Australian-born DP Christopher Doyle plies his trade in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now the mainland With "Temptress Moon," Chen Kaige's period drama shot in mainland China, director of photography Christopher Doyle makes a big leap from the spontaneous world of Hong Kong cinema for which he is best known. But it's not the first shift of gears in Doyle's life. According to the DP's resume, he has been a sailor, rancher, irrigation specialist, and "traveling dog's body." Now he is vice president of the Hong Kong Society of Cinematographers, four-time winner of Hong Kong's equivalent of the Oscar, and valued collaborator of such directors as Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan, and Stan Lai. Not bad for a white guy from Australia.
"I think that people in Taiwan and Hong Kong pretty much think of me as a Chinese filmmaker," says Doyle, who was caught on the phone at his Hong Kong home before going out for the night, as is his custom. "In China, they still see me as a white face; they didn't know who I was. But I knew what I was getting into. When Chen Kaige asked me to do this film, it was a great challenge. I knew I had to prove myself to them. But I had the same attitude as I had toward 'Days of Being Wild' or any other Wong Kar-Wai film; this film is going to make me or break me, and can I survive? Basically I just jumped in."
It was not Doyle's first experience working in China: Kwan's "Red Rose, White Rose" and Wong's "Ashes of Time," the 1994 historical martial arts drama that won prizes for the DP in Taiwan and at the Venice Film Festival as well as Hong Kong, were both shot on the mainland. But with "Temptress Moon," which Miramax released in the US in June, for the first time Doyle was thoroughly enmeshed in the Chinese filmmaking machinery. "The whole structure is much more meticulous," he says. "There's a lot of interaction at a very formal level. You're working with thousands of extras and with the hierarchy of the Chinese film industry. You have to go into meetings. We don't really go to meetings in Hong Kong--we go out for a drink or something."
Doyle also found Chen Kaige, the renowned "Fifth Generation" filmmaker of "Life on a String" and "Farewell My Concubine," to be of a temperament diametrically opposed to his own. "He is one of the most intelligent, perceptive, and cultured people I have ever met," says the DP. "He's also a much more disciplined person than Wong Kar-Wai or other people I've worked with, and I wasn't sure how that would work." Each new Wong project, for example, "sets a new record for the amount of film shot in a Hong Kong film," and relies on spontaneity and improvisation. Their fifth collaboration, "Happy Together," recently premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, prompting a Variety reviewer to write, "The real star of the movie is lenser Chris Doyle...whose grainy, high-contrast visuals--shot on 35mm but forced throughout--do much to keep the picture involving.... It's fair to say this is an instance in which the lenser is an equal partner with the director in the finished picture."
But Chen Kaige works in a much more systematic manner than Wong. "The producers said that we'd balance each other out," says Doyle, "that I'm totally crazy and he's totally disciplined. I personally think it worked. When we got rid of everyone else, we sat down like all filmmakers do, and worked out what we wanted to do. But I think he may feel that the cinematography is too flamboyant for his taste."
Certainly Doyle's freedom with the camera on such movies as "Days of Being Wild," "Ashes of Time," "Chungking Express," and "Fallen Angels" is part of what attracted the director. "Temptress Moon," though sumptuous in the manner of other period-set Chinese films, is primarily concerned with decadence, crime, and sexual intrigue. The central setting is the wealthy Pang family estate during the 1920s, where the Old Master and his children are slowly crumbling under the influence of opium. The main character, Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung), abused in-law to the Pangs, escapes only to be pulled into the violent Shanghai underworld; when he returns to the estate, his encounter with grown Pang daughter Ruyi (Gong Li) is no more edifying. It's a sordid portrait of post-imperial China, and one which Chen Kaige felt called for a dynamic visual style. Doyle, who always operates his camera, and has extensive handheld experience, was the obvious man for the job.
"Kaige's experience on 'Farewell My Concubine' was that some of the most exciting sequences were Steadicam," says the cinematographer. "Gu Changwei, who was DP on that film, doesn't operate, but they found this guy who did wonderful Steadicam stuff. Then, when they came to me, I think for both the producers and Kaige himself, the first point of departure was that in this film the camera is going to move. One of the reasons is because of his good experience on the previous film. The second thing is, he started realizing [that what's good about] the Hong Kong films is their energy. And I think thirdly it was to give the actors more freedom, and also to break away from the so-called Fifth Generation style of static, beautifully composed lighting and color schemes. We jumped ahead; we started calling ourselves the 'Eighth Generation.'
