Wayne Wang | Smoke | Blue in the Face | Because of Winn-Dixie

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Wayne Wang

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:


Smoke (1995) is a personal project for Wang. It combines the parent-child dramas of Dim Sum and The Joy Luck Club, with the thriller plots of Chan Is Missing and Slam Dance, so the two sides of Wang's art come together here.

Wang's Thrillers - Characters and Situations

Wang's thriller technique is distinctively individual. There is always a realistically detailed urban background, with his characters living a modest middle to lower class life in a big city: San Francisco (Chan Is Missing), Los Angeles (Slam Dance), and now New York City (Smoke).

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.

Still Images - and the New Wave

The scenes with the still photographs allow Wang to indulge in his fondness for stopping the image, something noticeable in both Chan Is Missing and Dim Sum. The photographs appear in Paul Auster's original story, but Wang takes full advantage of them to help create his mise-en-scène.

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.

A Final Thought

In general, I have enjoyed Wang's films with thriller plots more than his parent child dramas. The pleasurable Smoke continues this tradition. The Joy Luck Club is awfully full of psychobabble, and conversations full of discussions about self esteem. The best part of Joy Luck Club was the ending. The final fifteen minutes is a heart felt tribute to mother love. It is impossible to imagine anyone who has a good mother not being touched by this section. I cried at the end.

Blue in the Face (Wayne Wang & Paul Auster)

Blue in the Face (1995) is an improvised sequel to Smoke, with many of the same characters, and numerous "guest stars". Mainly it is an hour and a half of comedy vignettes, and serves as a piece of comic vaudeville, almost desert, after Smoke. It is light and cheery. Who was it that said that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as comedy? They could have been talking about this pair of films. This little movie is very entertaining. It seems utterly unlike anything Wang has ever done before, although there are some nice moments of comedy in Dim Sum. Wang's comedy seems to be full of both wry wit, and sociological observations. Here he made me curious about Brooklyn.

Because of Winn-Dixie

Links to Smoke

Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) has a strong visual resemblance to Wang's Smoke. The smoke shop in Smoke looks much like the pet store in Because of Winn-Dixie. Both are old, somewhat run down looking small stores, that recall a "Mom and Pop" era of small independent retail outlets. Both stores are just stuffed full of traditional shelving and objects for sale. Wang makes a big deal of customers entering the shops, talking to the single clerk/manager in the store, who stands behind his counter, etc. Everything in the shops is in one moderately big room.

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.

A Different Kind of Parent-Child Drama

Because of Winn-Dixie seems like a reverse of such earlier Wang parent-child dramas as The Joy Luck Club. That film dealt with great mothers who stood by their children; Because of Winn-Dixie shows a little girl who has been abandoned by her mother.

Links to Bresson's Au hasard, Balthazar

Wang's Dim Sum seemed especially Bressonian in treatment, with Wang's camera frequently lingering on objects in a manner that recalls Robert Bresson.

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.

The Meanings of the Film

Because of Winn-Dixie is a Christian film without right-wing politics. Perhaps this is something new in contemporary film, or even in modern history. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his enthusiastic review in The Chicago Reader, says the film is an attack on xenophobia, the contemporary hatred of strangers and foreigners that seems to be gripping so much of right-wing America. Its message of openness is much needed. Rosenbaum also wonders if the film is an allegorical attack on the Iraq war. It is hard to say.

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.