dir. Wong Kar-wai
Opens Fri Feb 16 at Harvard Exit.
Du-Ke Feng is the Sinified name of cinematographer Chris Doyle, an Australian-born, ex-Merchant marine madman whose anarchic sensibility and unrestrained drinking habits have earned him legendary status across Asia. Arguably the most gifted lensman working today, Doyle first came to international prominence for his brilliant work with Wong Kar-wai on the 1991 film, Days of Being Wild. Since then, Doyle has distilled his style to an immediately recognizable blend of obtuse, abstract framing; dance-like movement; lavish color; and ever-changing camera speeds that manage to transmute Wong Kar-wai’s characteristic obsessions with longing, desire, and the random, enslaving fever of a city into pure, gorgeous cinema. I talked with Doyle by phone from Sydney, Australia.
Where are you just now?
I’m in the Fox studios in Sydney. Could be worse! I’ve been all over, back and forth to Vietnam, to Japan. I’m preparing something in the States right now, something in China. It’s a neverending story.
Where do you consider your home?
Bed, usually [laughs]. Which is in Hong Kong. Have you seen Chungking Express?
Yeah, that’s my apartment, the one with the escalator outside. That’s where I live. I mean, as far as whenever I’m in Hong Kong, that’s where I am. That’s where my books are anyway–let’s say that. That’s where my underwear is.
So… are you wearing any underwear right now?
Well, actually… by the way, are we interviewing now, or just chatting? Do I have to tell the truth, or can I be full of shit?
That depends, I guess. Do you lie about your past?
Well, once upon a time… I hang out in a place called the Jazz Club in Hong Kong a lot; and one of the owners is a high court judge. One day I ran into him, and the previous week there’d been something in the newspaper about me. And he said to me, "Chris, you’re totally full of shit." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "All that crap in the newspaper"–which was kind of about where I am, how I came to be here, and whatever. And I said, "But it’s true." He says, "I don’t believe a word of that."
And I realized that it’s a truth-is-more-scary-than-fiction situation. When you look back at the last 10 years or so, it has been an interesting… trajectory, I guess you could say. But I try to be honest. Try to be honest, except when someone has scissors in their hand and is, you know, threatening to cut my balls off or something.
A lot has been written about how abstract and intuitive your filmmaking method is with Wong Kar-wai: how you use pieces of music as much as scripts, how you don’t know anything of the story in advance, how you let the film grow day by day. Where does this method come from?
It is a little bit of an Asian method, I think, as opposed to a Western methodology. What they teach you in Screenwriting 101 is that everything is based in conflict; there’s Act I, Act II, Act III… whatever. There’s a sort of Western analysis of how people interact, which is a cause-and-effect kind of situation, whereas an Eastern structure says that any artwork of a society comes from the Whole to the Individual. State, Family, Individual. It’s a very Confucian thing.
It sounds like less of an imposition on reality.
Yeah, it’s like a big circle that sort of circles in on the essence of something: It’s like looking for the essence, and that’s a very Eastern sort of attitude. We start with an ideal for example, which is often an emotion, which is what music is, what it does. Why do we use such eclectic music in our films? Well, it does suggest an atmosphere, it does suggest an emotion, it does suggest even a color sometimes.
Can you elaborate? How did you work with music in In the Mood for Love, for example?
Well, the music which we based the movement of the camera on, which we based the unspoken emotional responses of the actors on, is not actually the music that ended up in the film–but that was its purpose: to be emotive and suggest the rhythm of something. Like the rhythm of the camera movement, or the rhythm of somebody walking. Or the rhythm of a glance, or any other gesture. So in that way, our work is still pretty abstract, but you can count those beats, you know what I mean? It’s concrete enough that you can transcend all parts of the filmmaking process, which means how the camera moves, how the actor moves, how it’s edited. So, it is pretty concrete in that way–but, of course, it implies a great confidence in all the collaborators.
You’ve worked this way with Wong Kar-wai on six films now. Do you get better at it?
I think you do. Hopefully, you get better at lovemaking, you get better at dancing. It’s all a dance, you know. Hopefully, our collaboration–my collaboration with anyone, or even me just sitting in a bar–is about how you teach yourself to look. I think that’s the job of any "artist"; that’s certainly the job of a cinematographer, that’s certainly the job of anyone who wants to talk perceptively about life: to learn to look, and learn to listen. And I think that’s what we’re trying to develop, and hopefully, we’re trusting each other enough, and trusting the audience enough to say, "Yeah, there’s something there which is as evocative as words on a page."
So, if it is all simply intuition, how do you know it will come out right?
