An eye on the East

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 1995, 12:00am

CHRIS Doyle's cellular phone obviously gets more attention than his ex-wife did. He 'lost' her after he started working as a cinematographer in Hong Kong's 'how-about-we-shoot-three-movies-at-one-time?' industry. 'When I got too busy,' he ruefully revealed to Taiwanese Elle, 'I lost so many things.' But he managed to hold on to the cellular phone, which is whining as loudly as a Category III actress and about as often as one can imagine his ex once did - only Doyle attends to his mobile immediately.

'Weeeeiii?' His Putonghua is perfect, swishy and fluid, an occupational by-product of having worked for more than a decade with the likes of Taiwanese directors Stan Lai Seng-chuan and Edward Yang De-chang, and Hong Kong directors Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan Kam-pan.

Ask for the foreigner on the set of most of the big Hong Kong productions, and you'll usually find Doyle hunched behind his lens. 'On the set they'll call me mingsing sheyingshi ('Star Cameraman'), or Du Ke Feng (his English name translated into Putonghua), or Ah Chris, or the 'Chinese with the skin problem',' Doyle says. 'Most of the time they just call me, 'Ah Gweilo'.' In the last year alone, Ah Gweilo was the eye - albeit round - behind Chungking Express, Red Rose, White Rose, and Ashes Of Time. He brought back to Hong Kong the Venice Film Festival Osella d'Oro (best cinematography) for Ashes, Wong's existential martial arts film. 'But hell, that didn't mean as much to me as winning the Golden Horse Award,' Doyle says of the Taiwanese 'Oscar' he won last year, also for Ashes. 'Are you kidding? I cried at that ceremony.' It's no secret that Hong Kong films are no longer just an Eastern phenomenon (or curiosity, as it were). That, for this month at least, Hollywood is turning its fickle eye this way for inspiration, now convinced there is more to the local industry than kung fu kicks to the head. These days, Doyle finds his name splashed across the film columns of such publications as the Los Angeles Times and New York's Village Voice, the critiques of his work in films like Days Of Being Wild and Peach Blossom Land accompanied by such accolades as 'dreamlike', 'langorous' and 'supremely beautiful'.

While none of this has brought Doyle more money ('All the directors are my friends. So how can I ask them for more money?' he grumbles), it has earned him a place among the world's most renowned cinematographers. In 1993 the International Cinematographers' Forum invited him back to Sydney, his place of birth (although these days he only reluctantly admits to that fact), to present his 'oeuvre' alongside the likes of Sacha Vierny (the cinematographer for all of Peter Greenaway's lush films and the same old hand who shot Les Enfants Du Paradis) and Alain Daviol who filmed E.T.. 'Waaah. I was just swept away,' Doyle says. 'All my idols were there - and then, little ol' me. I think they made a mistake.' It's a mistake that Chen Kaige, the mainland Chinese director of such angst-laden epics as Farewell To My Concubine and Yellow Earth, has also willingly made, having enlisted Doyle for his recent project which for now bears the slightly cheesy title Temptress Moon. Set during the beginning of the Chinese republic in 1911, the film stars Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing as a Suzhou country boy who journeys to Shanghai only to fall prey to the seductive charms of decadent city life, and Gong Li, as his long-suffering love interest.

'It's about love and jealousy, love and revenge, expectations and loss,' Doyle says. 'Kaige wanted to break out of the static classical genre of film-making that has established Chinese film-makers. I'm a bit more adventurous with colour and lighting and the camera is always moving. What we're doing now is beautiful - but it's also volatile. It's just time for Chinese film-makers to move out.' He adds: 'But then again, maybe Kaige hired me to lighten up the set. He's a pretty serious guy, and they all think I'm totally crazy.' If Doyle has a crazy reputation, he is also known as something of a womaniser. He explains his reputation by way of explaining his art. 'How does a foreigner develop a Chinese conceptual mind? You really want to know?' he asks. 'By sleeping with Chinese women. I mean it. How do you learn any language? You have to have an incredible amount of love for the people around you, a great need to communicate. And if you communicate it will be interactive. So to understand me, you have understand the relationships in my life.' It was a woman, of course, who first prompted Doyle to leave Australia. 'It was my mother,' he says flatly. 'I hate her. She's enough reason for me to get out of that place.' Thus began an odyssey that, according to Doyle's resume, handwritten on a sheet of hotel stationery, includes stints as a merchant marine, a miner, an irrigation specialist, and a 'seller of quack medicines'. It was a woman again - his French-born Chinese wife - who prompted him to settle in Taiwan. There he found himself surrounded by actors, dancers and film-makers, a situation that inspired his own clumsy introduction to the camera. He began submitting student films under Chinese pseudonyms - 'foreigners were not allowed to enter these contests' - and winning prize after prize for 'Experimental Film'.