"The camera is a character in the film," Doyle continues. "Very often it's either a subjective representation of an actor, or it's moving with that particular actor in the frame, to convey the energy or the exhilaration, the desire or frustration of that moment. That's why we were hand-holding. Since we were moving all the time, we had to keep everything off the ground. Top lighting is not always great for actors and actresses, and with Gong Li you need a little bit of fill. So we had this guy running beside the camera with a bounce light--a rig with a piece of polyurethane sticking out over his head, and an 800W lamp bouncing a little bit of fill light into the space. You had to find a way to overcome the minor visual effects of the style, but it was also very liberating. When Gong Li first came onto the set, she said, 'Oh my God, I'm so free,' because there were no marks."
"Temptress Moon" does stick to the warmer look associated with most recent Chinese films, particularly in the rural settings where rice lanterns with candlelight is the predominant source. "Because there is so much lacquer on these rice lanterns, they become very warm," says Doyle. "We use tungsten with a little bit of straw on it, and I think that approximates the color of candlelight in a Chinese environment most closely." Generally, the DP prefers to reject convention and go for white moonlight on night scenes, though on day exteriors, "I tend toward a slightly bluer tone. Most of that stuff was either in the morning or late afternoon; we stayed away from noon most of the time. I would use the coral filters, which are calculated at 1/2, 1, 2, 3, 4, so if it's too cold, it's easy to keep going further up. But the lens was pretty clean on this film. Unless someone has a terribly bad night, most Chinese faces are extremely easy to photograph. Maybe I'd use a little bit of Pro-mist for a slight softening of the image."
The DP adds that many of the locations, including various buildings in three different provinces to represent the Pang estate, and 1920s Shanghai streets, recreated outside the city, were huge. "It's definitely the most lighting I've ever used in a rig," he says. "By American standards it's not that much, but we basically used up everything we could find in China." At this point, rental houses have coalesced into what Doyle calls a "greater Chinese filmmaking" pattern. He explains, "the Hong Kong suppliers, like Salon Films and Cine Rent, were stronger from the beginning. Then they moved into Taiwan because there was a boom in commercials there, and then there was a boom in China. There is also one major Taiwan rental house called Arrow. Now they are based in all the major cities--Shanghai; Beijing; Guangzhou, in Canton province; and Chengdu, in Sichuan province. And their equipment moves between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.
"The problem is that they're not as well stocked as an American rental house," he continues. "You have to really book in advance, especially for anamorphic lenses. Wong Kar-Wai has always wanted to shoot anamorphic, and we've never been able to because the lenses are always somewhere else. We shot "Temptress Moon" 1.85--because of the dynamics of the local industry we were stuck with that."
Laboratory work gets a little trickier in China, because, says Doyle, "if you make a film in China now, officially you have to process it in China. On 'Red Rose, White Rose' we were forced to process in China, which was quite an experience--after the tenth meeting, I'm seeing colors changing within a single shot, and they're trying to claim it's my camera or my lens." His response to these technicians is unprintable, but "the next day I had the most beautiful rushes you've ever seen. They can do a good job: it's just that they want to play with you. This is not a lab problem; this is the dynamics of the society. I think you could find a lab almost anywhere to do a wonderful job if you establish the right relationship with them. I always work with Universal Lab in Hong Kong, and I always use Taipei Labs in Taiwan." Somehow, on "Temptress Moon," the work went to a lab in Japan, although this is not officially permitted.
The film was shot with Kodak 5293 and 96 stock, because that was what was available to Doyle. Kodak made early inroads into Fifth Generation production, the DP says, for two reasons. "First of all, to get a better quality image because the local labs were so bad. Secondly, as a sign that yes, they had a little bit of clout. Kodak is a sign of affluence." Doyle, however, is not an unrestrained champion of the company's product. "I have done seven films on Agfa, but it doesn't exist anymore," he says. "That was a mixture of not going with the flow; it being cheaper at the time; and, perhaps because I lived in Europe for a period of time, the muted colors, the desaturated look, was closer to my own visual perception of things."
