Chris Doyle Howard House
604 Second Ave, 256-6399
Through June 12.

When asked for thoughts on the cinematographer/visual artist Christopher Doyle, who had shot his failed follow-up to Farwell My Concubine (1993), Temptress Moon (1996), Beijing-born director Kaige Chen, who was then visiting America to promote his magnificent film The Emperor and the Assassin and was at that moment sitting in his room in the Inn in the Market, leaned forward, gave me a frown, and explained that, more or less, Doyle had ruined his film. Doyle did this, Doyle did that, Doyle had too much freedom, and as a consequence the substance of his narrative direction was lost in a mess of stunning visuals.

But Temptress Moon is actually saved by Doyle's cinematography. Not the story (which is weak and improbable), but the images of the spare rooms and the beautiful actors (one of whom, Leslie Cheung, committed suicide early last year) protect it from oblivion. And it is this reversal--a Doyle movie instead of a Chen one--that made Chen frown at me when I mentioned the name of the most celebrated cinematographer in Asian cinema.

Born in Sydney Australia, Doyle first became recognized in the West in the early '90s as Wong Kar-wai's cinematographer. The two, along with the art director William Chang, introduced to the West a very new China--a China that was no longer modern but profoundly postmodern; a China that was no longer enchanted by American commodities and the symbols of global capitalism (Sony, Motorola, McDonald's), but bored by them. Their China wasn't trying to catch up with the West but existed in the same exhausted time and space of all societies whose economies were determined by the massive flows of corporate capital.

The images from the movies (Chungking Express, Happy Together, 2046) that make up the new SIFF/Howard House exhibition dedicated to Doyle's photography, The Space of a Kiss, capture this spirit, this moment--China lost in the ruins of modernity.

Speaking of his French-born cinematographer, Jean-Yves Escoffier (who died of heart failure on the very same day that Leslie Cheung jumped to his death from his room in the Mandarin Oriental hotel), the American director Robert Benton explained to me, while sitting in his room in the Four Seasons Hotel (winter light streaming through a white-curtained window), that for his movie The Human Stain, he permitted only five "beauty shots." Judging from the final results, Benton was successful: The film lacks precisely what is in every shot that Doyle composes--beauty. But Doyle's sense of beauty is not simple and neat. It's brutal and bloody.

What defines the 12 images and five collages collected in The Space of a Kiss is a violence that is not active or the consequence of an aggression. The red curtains in the photograph that names this collection are violently red, and yet this violence occurs in a moment of peace: actor Tony Leung looking out of the window, his mind elsewhere, while all around him is a near riot of raw reds. Even Doyle's blues seem bloody, as is the case of Not Enough Blood for Both, an image of a slick Tony Leung sitting in a low-ceilinged hotel room. Consistently, the blood-red corridors, sky-blue bars, earth-brown bedrooms in Doyle's photographs are more alive than his subjects.

Late last year, I explained to the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who was staying at the W Hotel, that his films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) reminded me of a famous quote by 19th-century critic Walter Pater: "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." He agreed with Pater, and so does Doyle, who is a big jazz fan and often uses songs instead of scripts to shoot scenes in Wong Kar-wai's films. The musicality of his photography is not only visible in the dance-like movements of his handheld cameras but, as made evident by the stills in The Space of a Kiss, also in the colors.

Early in the documentary Different Drummer (1979), the jazz drummer for the legendary John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones (who died last month of heart failure), explains that while playing, he imagines the sounds made on the various heads of his drum set as colors. The reverse is true for Doyle: The colors in his photographs and cinematography are the beats to a brutal beauty.

charles@thestranger.com

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