Glamour and Realism

in 46th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Helmut Merker

“Quel homme”, a lady whispered adoring the guy onstage the Festival Palais in Cannes. “Christopher Doyle is like a sailor, and he is like a soldier”, Wong Kar-Wai explained the difference between his two most important collaborators.

“In my opinion he is a humanist, feminist and optimist”, Hirokazu Koreeda appraised. “When I first met this big guy, he reminded me of Zhang Fei from the period of Three Kingdoms in the ancient Chinese history. I thought he was a serious person, but actually he was kind and easygoing. I hardly saw him throw a tantrum”, Jay Chou remembered. To a western audience his figure appears as a mixture between a samurai fighter and an action hero like Charles Bronson. “He is a poet of light and shadow”, summarizes the documentary “Let the Wind Carry Me”, directed by Chiang Hsiu-Chiung and Kwan Pung-Leung.

This movie is a piece of art about a real master of art: Mark Lee Ping-Bing, cinematographer. It shows the various aspects of an artist and his work. At first sight he is manly and rigid like a soldier while he is actually a sensitive and bashful person when you get to know him better.

Born in Taiwan, 1954, Mark Lee Ping-Bing became the most acclaimed Taiwanese – and Asian – director of photography, with over 40 films and nine international awards to his credit. He photographed the majority of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films.

This year’s Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei honored Mark Lee with the world premiere of the movie about him and his visual conception, and with the screening of ten of his famous films. A wonderful opportunity to see anew some of the most important Asian movies of the last 25 years and a sensitive, empathetic, vivid, colorful, enjoyable discussion about art and artisanry. An insight into the creative process, a lesson of viewing almost equal to the exemplary debate between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.

“How did you do it, Mr. Lee Ping-Bing?” On the one hand you can cut it short: Hitchcock’s mode of operation was just the antonym of Mark Lee’s and his director’s style. Hitchcock, coming to the set, had a firm conception; every take was ready in his head before shooting. Hou Hsiao-Hsien on the contrary changed his mind all the time. He does not explain what exactly to do, and it depends on the cinematographer to find the best spot to get the best shot of a space. The actors do not rehearse; no one knows where they will go and how they will interpret the story or the plots. “It’s weird, but it gives the film life”: The actors express everything freely and put themselves into the story, and then Lee captures them with the camera, he understands the scene, the situation, the real environment, the set and the people. “He has his own vision.”

The cooperation with Hou Hsiao-Hsien began with “A Time to Live and A Time to Die” (Tong nien wang shi), Taiwan, 1985. From the very beginning Lee simplified and minimized lighting to bring out the finer parts of the focus. In this film the director reflects on his own childhood with many autobiographical elements of his emigration from mainland China to a Taiwanese life in the late 1940’s. Lee added his vision from his youth, his home and neighborhood; he dispensed with the traditional lighting techniques and restricted it to main light sources of 40 to 100 watts. He was aware of a great risk to tell the story in more unconventional images, but “I found that I liked the detailed expression of darker textures. I sensed that there was something inside the dark, a deeper layer of dark underneath the dark. The multiple layers also serve to heighten the drama of the film.” The camera, motionless, looks through convoluted interior rooms, confusing backyards, barracks and huts gathering fragments of light and shadow of childhood.

The following film begins with a black screen, on which a bright spot becomes visible, by and by: the poetical image of light and shadow. It is the light at the end of a railroad tunnel. A train gradually appears, in a cabin the main characters can be seen on their way from the village into the city of Taipei. A little later the train again disappears into another tunnel and darkens the picture and the faces. Those railway journeys characterize the search of a young couple, their departure into the adult world. It is the leitmotiv in “Dust in the Wind” (Lian lian feng chen), directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 1987).

Another movie, another beginning with a great visual impact, another story told merely by images without words: a suite in the morning sun, a soft breeze through the opened window with a silk curtain moving; from the beds, separated by a lucent veil, a young man and a young woman, slowly awakening, arise one after the other, walking across the room, crossing ways and looks, slowly, sensually, harmoniously, the movie’s rhythm indicating the rhythm of a whole life: “The Vertical Ray of the Sun” (Mua he chieu thang dung), directed by Anh Hung Tran (Vietnam/France, 2000).

In Cannes, 2000, Mark Lee received considerable acclaim with this film, and won the Technical Grand Prize for visual style with “In the Mood for Love”. His vision contributed numerous unforgettable images and sequences to film history from the beginning of the new Taiwanese wave, “A Time to Live and A Time to Die”, to all those profound reanimations and revivals of Chinese history, paintings and colors, figures and faces – and lights and shadows, in “The Puppetmaster” (1993) or “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998). To summarize his work, the director and cameraman invented the significant label “glamorous realism”.

This is it: glamour and realism could be the motto of the whole Golden Horse Film Festival as well as of its last and most important part, The Golden Horse Award Ceremony. This event functions like Hollywood’s Oscars, awarding Chinese language movies: same show, same procedure, same glamour, same categories – only “the best foreign language film” is left out. It is quite self-evident that the “star” was cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing who handed over the Golden Horse Award for best cinematography: the prize went to Cao Yu, a cinematographer of the next generation, for “City of Life and Death” (Nanjing! Nanjing! d. by Lu Chuan). This movie about the massacre in Nanjing 1937 during the war between Japan and China is controversially disputed. The highest quality of this black-and-white movie is its visual conception.

This well-known ritual of famous presenters and the happy young winners led to the touching highlights of this ceremony. A melodrama in four acts: “Cannot Live Without You” (Bu neng mei you ni), directed by Leon Dai, nominated for nine categories, won its first award for Best Original Screenplay (the director delighted), then the second for The Outstanding Taiwanese Film of the Year (the director jubilant). Finally the two most important awards, as presenters on stage; Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Stanley Kwan, Ang Lee, and Du Chi-Feng announced the Best Director: Leon Dai – for “Cannot Live Without You”. Next to four of the most famous and distinguished filmmakers of Chinese history the young director of the next generation was overwhelmed, touched, moved to tears.

Yet, the climax was still to come. Maggie Cheung, the gorgeous personification of glamour, proclaimed Best Feature Film: “Cannot Live Without You”, a realistic movie about the struggle of everyday life. This time the director Leon Dai came onstage with his crew; obviously he could survive his big triumph only together with them. His triumph is also a triumph of the Taiwanese cinema, a beautiful combination of glamour and realism.

Edited by Steven Yates