Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, though it partly recalls Depression-era works such as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, has a different look from the director's other films. Allen eschews black and white for this mockumentary tale of a gifted yet self-defeating jazz guitarist (Sean Penn), instead restricting the palette to a range of delicate reds, golds, and greens, like early two-strip Technicolor. The movie's images are also filtered through a fine diffusion that stands in contrast to the bright, clear style of the filmmaker's contemporary urban comedies. It's a work in miniature, distanced and elegiac.
Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin is the most ambitious film ever made in China. Set during the 3rd century BC, this epic tale of King Ying Zheng of Qin, who forged together the seven major Chinese states, and of the man sent to stop his violent style of unification, features massive battle sequences, meticulous recreations of period buildings, artifacts, and costumes, and a cast of thousands. It was shot in various locations, studio sets, and a reconstructed Xianyang palace which now serves as a theme park attraction. But the scale of the production does not preclude a unified visual beauty, an overall look of softness and warmth disrupted at key moments by washes of cold light, and dynamic sequences of brutality.
These two stylistically divergent films, both released by Sony Pictures Classics in December, share a crucial element: director of photography Zhao Fei. One of China's most respected cinematographers, Zhao has been an important participant in his country's artistically resurgent film industry of the 1980s and 90s. His credits include Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief, Huang Jianxin's Samsara, and, perhaps most notably, Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern. The Emperor and the Assassin is his first collaboration with Chen Kaige, himself one of the Chinese new wave'sprime players.
Preproduction and production on Chen's epic took up about a year of Zhao's life in 1997-98. And then the DP received an unexpected summons. "I don't know the full reason Woody chose me," says Zhao, speaking through an interpreter during production on a second Allen movie, in summer 1999. "But after finishing The Emperor and the Assassin, I got a call from New York, saying he would like to meet me. All I know is, Woody had seen Raise the Red Lantern. On that basis, he asked me to come have a chat, which resulted in me working on Sweet and Lowdown, and also his new film."
If Allen only knew Zhao from the artfully composed formal images of Raise the Red Lantern, the DP was even less familiar with the director's work. "I had not seen any of his films," says Zhao, who caught up with them during two months of preproduction in New York. Often working through an interpreter--Zhao's English is minimal, Allen's Mandarin Chinese rather more so--director and cinematographer discussed likes and dislikes, eventually shooting tests to cement a style for the movie.
Sweet and Lowdown follows the mostly downward professional and personal trajectory of fictional musician Emmett Ray during the 1930s. Described (in interspersed interviews with such contemporary experts as Nat Hentoff, Ben Duncan, and Allen himself) as the world's second-best guitarist after Django Reinhardt, Ray is also a gambler, boozer, and womanizer whose dire financial straits are matched by his disastrous relations with the females (played by Samantha Morton and Uma Thurman) closest to him. Ray is only transported from his grim reality when he plays, in sequences that convey a romantic feeling for the 1930s jazz scene.
"Woody wanted to create a film that had the atmosphere of a jazz club," says Zhao, who shot all of the predominantly Chicago-set movie in locations and studios around New York. "We would go scout locations, and decide on different ways of shooting. I would draw diagrams"--like light plots, but more impressionistic, also employed by the DP on The Emperor and the Assassin--"and we would talk about it. What he wanted was something very pretty to look at." Whatever harshness there is in the movie was to come from the story and performances; visually, Sweet and Lowdown was meant to echo the mood of the music, and of the title.
The movie's palette was mostly left in the hands of production designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Laura Cunningham. "I didn't really use any artificial color," says the cinematographer. "What I did provide was smoke, which I like to use to diffuse the light. I told Woody that beforehand, and he accepted it." Faced with an array of lighting equipment that is unavailable in China, Zhao says he "stuck with what I know"--for the most part, big studio lights. But he did embrace Kino Flos for use in car scenes and in smaller locations. "In China," he says, "when we have something more detailed like shooting a car scene, we improvise it on the set."
Overall, Zhao found working in the US to be an illuminating experience, and was equally admiring of the director and his crew, with whom he had to communicate without benefit of a translator. "The translator can't be on the set, so I used my English," he says. "But those are very basic words, so it wasn't difficult to communicate. Apart from there being a greater assortment of equipment here, the division of labor is much more detailed than in China." Zhao had the benefit of working with gaffer Michael Proscia, Jr., and key grip George Patsos, both veterans of Woody Allen films.
