Cinematographer Doyle focuses on his artistic side

In his element behind a film camera, Christopher Doyle admits he's much more self-conscious when wearing his 'artist' hat, writes Fionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 3:55pm

One day, when he was a wild Australian boy of 13, Christopher Doyle found his parents' marriage certificate. From the date, he worked out that he was illegitimate - a mistake, as he always likes to put it, conceived in the back of a Holden sedan on Bondi Beach. "My mother went nuts but I was so happy when I found it," he says. "I ran around the house saying, 'You f***ed up too! You f***ed up too!' It was liberating."

In the intervening years Doyle, now 61, hasn't lost his larrikin language so prepare yourself for a blizzard of asterisks. When, for instance, Life of Pi won this year's Oscar for cinematography, he publicly described the decision as "a f***ing insult to cinematography" and "a total f***ing piece of s***". As Doyle is a cinematographer, probably best known for his work with Wong Kar-wai on Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and 2046, you might assume that's the noisy raspberry of sour grapes.

The challenge for me is that I hate the word artist. I'm afraid of that word. I have to assume that role
Christopher doyle

You would be wrong. Doyle may be opinionated but he's not mean-spirited. His point is that Life of Pi was filmed against a blue screen with pretty much everything added in afterwards. Where's the passion, the life, in that?

This interview, however, isn't with Doyle-the-cinematographer but with Doyle-the-artist: he likes to wear two hats (and two personalities, of which more later) and has a show on at the Agnes b. gallery in Central, entitled "I Didn't Come Here And I Ain't Leaving".

At the opening night, he wore a striped blazer with the collar turned up, long shorts that ended just below the knee and half-laced boots; as he's a slight man, and was also sporting a sort of wispy beard, the effect was of an Amish leprechaun on its first day at school, clutching a beer. He looked mildly manic, which is normal Doyle; also ill at ease, which is less so.

"I was terrified last night," he says, the following morning. "I don't know what to say to these people from the art world." He makes a helpless gesture. "It is what it is."

By which he means that the work on display - the montages and collages, even the collection of plastic turtles that references Bends, a recent film made by first-time director Flora Lau Wan-man on which he was cinematographer - should speak for itself. A little later, he says: "This is much more difficult than making a film." Even though he's done previous shows? "Before I was flirting but now…" He hesitates. "This time I've felt more investment of people in me."

The exhibition's title is from a Willie Nelson song. "It's basically he doesn't want to leave a bar even though he forgot how he got there," Doyle says. "That's my relationship with Hong Kong and my relationship with filmmaking - I don't know how all this happened but I'm going to stick with it."

Some of how it happened is related in a short film, entitled Listen Up, which is also in the show; in it, Chris Doyle and his alter ego, Du Ke Feng, chat to one another on a split-screen. Du Ke Feng was the name given to him by his Chinese teacher when he enrolled at Chinese University here in 1980. Du is from the Tang poet Du Fu; Ke Feng is "like the wind". It's been a convenient division of personality. "Du Ke Feng has given me freedom and he takes the p*** out of Christopher Doyle, who's always drinking."

This is true. Doyle has a drink in his hand throughout this midday interview, and he gleefully relates how he almost didn't make it back to Hong Kong from Rome the previous day when the cabin crew on his flight hesitated to board him. After a minor stand-off, the captain was summoned to assess his breath. (Doyle, characteristically, invited him to the opening. He didn't come.)

In the same way, Doyle seems compelled to act the male-satyr-in-Hong-Kong role. When a Western man strolls into the gallery to inspect the show, Doyle - despite some urging - won't interrupt this interview to go over and say hello, on the grounds that "he's not an Asian woman so why should I talk to him?" (This doesn't seem to be a hard-and-fast rule or perhaps he feels he's been a little ungallant. Later, asked if he has any children - at least, that he knows of - he murmurs, "Want to try?" Er, no, not really, thanks all the same.)

The turtles in the window are "my d*** trying to get out". He likes to declare that the police stopped him one night in Lan Kwai Fong wanting to know why he wasn't drunk; also that "everyone" in Hong Kong has pictures of him naked in the street.

Maybe. But after a while you feel that, as with Du Ke Feng, he's found it convenient to flaunt the apparently nude, outer skin of an outrageous personality in order to cloak the person within. How else can one explain the fact that behind all the flap and whirr, there seems to be a perfectly sensible, extremely well-read, likeable man of some sensitivity? The sort of man who says, of his French Chinese former wife, Gabrielle Keng, "love lasts forever". And adds, ruefully, that she wrote a "fantastic" book about her mother: "And there are five pages about her husband never being there. And that's me."

So what's the public image about? "It's protection," he says. "My so-called persona protects me from the bull**** because only friends approach me. It gives me freedom. Instead of 20 scripts a day, I get one a day. And I actually read the scripts, I'm sincere in what I'm doing."

This is, almost painfully, true. At one point, talking about relationships, he says: "My dad died almost two years ago. He was 91. I'd always said, I'm not going to be there when my dad dies. I went to Australia every month for a year but I wasn't there the day he died. Why would you dare to live this way if you didn't believe…?" He stops, afraid of sounding pretentious. "It's bigger than you. You can't drag someone along with you."

Given that he seems to define himself as an absence in people's lives, it's striking how many of the works in the Agnes b. show have deliberately blank spaces. "That's my life, my films. Editing is about that - what you have to get rid of."

What's more noticeable, however, is the off-handed way he displays what he's created. Some of the paper is low-quality and several works are stuck on the wall with large strips of what looks like gaffer tape, in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. This is a man who has committed to celluloid some of the most memorable images of the past 20 years in film and who has described his craft as "the translation of emotion into light". But it's as if he's afraid of showing in public how much his private artistic side means to him. When this is put to him, he does a curious thing: he puts one of his hands over half of his face so that all you can see are the curls of his wiry hair and a single, bright eye. "As you say," he says, quietly, from behind his knuckle-fence, "the challenge for me is that I hate the word artist. I'm afraid of that word. I have to assume that role. It's organic. And it's a f***ing nightmare because films seem easier."

People's expectations, of course, are terrifying.

"I think people indulge in me. The worst expression is 'I'm your biggest fan'. Really? My mother is my biggest fan." He felt liberated finding her marriage certificate because, he says, mistakes are possibilities, mistakes energise you.

Out of the corner of that eye, he observes the viewers at the window. "Of course, what they're coming in to see are the turtles," he says. Soon, he's explaining the exact anatomical connection between turtles and Puppetry of the Penis - a touring art-performance which, coincidentally, was also born in Australia.

I Didn't Come Here And I Ain't Leaving , Agnes b. Librairie Galerie, 118 Hollywood Road, Central. Ends January 3