April 8, 2022

Film

The cinematic brilliance of Christopher Doyle: ‘Like the Wind’

By Anne Rutherford
Image of Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Image supplied

Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Image supplied

A new documentary film traces the life and work of the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle

“You must close your eyes otherwise you won’t see anything.”

This instruction – commonly attributed to the author Lewis Carroll – is a most unusual aphorism to guide the work of a cinematographer, but the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle is a seer cut from a different cloth. He never watches films. “Literature and words have always been more relevant to me than images,” he says, in a new Australian documentary about his life and work, and yet, for him, cinematography is “not a career, it’s a life …  I’m only alive when I’m working.” Loved by cinephiles around the world, he has been described as “the world’s most original cinematographer”.

Like the Wind, directed by Ted McDonnell, reveals Doyle’s absolute concentration on cinematography – the obsession of it, the all-consuming determination to push the boundaries with his camera. The documentary intersperses stunning clips from Doyle’s films with interviews with the cinematographer and with many of his key collaborators, as well as snippets of his personal artwork, including experimental films and collages. Since his first film – Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s That Day, on the Beach (1983) – Doyle has lived and worked in Hong Kong, initially building his reputation through the films of Wong Kar-Wai, such as Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Following his films with Wong, he has worked across the globe, including with veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, 2002), American director Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park, 2007), Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei (Human Flow, 2017) and, more recently, with young Hong Kong directors, many of them women, such as Jenny Suen (The White Girl, 2017). And yet, it is Doyle’s one Australian film – Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, the 2002 classic about the Stolen Generations – that he is most proud of shooting, because the film did “what most films could never do, which is that it changed the world”.

One of his most mesmerising scenes, from In the Mood For Love and included again in Like the Wind, shows actor Maggie Cheung walking in slow motion downstairs into a Hong Kong noodle bar, the swing of her legs transposing into the poetry of movement the yearning melody of the soundtrack’s tango, and the sombre rhythm and timbre of the plucked strings. Doyle describes In the Mood for Love as “a film about music, it’s about the rhythms of life … and the dance between the actors and the camera”. He is always the closest person to the actor: “It’s the person in front of the camera giving this incredible energy, the audience and me, and it’s this wonderful give-and-take when you look into each other’s eyes.”

Making music in this pas de deux with an actor is only half of what Doyle does with his camera. To him, the relationship of “people in space is the most interesting dynamic of how we live”. In his Hong Kong films, he works with cluttered urban spaces, framing his images as collages of panels, doorways, dark recesses and textured highlights that enclose the actors. The claustrophobia of tightly-packed built environments with patchy walls and muted palettes gives space an emotional density. He can saturate space with feeling: a dingy, puckered concrete wall breathes loneliness; the fall of rain in the beam of a streetlight emanates melancholy and longing. He cites Orson Welles (“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet”), and his passion is to explore how cinematography can get us to see the world anew, and “maybe, in a moment, a film can touch you so you know what it’s really all about”. The way we become immersed in these cinematic moments is one of the great mysteries of film, how cinema can, as Australian critic Adrian Martin writes, induce us to “pass out of ourselves, just a precious little bit for a precious little while”.

Not limited to the Hong Kong films for which he is famous, Doyle shows his versatility in Rabbit-Proof Fence. Here his lens opens out, in a departure from the constricted alleys and neon-lit passageways of Hong Kong, to brilliantly capture the vastness of the parched red dirt and blinding white salt pans of the Australian desert, the radiant heat shimmering across the bleached-out horizon as the young girls stumble across the arid land toward home. And in Hero, renowned for its superbly filmed fight scenes, Doyle films two swordswomen duelling in a golden sea of swirling autumn leaves. Flying on wires across the trees, red robes billowing, the fighters dance around each other. The swing of a crescent-shaped scythe echoes the twirling flow of the bodies, as a severed lock of hair floats down, spinning through the whirling leaves, and the leaves roil with the leaps and lunges of the bodies, confounding all perspective. As a sword finds its mark, felling the younger assailant, the forest turns blood-red, rendering colour itself a vector of intensity.

To film one of the most acclaimed cinematographers in the world must have been a daunting task: how would one frame him, light him? How could the camera engage his presence in a way that would do justice to his own cinematic intelligence? Director Ted McDonnell opts for a simple but eloquent framing: for much of the documentary Doyle is filmed seated in a bar in front of an abstract painting, the diffuse light softening his facial features and emphasising his thoughtful, enquiring eyes. In keeping with his background as a photojournalist, McDonnell keeps himself out of the picture, giving Doyle the scope to talk about his life experience and work without including the director’s questions. This is a smart approach given Doyle’s reputation as a nightmare for interviewers: according to critic Edmund Lee, “you never get normal answers from him”. McDonnell’s presence, however, is tangible in the quality of connection he establishes with the cinematographer. We experience Doyle talking direct to camera – to us – but McDonnell is our avatar. He has built the rapport to elicit this open, intimate and often humorous storytelling from Doyle, who is a raconteur par excellence – curious, self-reflective, passionate and engaging.