Well, first of all, if we knew, we would probably fuck it up [laughs]. Sometimes there is an incredible innocence, or importance in not knowing. I mean, if people knew how intuition worked, there wouldn’t be so many divorces, you know? But I would say, it’s based on being a mirror of the people you’re with. It’s really is a kind of yin-yang relationship: I have things that he doesn’t have, and he has a great deal I don’t have.
I think it’s built up on trust and confidence, and it’s also built up on experience. So yeah, it’s intuitive, but it’s also the intuition of somebody who knows the other person well enough to say, "Oh, if I do this, then you will respond like this, or if I do this… " It really is like dancing with someone you know, as opposed to dancing with a new partner. Sometimes you run into the people you should be with, whether it’s in love or in work.
I’m stunned by the use of architecture in the film. Where was it shot?
A lot of it was shot just down from my house in Hong Kong, like a one-minute walk away. I go [to those places] all the time. The apartment building, the adjacent apartments are just over in Kowloon… I’d say half Hong Kong, half Bangkok.
Well, Hong Kong is sort of notoriously not very film-friendly. The people are living in such confined spaces, they’re not very into letting you take over their lives for a film. And there’s still a certain reticence towards… how shall I say it? We’re not really regarded as the sort of echelons of moral society, you know what I mean? We’re usually regarded as pimps and whores.
Then again, Bangkok still has an architecture. Especially their Chinatown, which is still in a sort of time warp that is much more appropriate to the fact that the film is set in the ’60s and ’70s.
Like the film Yi Yi, In the Mood for Love has a very distinctive feel for the nature of the City.
Well, most [of the characters in] Yi Yi are city people, or people who have a very intuitive response to the city. Secondly, the cities themselves are such organic things, whether it’s Tokyo, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong–in Asia, they’re much more organic units than somewhere like L.A. or Sydney. But I think that’s what both of these films are doing. Whereas before, we restricted the energy of the city, and yet at the same time, sort of tried to–what’s the word, denote? Connote, I guess? Suggest that people are still people, people are still individuals, people are still looking for love or family or whatever it is within this incredibly diverse and dynamic and organic unit called a city.
In your work with Wong Kar-wai, your use of speed and color is so stunning. Is that something you discovered with him, or did you bring that to him?
No, I think it’s very much William Chang, the art director. I’d say that 40-60% of any film is as much about art direction as it is about the quality of light, or the kind of film you use, or the way in which it’s exposed. I think that the collaboration between the art director and the cinematographer–and then the lab, by the way–that triangle is what makes a film look the way it does. Right?
How did you discover Maggie Cheung’s rear end? I’ve seen so many movies of hers, and, frankly, her hips and ass have never seemed like they were there until this movie.
My God, yes! Don’t go with a woman to see In the Mood For Love, because otherwise you have to give her your credit card immediately, you know! Every woman who sees In the Mood For Love, whether she’s white, yellow, or black, she’s like, "God those costumes are great." And they are. That’s William again, the costumes are what did it. I mean sure, there’s a little bit of light, but you know, the light is pretty simple, usually angular, and it’s like a cross lighting for the situation. But it’s very much about the cut of the clothes, I’m sure. That, and the fact that William loves women so much.
So far, of the films you’ve done with Wong Kar-wai, are there moments or entire films that stand out? Any greater achievements?
No, no, not at all. No, the next one is gonna be the best one, of course.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think there is a satisfaction in the fact that Mood For Love was such a discreet chamber piece. That was a turning point. But then, we thought that Happy Together was also one of those, you know? You call them landmines or landmarks? I don’t know [laughs]. But I do really believe that the next one will be the best one.
You’ve bragged repeatedly about your one-bottle-a-day consumption of whiskey during the shoot of Temptress Moon…
One and a half, I think I said.
One and a half? What are your secrets to drinking that much whiskey?
I mean, this morning I had to go out and have a beer because I got so frustrated, you know? And I think it’s just… you are… to be honest, you are trying so hard sometimes. I think it’s just that in spite of all the shit I said, I really do care and I really get frustrated when it’s not working the way I hoped it would. I continue, of course, but you have to step away from it all. Whether it’s alcohol or conversation or just talking on the phone to your mom. Which I also do.
What do you think of the recent surge in popularity of Chinese films?
You know, in spite of the color of my skin, I’m very yellow inside. I’ve said, many times, in a Chinese world, I’m an Asian person with a skin disease–it’s cultural, it’s language, it’s why people feel so close to their county music, for example, or why French people really need their red wine, or their cheese, or whatever it is–or why Chinese people need their rice! There’s something there that comes from having traveled this road together, and now you see, wow, people are responding! God, you know, that’s fantastic. I have great, great pride in Crouching Tiger, and what it’s done for the world–great pride, total pride, that a subtitled movie is actually having this kind of response. God, thank you, this is fucking beautiful. We feel vindicated. It’s very gratifying.