke these "help" characters are played by William Hurt and Harvey Keitel, and are part of a larger ensemble. The help characters tend to be creative artists: Tom Hulce played a cartoonist in Slam Dance, Keitel a photographer and Hurt a novelist in Smoke.
The help characters have to get at the truth of the situation, and have to work their way through a paranoiac mass of deceptions. Everyone is lying, and things are not what they seem. These characters learn a lot, but they do not always arrive at Final Truth. The paranoia often centers around major social divides: Capitalist vs. Communist China in Chan Is Missing, black vs. white America in Smoke. There is also being born in China vs. America dividing the generations in the parent-child movies. These polarities are major gaps that the characters try to bridge in the movies. There is an effect of resonance in the movies, of the coexistence of two contradictory worlds that are inconsistent, but between which the movie seems to echo back and forth.
The slow, atmospheric background shots of Dim Sum also appear in Smoke, especially a lingering shot of a train slowly moving through Brooklyn.
The recurring still shots of Grant Avenue in Chan Is Missing recalled the visual refrain technique of Alain Resnais, and the lingering images of Dim Sum suggested Robert Bresson, and the mountains of still photos in Smoke recall Chris Marker's La Jetée. But it is clear by now that this is a personal technique of Wang's, however much it is influenced by French cinema of the New Wave era, with personal meanings as well.
Both films also show domestic routine, such as people washing dishes. Character-revealing conversations take place against the background of such routine.
When Wang goes into the countryside in Smoke, he takes us to a region of unutterably lush summer time growth, full of trees near country roads. This recalls the lush Southern nature exteriors in Because of Winn-Dixie. Smoke takes place in upstate New York, but it is photographed in a way that recalls Southern fecundity of nature in the later movie.
Both films are full of eccentric characters. Both have artist characters.
Because of Winn-Dixie has subject-matter relationships with Bresson's films, especially Au hasard, Balthazar (1966). Just as the donkey Balthazar symbolizes Christ, so does the dog in Because of Winn-Dixie. The startling scene in Because of Winn-Dixie where the parrot hovers over the dog evokes traditional religious paintings of the Holy Spirit represented by a dove hovering over Jesus.
There are thematic differences, however. Bresson's film is about human evil and depravity, with his characters representing all the human sins. The subject of Wang's film is the pain of loneliness. The people in Because of Winn-Dixie are not evil, but they sure are suffering. It is a very powerful portrait.
Because of Winn-Dixie is a family film about a lonely little girl who is befriended by a dog. Everybody's first response to such a film is that it must be simple-minded. It is not. It is one of the year's more complex movies. Like other Wang films, it is a slow moving, leisurely work that encourages introspection. The characters look deep into their lives and relationships. And Wang encourages viewers to do the same in their own lives.