Also showing: Arthur Wong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2007, 12:00am

In nearly 30 years as a cinematographer, Arthur Wong Ngok-tai has overseen camerawork on more than 110 films. He was one of the founders of the Hong Kong Society of Cinematographers (HKSC) and has been its chairman for the past 18 years. Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau Wai-keung, who began his career as a cameraman, calls him his si kung - the grandaddy of the field.

Wong (right) could easily have retired from the front line but he's still busy at work, to the point that he nearly missed last week's premiere of The Warlords, a film he describes as the most challenging and, with a budget of US$40 million, most expensive production he's ever worked on.

'People have been asking me to stop accepting awards,' says Wong, who has won five Best Cinematography titles at the Hong Kong Film Awards and been nominated for 10 more. 'But then there wouldn't be the sense of satisfaction I draw from having my work recognised. I take that as encouragement and proof that I can still do the job well.'

Wong has emerged as the man to beat again in next year's awards, after his remarkable contribution to The Warlords.

Working on Chan's directive that the film warrants 'a colour for a period film which no one has ever used before', Wong spent weeks developing sepia-toned palettes - all of which the director turned down. It was while staring at a porcelain ornament at home that Wong arrived at the idea of rendering the film's brutal imagery of war and poverty through a copper-like tint, which contrasts with the crimson hues in moments of bloodshed and fury.

Wong says his collaboration with Chan on The Warlords highlights the need for cinematographers to reach beyond technical concerns to come up with the ideal imagery for the film.

'The basic techniques in what I do are quite straightforward,' he says. 'What matters is whether you understand what the film is about - if you don't even know what the story wants to talk about, what good is all the technical know-how? I've got eight photography units in The Warlords and a crew of over 100 people; I always told my operators that the first thing is to listen to what the director or the action director has to say, rather than just thinking what lenses to use or how to do the tracking for the cameras.'

The son of a cinematographer, Wong says he didn't receive formal training. Instead, it was all down to observing people at work, or watching Italian films repeatedly in order to speculate how the filmmaker achieves the soft lighting on set. 'When I started out in the beginning of the 1970s there were no directors of photography - a gaffer was all there was,' he says, referring to the electrician charged with lighting the set.

The emergence of Hong Kong's overseas-educated new wave directors - such as Ann Hui On-wah and Tsui Hark - provided him with the impetus and the freedom to put his knowledge into action. However, he says his vision is not necessarily appreciated by everyone.

'The more literate figures will buy into what you suggest - but for some other directors, like a few who work in action films, they would have to ask you questions about the screenplay if it has more words than to their liking,' he says. 'So what's the use of pitching them all these ideas?'

The Warlords is screening now