Sunday, March 06, 2011

Spotlight on Christopher Doyle

I have often chased down films either by a particular director or country for the better part of the last decade. The only exception to this was from 2005-06 when I looked for films that cinematographer Christopher Doyle worked on. Ofcourse, Doyle is no ordinary cinematographer but is one of the top 2-3, if not the best, director of photography working in any film industry around the world. He is best known for his work on Asian films, especially his associations with Wong Kar-wai. In fact, it was Wong Kar-wai’s films that first led me to Doyle's vibrant and fascinating palettes. However, what really drove me to start hunting down other Doyle films was his work on Fruit Chan's Dumplings segment in 2004's Three...Extremes. The Dumplings segment was easily one of the best lit and shot films I had seen that year and that short forced me to seek out other Doyle filmed works. The quest led me to Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's hypnotic and mesmerizing Last Life in the Universe which naturally led me to the director's next film Invisible Waves. In the few years between 2002-2006, it appeared that anything that Doyle shot was worth seeing. Hero was a visual treat, 2046 was a seductive follow up to the cinematic treasure In the Mood for Love while The Quiet American was a brave political film made in a time of "us against them" policies which left no room for reason or diplomacy.

After Invisible Waves, I eased off on the film hunt and instead dove into various regional, directorial and soccer themed spotlights. Interestingly after 2006, Doyle also moved away temporarily from Asia to work with M. Night Shyamalan (2006's Lady in the Water), Gus Van Sant (2007's Paranoid Park) and Jim Jarmusch (The Limits of Control, easily the best American film of 2009). A perfect opportunity for a Christopher Doyle spotlight would have being in 2006 when his more famous and precious works could have been captured in a single umbrella. As a way to make amends, I decided to finally have an overdue spotlight on Christopher Doyle and use the opportunity to catch-up on some of his previous works which I missed, especially his directorial debut Away with Words which formed the starting point of this 5 film series.

In order of viewing:

Away with Words (1999, Hong Kong co-production, directed by Christopher Doyle)
Happy Together (1997, Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai)
The White Countess (2005, UK co-production, James Ivory)
Ondine (2009, Ireland/USA, Neil Jordon)
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, Australia, Phillip Noyce)

Images, Identity and the ocean

It is not surprizing to discover that Doyle's directorial feature debut is a film rich in visual language. The film does not do away with words as may be indicated by the title but instead the words do not provide a means to enjoy the film. Trying to depend on a narrative driven by dialogue will not lead to a satisfying feeling regarding this film. Instead, one must allow the stunning colors and unique point of view camera angles to form a guide through the film's flashbacks and loosely arranged sequences. The reason that dialogues are not a key ingredient in the film is because the film's three main characters are in a foreign land unable to communicate their feelings or thoughts accurately for variety of reasons.
Asano Away With Words
Asano is a Japanese who finds himself in Hong Kong and is unable to speak the language while Kevin is an Englishman whose drunken episodes lead him to forget his surroundings (including the street name where he lives) thereby getting arrested by the police on a frequent basis. Kevin's girlfriend is also an outsider and tries to form a bridge between Asano and Kevin yet she is adrift in her own sea.

The interactions between the three form the crux of the narrative while Asano's flashbacks of his childhood provide the film's visual strength. Asano loves the sea and not surprizingly his memories are often associated with water. Throughout the film, different camera angles give a sense of the joy that Asano experiences as he mentally makes his way towards the sea. So the camera rushes down the path towards the sanded beach eventually pointing at the rich blue water. One of the film's most unique angles involves seeing the perspective from a tire racing down the street.
Tire Away With Words
Away With Words

Note: Away with Words is co-written by Tony Rayns, the brilliant Asian film programmer responsible for ensuring that the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) unearths promising works from Asian filmmakers around the world every year.

A different affair in Buenos Aries

A steamy affair, love, break-up, agony and seductive music. Welcome to life, Wong Kar-wai style. However, unlike other Wong Kar-wai films, the setting in Happy Together is not Hong Kong but is instead Buenos Aries and the love story involves two men, Lai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) & Ho (Leslie Cheung). The sexuality of the characters does not matter too much as the relationship issues and arguments portrayed in the film apply universally to both men and women. As a result, the film forms a case study of a broken heart and the misery that loneliness can sometimes bring.
Buenos Aries
Happy Together starts off in rich black and white before switching over to color around the 20 minute mark. There are 2 moments of color spliced in between the black and white footage and one of them has to do with the dreams of Lai's quest to head to Iguazu Falls. The journey to the world famous waterfalls ends up becoming a defining marker in the relationship between Lai and Ho. The two get lost en route and never make it to the falls while their fight during their drive starts the process of a gradual break-up. Even though Lai and Ho's relationship is shown to be turbulent and has endured many previous split-ups, the fallout from the long car drive is more serious. The film then depicts the sorrow that engulfs a broken heart. A person with a broken heart cannot enjoy anything around them, no matter where they are. In one case, it appears that Lai is asleep during one of the most fierce and noisy derby games in the world -- River Plate vs Boca Juniors. Only a person gripped by depression and misery could sleep in such a hostile environment.
Happy Together
Happy Together Boca River game
Boca River game

In another case, Lai attempts a common therapy for misery -- alcohol. Naturally, Quilmes is on display as it is the popular beer available around Buenos Aries, or where ever an Argentine soccer game is played for that matter.