The title of McDonnell’s documentary comes from the name given to Doyle by his teacher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong: Du Ke Feng. Doyle explains that Du is the name of the most famous poet of the Tang dynasty and Ke Feng means “like the wind”. He says, “a person of quality is like the wind”. As literary translator Dr Jing Han explains, the name is a reference to a traditional Chinese saying in which the wind is a force that blows things around, unlike the grass, which is merely moved around by the wind. Doyle is a disruptor. Noyce describes him, endearingly, as “a mad bastard”. Cinematographer Rain Li agrees that “he is insane, absolutely out of his mind, but only for things that he believes in”. Doyle describes himself as “the Keith Richards of cinematography”. Images abound in which he looks like a total wreck, ravaged by drink and hard living. (Not for nothing does he have his own craft beer: “I drink therefore I am.”)

Doyle talks of his origins in the anarchic spirit of Australia in the 1960s and the “crazy, random life” he has lived as essential to the work he does. With no formal training, he has relied on his willingness to explore innovative approaches to cinema, which has garnered him more than 100 major international awards and nominations for best cinematography. “Is that all you can do? is the prime question every single moment, every single day, of every film I make,” says Doyle. That question, first posed to him by Wong Kar-Wai, has prompted him to constantly assess whether, “if we approach the work in a different way, maybe I can do better”. His collaborators laud this inventiveness. “I learnt from him the way energy should flow and how to look at things,” says producer Ken Hui. Noyce talks of the impact that Doyle has had on his own work and that of fellow directors Gus Van Sant and M Night Shyamalan: “For all of us, in a way, working with Chris was part of our artistic renaissance.” Director/producer Peter Ho-Sun-Chan says that “some of his ideas, although crazy, become gems. He is a philosopher and that is so important to art.” And producer William Kong affirms: “You just have to look at his work. His work speaks for everything.”

Doyle describes his position as an Australian who makes Chinese films as “a fantastic liberating space”. Working in Hong Kong, he has “this engagement with the city, with the ways of living the stories, and yet I can see it from a distance because I was born in Australia, because I have certain perceptions which are not Chinese. So, I think this is astonishing because in one experience you have all that you need to be an artist.” According to critic Vivienne Chow, Doyle looks at Hong Kong very differently to the way a local person would (“his eye gives the city more layers”), and his work has helped her to see Hong Kong in a new light. Doyle’s Hong Kong films are in many ways a love affair with the city, a tribute to its possibilities and, in this time of heightened sniping between Australia and China, a welcome elegy to the richness of cross-cultural friendship and exchange. Doyle says, “Chinese people brought me here and it’s Chinese people I will thank.”

Like the Wind was the only Australian film screened at China’s premier documentary festival, Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival, in 2021, and one of only 35 films selected from 3000 submissions. It has found a place in the mainland Chinese market, but watching the documentary inevitably raises questions about whether a spirit of rebellion still has a place in Hong Kong. Like the Wind could be seen as one of a trilogy of documentary films about Hong Kong screened in Australian film festivals over the past year. When a City Rises (Iris Kwong and others, 2021) records, through eye-opening boots-on-the-ground footage, the pro-democracy protests squashed by China in 2019. Watching the courage and increasing desperation of the protesters as this film unfolds is devastating, given our foreknowledge of the protests’ denouement. A second protest film, Denise Ho: Becoming the Song (Sue Williams, 2020), traces the rise to stardom of the Canto-pop singer Denise Ho, and her courage in using her celebrity to become a spokesperson for the pro-democracy movement. In doing so, she risked – and lost – her stellar career in China.

Juxtaposing Like the Wind against these two protest films gives a composite picture of the exuberant spirit of Hong Kong and the tragedy of what is being trampled. Doyle told The Sydney Morning Herald in January 2021 that he believes the vibrant Hong Kong of his early films is still there: “I think we still have it and we’re going to rework it in some way.” Fifteen months and many arrests of activists later (including that of Denise Ho), that affirmation lingers as a question mark: does he still think this? Is there still a place in Hong Kong for a cinematographer hell-bent on breaking all the rules and forging his own path?

 

Like the Wind streams on Amazon Prime and Plex from April 8, and on Apple TV later this month.

Anne Rutherford

Anne Rutherford is a film critic and adjunct associate professor in cinema studies at Western Sydney University.

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