Wing Shya on his photos that immortalise Hong Kong cinema’s golden age, now on show in Shanghai

Photographer whose exclusive access to the sets of Wong Kar-wai’s films produced vivid, tender images recalls ‘fun’ Leslie Cheung working on Happy Together and tells us some of his favourite subjects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 8:48pm

“Leslie Cheung – he was a very fun person, especially in this movie when we were filming in Argentina. He was very easy, always making fun. Tony Leung, his character too, was really more serious in this movie. I remember he was actually sick for a while during our time there.”

Hong Kong photographer and sometime film director Wing Shya is reminiscing about different points of his career as we walk together around his retrospective exhibition at the Shanghai Centre of Photography. “Acting Out” features personal work as well as a telling selection of images from his time as Wong Kar-wai’s on-set stills photographer.

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Through his lens, Wing conveyed a sense of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age, and captured some of its biggest stars. Maggie Cheung, Shu Qi, Karen Mok, and Du Juan were among his favourite subjects, he says.

Wing’s moody, saturated colours, whimsical compositions and blur effects have found many imitators in Hong Kong. Coinciding with the exhibition, he has released a limited edition, three-volume set of his work.

“I wasn’t actually that familiar with Wing’s work before I met him, because I’m not so into the world of fashion,” says Karen Smith, SCoP artistic director. “He gave me his entire archive of his images and carte blanche to choose whatever works I wanted – it’s so rare for a photographer to do this. It was a brilliant way to get to know him and to look at his work over 25 years.”

Wing started out as a graphic designer but became a photographer after shooting CD covers for friends of friends. He moved into film after Wong Kar-wai asked him to join the crew in Argentina in 1997 during the filming of Happy Together, starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung as a gay couple.

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Wing’s haphazard technique and, in the photographer’s words, “many, many mistakes” on set were puzzling to Wong at first, but his creative bent produced works surprising and interesting enough for the director to enlist Wing for subsequent movies.

Wing developed a distinctive, layered aesthetic partly as a reaction to moving from Vancouver (“so quiet and peaceful”) back to hectic Hong Kong.

“When I first came back to Hong Kong, I really hated it at first. I stayed home most of the time. I didn’t go out. My family asked me to move out because we had a small house,” he says.

After finally moving out, Wing started going out to crowded, noisy places such as Mong Kok every night.

“I started looking at these places in a new way,” he says, “the neon lights and the chaos. And now I bring those neon colours, that intensity to my images.”

Wing’s work also ushered in a new sense of freedom and ease, something very different from the posed, contrived pictures of actors that were common in the media at the time.

Many of these natural shots were done when the actors were waiting to shoot, or busy acting. “They don’t really see me, they don’t care about me,” Wing says. “I had this freedom to shoot while Wong Kar-wai is directing.”

“When they are moving or in the middle of movement, I have to capture the next second. It’s like playing a game, predicting where that person will move next when I press the button.”

Wing’s sheer spontaneity has become a signature – the sense of romance and wildness in his pictures, whether of celebrities or foreboding natural landscapes, is the most enduring quality of his work.

It wasn’t just his completed shots Smith got to work with; she had access to all Wing’s outtakes, the mistakes, the practice works, “absolutely everything”, she says.

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“That was really the joy of it,” says Smith. “He’s so easy-going to work with and not precious. Some artists only want you to see the perfect finished product. But not Wing, he is just so free.”

“Acting Out”, Shanghai Centre of Photography (SCoP), until January 10, 2018