But Zhao had also been very impressed by Chen Kaige's know-how on the set of The Emperor and the Assassin: "I think he knows a lot more about cinematography than many other directors," says the DP. Chen had previously made other big historical dramas--such as Farewell My Concubine, photographed by Gu Changwei, and Temptress Moon, shot by Chris Doyle--but the size of his latest epic, which was partially funded by sources in Japan, Korea, and Le Studio Canal + in France, was unprecedented. Besides Ying Zheng's Xianyang palace, reconstructed in Zhenjiang province, and the city streets of Xianyang, built in Hebei province, Tu Juhua's sets for the film included partial recreations of such other 3rd-century BC cities as Yan Zhao and Han, and of the Handan castle, erected in Zhuozhou. Interiors were shot at People's Liberation Army film studios in Beijing, while the huge battle sequences were filmed on the Bashan plateau, bordering Inner Mongolia.
Zhao spent six months in preproduction on the film, working closely with Chen and Tu Juhua, drawing detailed lighting diagrams of every scene. "I would come to the meetings and give my comments on the sets, telling them from my perspective what kind of improvements should be made, what needed to be changed for the lighting," says the cinematographer. "Then I would do my diagrams." Since interiors could only be source-lit from windows or the occasional flame, these diagrams played a crucial role before the sets were built.
The Xianyang palace was particularly challenging to light for the climactic scenes. "It was a huge set, and all of my lighting wasn't enough," says Zhao. "So when we were designing the palace, I had an opening placed in the ceiling. I put a glass there, and muslin over it, and that's how I lit it. In that location, we don't get a lot of sunny days, so I augmented whatever natural light was coming in with my 18ks and 20ks. Of course, I couldn't rely on natural light, because the actors go through rehearsals, and there isn't enough time to catch the available sunlight." Typically, a strong key light was placed on the actors (including Li Xuejian as the emperor, Zhang Fengyi as Jing Ke, the assassin, and Gong Li as Lady Zhao, the emperor's concubine) with smaller floodlights for ambience. But the DP's trademark use of smoke softens the images.
On the battle sequences, three cameras were used, with one often placed on a camera car for tracking shots. The effect can be breathtaking, with the viewer right in amongst the dust and horses' hooves. "The director wanted low-to-the-ground shots, so I put the camera on a crate in front of the car, and followed the horses," he says. Though Zhao may not have had access to the most sophisticated lighting equipment, he did use Kodak's most up-to-date Vision stocks. But the changeable weather and limited light on location often meant he had to bring out the large units for these exteriors.
Other scenes were more modestly conceived. In one, Gong Li's Lady Zhao is in her chamber preparing to leave Ying Zheng for a visit to her homeland; the image is cast in a stark blue, a very selectively used color in The Emperor and the Assassin. "Designing some of the scenes, we actually had in mind classical Chinese poems," the DP says. "The first two verses of one are, 'In front of the bed, there is the light, and I suspect it is actually the reflection from the ice on the floor.' Lady Zhao is homesick, and we wanted to evoke that with the lighting design. There's another scene where she and the assassin are cutting grass, which is from another poem."
Ordinarily, the cinematographer is much more inspired by the love of painting and drawing that has gripped him since childhood. A native of Xian, where his father was an architect, Zhao entered Beijing Film Academy in 1978, already intending to be a director of photography. "In China, when you enter film school, you have to know exactly what you want to study," he says. After the academy, where he met Zhang Yimou among others, his class went on to form the so-called "fifth generation" of Chinese filmmakers.
Zhao is now based in Beijing, half a world away from the streets of New York where he shot Woody Allen's latest comedy, which stars the director and Tracey Ullman. "It's contemporary, much more the old Woody Allen territory," says the DP of the as-yet-untitled film, to be released later in 2000. "The challenge was unlike Sweet and Lowdown, where you had to imagine the past, to try to create the atmosphere. The challenge on this one was to create something more realistic, with natural light." After making himself equally at home in medieval China and the nighttime world of American jazz clubs, how difficult could that be?