The real star of the film ends up being Doyle's camera which injects life in a familiar tale of love & anguish. The camera pushes and prods in confined spaces ensuring that dullness does not fully descend onto the work. A few personal favourite sequences involve the soccer game that employees at the restaurant indulge in during their breaks. The camera ensures the audience feels like another player in the game, trying to play the ball and even receive a pass. In one instance, the game is heard without any background noise but in another case, music blurs out the sounds of the players and the camera slows down to give a poetic look at Lai in the foreground while the sun and the players occupy the background.
War, Love and a perfect bar

The White Countess is set in 1936 Shanghai against the backdrop of an impending Japanese Invasion and a World War. Although, one would not know much about the political situation in the world if it were up to Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) as his dream of a perfect bar/club is a place where politics is left outside and patrons can mingle freely without their ideologies. The sentiment is noble and at first it succeeds in attracting clientele to his new club. However, as the threat of a Japanese invasion increases, attendance in the club declines. A Japanese businessman Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) suggests that Todd Jackson needs to slowly introduce some political tension in the club that would then influence more people to attend. Matsuda’s words ring true but by the time the crowds return, the invasion is on the doorstep leading to a mass exodus of people from the city.

The film tries its best to keep any politics elements off the screen which results in a work free of any tension and appearing quite sterile. The dramatic exodus at the end feels at odds with the film's overall calm rhythm and comes too late to make a difference to a movie that produces no lasting sentiments.

A mythical tale dressed up in reality

The enchanting selkie. The lady from the sea. Full of beauty and mystery. Although in modern day, such a lady would arouse more distrust than enchantment. Neil Jordon takes a mythical celtic tale and adds a layer of present day political sentiment about distrust of emigrants and foreigners.

Christopher Doyle's camera perfectly captures the grayish skies and always rain tinged atmosphere that exists in a small Irish town. Interestingly, Doyle came to this film after having worked on M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, which was a different take on a mythical mermaid tale.

The long journey home

Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on a real life story of three young Aboriginal girl's journey to return home to their mother from the correction camp they were placed in by the Australian government. The camps were created to separate mixed blood children (white & native) from their parents in a government backed experiment meant for the “good of the people”.

The film is a worthy yet rare return for Doyle and Noyce to their native Australia to shoot a film. Doyle’s camera captures the sheer vastness and heat of an unforgiving Australian landscape perfectly.

Auteur theory

The films in this spotlight show that Christopher Doyle has the ability to work with multiple directors in different countries and still provide the necessary look to assist in the filmmakers varying visions. In this regard, the films are a perfect example of seeing an auteur theory at work as the same DOP produces vastly different results depending on who the director is. For example, nothing about The White Countess gives a clue that Christopher Doyle is the DOP as the film looks and feels like a Merchant Ivory Production. On the other hand, Happy Together feels like a Wong Kar-wai film even though it is shot in a completely different continent and culture from other Wong Kar-wai films. A director may be the final authority in the film’s final vision but he/she does depend on a good DOP to achieve their unique vision. It is hard to imagine a Wong Kar-wai film without Christopher Doyle’s creative camera movements in tight quarters.


Sam Juliano said...

This is an utterly magnificent study of this great cinematographer and the close scrutiny of these few key films. My own favorite Doyles are FLYING DAGGERS and HERO, but you basically acknowledged these as a group, when you noted Doyle's essential work in Asian films. Bravo to you for the fascinating look you accomplish here!

Sachin said...

Thanks so much Sam. I would have liked to do a 7-10 film spotlight but I did not want to include films of his that I had previously seen.

Doyle is indeed an amazing DOP. I find it remarkable that some of his best work has been in a film industry/language other than his native country. Most cinematographers often work exclusively in their native language film industry, so Doyle stands out in that regard as well.

I don't believe he was the DOP on House of Flying Daggers although the film's look shares some ground with Hero.

A Doyle fan from Greece said...

Great post!.. You should seek his other asian movies from 95-01 like Motel Cactus and Green Tea!
I also started a blog dedicated to Chris Doyle, maybe it'll help.

Sachin said...

Thanks so much for your comment. Yes I will try to get a hold of his earlier films, especially Edward Yang's first feature which also marked Doyle's debut as a DOP.

A Doyle fan from Greece said...

I've seen a really bad copy of "That day on the beach".

There are some glimpses of genius in there, but his great work starts in the mid 90's with WKW.

That's where he loosened up and developed the MTV/shaky cam style. What's astonishing is that he was in his forties by then.

His '94-'97 period is considered his best. Films like "First Love: The Litter on the Breeze", which was recently released on dvd.

In the 00's, he did Infernal affairs, a movie Scorcese remade as The Informer. (Doyle was furious about it!)
His american films are average at best and that's because Hollywood sucks. Paranoid Park was good.
And the DJ Shadow video clip "six days".
Luckily, he returned recently to asian filmaking and we're awaiting for his next masterpieces!

Sorry for the long post!

Sachin said...

Wow, thanks for this great and informative post!! Your post and blog will form a key component of my third hunting phase for Doyle's films :)

I am not surprized his Hollywood films were not that good because he requires a creative director to work with. In a way, I think his least favourite film he worked on was probably Gus Van Sant's Psycho as that had very little creative space he could explore. It was supposed to be shot by shot remake and that would have meant very little innovation.

I have seen and loved Infernal Affairs and even I was not happy that Scorsese remade it. I still prefer the original film than The Departed. I had no idea that Doyle was involved with Infernal Affairs but reading about it indicates that he was heavily involved in giving the film its amazing look.

Thanks again.