When informed of his packed media interview schedule in Hong Kong, Abbas Kiarostami was not pleased. Given his stature as an international art house cinema titan, he could easily have thrown a tantrum and walked out. But that's not his style. The Iranian auteur-artist has always been cool - and not only because he's always wearing shades which are for his eyes' hyper-sensitivity to light (the ultimate irony for a filmmaker).
Celebrated as Iran's leading director, writer, photographer and poet for close to 40 years, Kiarostami won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997 for Taste of Cherry. In 1999, his follow-up film The Wind Will Carry Us garnered the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Lion) at the Venice Film Festival.
Known for often using children and non-actors, his prosaic, almost documentary style defies Hollywood conventions. It's not uncommon for people in his films to have entire conversations while driving a car or to discuss life and death with someone off screen in one long continuous take.
The late Roger Ebert once described Taste of Cherry - in which a man drives around Tehran and its countryside seeking help to commit suicide - as "excruciatingly boring". But that's a minority view; most serious critics consider Kiarostami's works as masterpieces in the way they explore big philosophical issues through simple realistic narrative.
"My first intention was to be a painter," the 72-year-old Kiarostami recalls. "I passed the entrance test for the Liberal Arts University but it took me 13 years to graduate from a four-year programme because I couldn't paint. My mind was more advanced than my hands. Perhaps that's why I moved to cinema and filmmaking. My success in film and photography is the result of my failure in painting."
Growing up, the Tehran-born filmmaker was influenced by Italian neo-realist cinema. But his penchant for social realism has never veered into political storytelling, not even at the height of the Iranian revolution, when he was one of the few artists to stay.
Then again, Kiarostami's themes have always been bigger than politics. "All I can say is [that in] none of my movies do I try to convey clear and vivid messages," he says. "I have no advice for my audience, therefore people are responsible for their own interpretations. Sometimes there are very interesting and funny interpretations … But I never correct or comment on interpretations because I respect what people perceive. I don't consider it misunderstanding or misconception."
But it is precisely because the Iranian censors don't understand his meditations on life and meaning that Kiarostami's apolitical parables have been viewed with suspicion. Taste of Cherry nearly didn't make it to Cannes because the authorities didn't like the idea of people discussing death so openly.
Still, in his view, censorship is another challenge no different to a small budget and bad weather. "Many things have impacted my films but I have directed every movie the way I want to. Thinking about what my films would be like without dealing with censors is like asking what I might look like if I was born in Sweden," he says. "A person's character is made of the situation and environment he grows up in."
It bears noting that his past two feature films were made outside Iran: Certified Copy, featuring Juliette Binoche, was made in France in 2010 while 2012's Like Someone in Love was shot with Japanese actors in Tokyo. "Shooting in a different country had difficulties and challenges but … it was very enjoyable for me. It's a new experience working with people from different cultural backgrounds," Kiarostami says.
Of greater concern to the cinematic world is the master's slow drift away from film towards photography. Kiarostami's recent trip to Hong Kong was primarily for the opening of his Photographs from the Snow Series exhibition at gallery Rossi & Rossi, with film screenings and master classes under the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society's aegis added to the itinerary later on.
"My loss of enthusiasm is due to films increasingly becoming just entertainment. I am convinced much of cinema's purpose now is not storytelling so I see a growing divide between me and cinema," the director says.
"Unfortunately, audiences are more accustomed to entertainment and games so I am confronted with a dilemma. What kind of movies can I make that would satisfy myself and the audience? This is the reason why I've given up on some movies I was about to direct."
Although he might be the farthest thing from a grumpy old man, the veteran filmmaker-artist is increasingly pensive about the future. At the same time, he's never been more assured of his worldview. "I can't say my views have changed but I would say when you grow older, your age intensifies things. I can say that my passion for nature and wide open space has doubled. I spend less time in cities," he says.
"I used to have anxiety if I felt a script of mine was not good or original enough. Now I will leave it. In retrospect, I do worry about the current condition of my country. It has taken over from all my personal worries. This is something I never had before. Every year it builds and the situation is becoming dire."
In retreating from film, Kiarostami's photography offers an even more painterly aesthetic, focusing on landscapes that border on the abstract and nature that's framed in textured shadows. This passion for form is east Asian-inspired with a Persian subtext.
"My films and photos do go towards this part of the world. The minimalism you see and the short poems that are like haiku, they lean towards Asian aesthetics," Kiarostami acknowledges.
"Before I ever visited or had any knowledge of Japan, I think I was subconsciously influenced. If we are all interconnected, maybe I might have some Chinese or Japanese DNA in my past."
Photographs from the Snow Series, Rossi & Rossi, unit 3C Yally Building, 6 Yip Fat St, Wong Chuk Hang. Thu-Sat, 11am-6pm (or by appointment). Ends June 22. Inquiries: 3575 9417