To the cinematographer, perception is everything. "Color is obviously a reflection of the artistic temperament, the climate, and the visual perception of a culture. I used to have trouble with the Agfa lab in Belgium because they would always make the face look very red. Chinese want white faces--it's a perception of what is beauty, what is healthiness, what is youth. If you're Japanese, you have Fuji film, which is similar to the printing ink they use. When I print images in Japan, I say, 'It's so bright.' I don't think we've found a Chinese color system yet. I've even talked to the Kodak people: 'When are we going to have a Chinese palette?' People talk to me about how wonderful and real the green of Kodak is. Well, what if I don't want realism? And there is no such thing as a real color. What if you're color blind? What if you're wearing ski glasses? All of the major manufacturers talk about definition and fine grain--what if you don't want these things? Kodak, I've heard, claims that sooner or later they can basically make film to your personal specifications. I hope that day comes."
Whatever other influences play a role, Doyle has clearly been assimilated into his adopted home, and his perceptions have evolved accordingly. At several points, he could not think of an English translation for the Chinese concept he wanted to convey. That said, the Sydney native stumbled across China as uncalculatedly as he stumbled across cinematography. "I left Australia when I was 18, was a merchant marine for a while, and traveled a bit--actually, a bit more than a bit. I traveled for more than 12 years before I ended up in India." There, Doyle developed an interest in languages. "But India was so complex that I decided 'I think I'd better start from scratch.' And the only place I knew less about than anywhere else in the world was China. So I went to China to study the language."
First, he went to Hong Kong and studied at Chinese University there, then he moved on to Taiwan. "From there, everything started to happen," Doyle says. "I started to meet all these musicians and artists and dancers. Then one day, an ethnomusicologist asked me, 'Would you help me make a record of my work?' It was shot in 8mm, and it was such a catastrophe that I got sucked in by it. It was Kodachrome, which was only 40 ASA at the time, so all the interiors, which were extremely moody to the naked eye, just went black. I realized the discrepancy between the naked eye and the camera eye. So the first mistake was the biggest mistake, and also the biggest impetus, I think, to shift me into film. I started teaching English and doing whatever I could to accumulate money to buy equipment to teach myself how to make films."
After apprenticing for cinematographer Chen Kun-hou, Doyle made his feature debut on Edward Yang's That Day on the Beach in 1983. In 1986, he moved to Hong Kong to shoot Su Kei's Soul, for which he received his first Hong Kong Film Award. But it was when his association with Wong Kar-Wai began in 1990, on "Days of Being Wild," that his reputation really took off. And encouraged, he says, by the director, Doyle continues to think "everything starts from a mistake." The striking colors in "Days of Being Wild," for example, are the result of trial and error. "There were so many filters on the camera, the light levels were so low, there was so little depth of field. In one case, we shot 54 takes because of focus problems. If someone's going to give you this much latitude, you've got to go with it."
Preparing for the film, Wong and his DP talked very little about content. "The first thing he asked me was, 'Have you seen "East of Eden"?' " Doyle recalls. "Since the film is set in the 60s, we talked about 'What is the 60s?' 'What is the color of nostalgia?'" The process remains the same--on "Happy Together," which was shot in Argentina, the crucial question became "'What is the metaphysical implication of the Tropic of Capricorn?'" Although Doyle laughs as he recounts this, he adds, "I think these are the real questions of cinematography." The experimentation has paid off: He says his crash course in the use of wide-angle lenses while shooting "Ashes of Time" and "Fallen Angels" led directly to his confidence with the large canvas of "Temptress Moon," just as the handheld camera on "Chungking Express" and "Fallen Angels" proceeded to his mastery of the technique on that film.
Doyle's mastery of the Chinese film bureaucracy during "Temptress Moon" is just as important to his future career. "It's no question to us that the future of Chinese cinema is in China," says the DP. "And there is no question that the Chinese government will intend it to be in China. The infrastructure is in Shanghai, and the economic impetus and political thrust to make Shanghai what it was in the 30s--the film capital of China--is obvious. For that reason, Hong Kong will slowly dissipate--it will become a regional center, making vernacular movies. So I would say that within the next five years or so, I will have to emigrate to China."
In the meantime, however, it's after midnight in Hong Kong, and Doyle's friends are trying to reach him. "Did you hear all those beeps?" he says. "Those are people asking me to go partying. I just missed four dates because of you!"