'The funny thing was that they were only experimental because we had no idea what we were doing.' Doyle used every cinematic mistake - 'shitty filters, distorted lenses, unflattering angles, you name it' - to his advantage and evolved from student film-maker to television documentarist. He became a national celebrity of sorts, an underground foreigner who was capturing Taiwan in a way the Taiwanese had never seen it before. 'Once a woman working in a bank asked me if I were Du Ke Feng. When I told her yes, she said, 'I never knew my country was so beautiful'.' Doyle's next big break was Wong's Days Of Being Wild, a movie so startlingly different it changed the way many Hong Kong film-makers considered their craft. 'We had shot more footage than any film in the history of Hong Kong film-making. We were way over budget and time. I knew that either the movie would go well or I would never work again.' Of course, Doyle did find work again, on each of Wong's next three films, as well as for Stanley Kwan and now Chen. 'Chen Kaige, Wong Kar-wai and Stanley - superficially they're all Chinese. But in reality, they have an intellectual space that is interactive with the West. It's synergy. A great compatibility of ideas. That's why we work so well together. There's a mutual space we all share.' So how does it feel to be the first Western cinematographer to work with a mainland Chinese director? It is a question that riles this characteristically unruffled cameraman.

'I am absolutely not a Western cinematographer,' he says resolutely. 'I just happen to be born in Australia, that's it.' The response is understandable considering that Doyle has had to explain, defend, and even argue his position as a decidedly Eastern cinematographer. In 1991, Days Of Being Wild received 11 Golden Horse nominations, for every category major except cinematography. 'I was confused. I didn't know what went wrong,' Doyle says. 'It wasn't until last year that somebody finally told me that I wasn't eligible for a nomination because I wasn't Chinese.' More than angry, Doyle was deeply hurt. 'Ninety-nine per cent of the films I had made had been for Taiwan or Hong Kong.' He called a nationwide press conference the next day to explain his position, calling the awards completely racist. 'I told them that I was not making films for foreigners. I was making films for the community I live in.' It was not a coincidence that at the next Golden Horse Awards nominations, Doyle's name was finally announced. In fact, three out of four of the nominations for best cinematography went to Doyle. 'So needless to say, I was kind of the favourite. I had a feeling I might win.' Although the natural progression for a foreigner working in the Hong Kong film industry will seem to be to do your time here, make your reputation, and then move on to the markedly more luminous screens of Hollywood, Doyle says he has no interest in working there. 'No way am I going to America,' he sputters. 'I don't like the system.' He says this even though every major director - 'which is all the people I work with' - has been approached by the West.

'If you go to America, you start to make films for Americans. And why should I make films for Americans? I don't have a particular desire to adapt to their world view. I'd rather work with people who have a larger perspective on life.' Of Wong, Kwan, Chen and himself, Doyle says: 'We're all romantics.' Whether they are romanticising about triads, Shanghai in the 1930s or living in the periphery in some 'shitty hole in Chungking Mansions', 'the films we make are extremely romantic'.

'I feel for that midnight movie crowd in Hong Kong. They're just looking for a release. They are leading such incredibly difficult lives, the pressure is so great here, that there has to be entertainment.

'So I think of myself as a priest of cinematography, some kind of missionary of visual beauty,' he says, becoming serious for a moment.

The cellular rings yet again, just as Doyle is elucidating on his last thought: 'I do what I do so that somebody out there in Hong Kong can experience beauty. Well that...' he says as he reaches for the buzzing beast, 'and to pay for my cellular phone ... Weeeiii?'