Christopher Doyle on ‘In the Mood for Love’, ‘Chungking Express’ and working with Wong Kar-wai

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle discusses his collaboration with filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, and their influence on modern Hong Kong cinema in an exclusive interview with MetroPlus

February 23, 2022 04:04 pm | Updated February 28, 2022 01:46 pm IST

Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle | Photo Credit: MUBI India

A married man and a married woman, living in rented rooms of neighbouring apartments, come to terms with the infidelity of their respective partners. They gaze into each other’s eyes each time they meet, in cramped spaces and dark alleyways.

Their repressed sexual desire is brought out in a way that is both evocative and sensual by master Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai in his seminal feature, In the Mood for Love (2000). But the man responsible for the lush visuals to capture the intimacy and emotional state the characters share, is Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Doyle first arrived in Hong Kong in 1971 at the age of 19. It was a city he fell in love with and would often be the subject of his camera’s gaze over the next 50 years. He says his first encounter with Chinese cinema happened around this time; Doyle remembers the time he was enamoured by Taiwanese actor Hsu Feng, “I guess most of what I happen to have done since then is to try and celebrate such women,” says Doyle in an email interview, as part of MUBI India’s retrospective of Wong Kar-wai.

Doyle’s first collaboration with Kar-wai was for the 19991 film, Days of Being Wild. But it was Chungking Express (1994) that put them on the map, gaining international prominence and recognition. Doyle is known for his experimental approach to cinematography, while Kar-wai has earned a reputation for filming in a haphazard fashion; they share eight films together. It is a relationship, Doyle admits, that is as intimate as their characters shared on screen. Edited excerpts:  

You have always maintained that you are a control freak on the set. What sort of a mental state are you in when you are behind the camera?

Rapture. Enchantment. I am like a kid in a candy store. How a space engages us; how an actor moves within the space, light reflects off faces and surfaces. It totally entraps me, sucks me in and then we dance.

Some of your landmark films have come with your iconic collaboration with Wong Kar-wai. Could you tell us how the connection happened? 

I think we have to blame the production designer, costume and make-up guru, and later genius editor William Cheung Shu Ping. William and I had worked together on five films already, and then he suggested to Kar-wai that we three work together. Our three personalities are so diverse that I guess William was expecting some kind of “creative fission” among the three of us. I am not sure how it became fusion rather than frisson.

But I do know that the give and take of our personalities and our total commitment to our space is the reason the films feel and look and resonate the way they still seem to do.

A still from ‘In the Mood for Love’

A still from ‘In the Mood for Love’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Two masterpieces that came out of your collaboration with Kar-wai are Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. Both these films are shot mostly in cramped apartments and dark alleyways. How do you use space in the films you work on?

What you observe is what others have called style. The spaces are real so the actors have to respond to the space as it is. This is not the world of a story, these spaces live and breathe the story. The ideas, emotions and relationships are defined by the space in which they play out.

Our great challenge and the wonder of our collaborative instinct is to find the right space and let it suggest the texture and mood of the film. I feel we make stories to fill the spaces in our minds and in our Hong Kong.

It has been 22 years since In the Mood for Love released. There have been essays written on the film’s evocative images and precise camera movements. You had, in fact, mentioned how in Kar-wai’s cinema there have always been variations of one idea...

(Laughs) How should I know? We never talk, we don’t need to. I want to get on with what’s at hand. William [editor], I and our team need to be engaged subjectively, doing the hands-on stuff so that Kar-wait can be objective enough. As he has said, ‘I may not know what I want. But I do know what I don’t want’.

So the work is like sculpture; we take a piece of rock/idea and try to chip away what is extraneous or distracting. Anything that doesn’t resonate is of no more use. Of course how does it resonate, what does it really say is a shifting sand of possibilities.

A still from ‘Chungking Express’

A still from ‘Chungking Express’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

One of my favourite films is Hero. It is starkly different from the Kar-wai world and plays around with colours. As a cinematographer, is there a switch within you for each filmmaker?

Of course you need other ‘engagements’ in your life if you are to grow. I am the gigolo of cinema. I have made five films in Japan (including a “pink” film and an extravagantly expressionist film with Alejandro Jodorowsky in Chile). I am religiously proud of what Rabbit Proof Fence means to aboriginal integrity and so on.

Each film is of its time, place and with the people who shared it. It is not about this film or that subject; it is life that we all need to share in the biggest possible way.

Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle | Photo Credit: MUBI India

You will be turning 70 this year. Is there a sense of achievement, or contentment you feel — as an artist and as an individual?

I am very proud that my name and the way I work and the energies we have to share often help get a film made. I have another 100 films to make with young, first time and often female directors. If I don’t keep in shape and dress snappily, get to work on time and work faster than anyone else, they will all call me grandpa.

I am no grandpa. I am super Du-Ke Feng, [the nickname he was given] which is like the wind.

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