There are certain things that just don’t seem right: Star Wars without Han Solo (oh wait, they finally fixed that one), Queen without Freddy, Camerimage without Christopher Doyle. Fear not, however, for Du Ke Feng and his pointy shoes are back and we can all finally relax.
Remember that bit in Men in Black when it turns out that aliens are actually among us? We might have just found one. “There is nothing left between us, YouTube and Harry-fuck-you-very-much-not-doing-anything-more-than-you-expect-of-him-Potter. That’s why we are here today” – states Christopher Doyle with conviction and you know you’re in for a treat. “I want cinema back. I want integrity back. I don’t want Fast & Furious 74. And by the way, this red light over there is driving me crazy because there are clearly no hookers. It’s really disturbing. I mean, where are the girls?” Ladies and gentlemen, we give you PPP: The Personal, Political, Poetic Approach to Film à la Christopher Doyle. Nothing quite like it in the whole wide galaxy.
Since he first went to Taiwan in the late 1970s, Doyle has collaborated with Zhang Yimou and, most notably, Wong Kar-wai, becoming that rarest of birds – a man who embraced another culture with such passion he basically became a part of it. The self-appointed Keith Richards of cinematography, he just keeps proving that our parents were right after all and no job is ever too humble. Now, after dabbling in photography and some occasional cow-herding, he can add yet another occupation to his ever-expanding résumé: feature documentary director. Although to call his latest film a documentary would be an understatement and, well, just a straightforward lie – the Kickstarter-financed Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous is a film so bizarre it doesn’t even need commas.
While not a complete stranger to the world of directing – his was one of the segments of the portmanteau film Paris, je t’aime and, ahem, Polish political thriller Warsaw Dark with the late Anna Przybylska – this time around Doyle took on quite a challenge. And boy, doesn’t he know it. After a year spent on recording interviews with over 300 people, he turned the material into a quasi-fictional narrative to express his love for a place that is, and has been for years, his hometown. “We wanted to learn what Hong Kong was about through the process of listening to all these different people telling us about their lives” – explained his producer and partner in debauchery for the evening, Jenny Suen. “People who live there don’t feel that their voices are being heard. So this film is our own small way of giving the people who gave us so much something back.”
By showing the struggles of 3 different generations, from parental pressure to senior speed-dating and the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy political movement born in 2014, Doyle tries to capture the past, present and the future of Hong Kong. His characters ask a lot of questions: why are there so many gods in the world? How come you run into people all the time and yet there are so many you have never met? They don’t find all the answers, but at least they realize they are not the only ones looking for them. “The whole process was about where you are and who you care about” – admitted the cinematographer. “The important thing to me is that you learn from what you share – this is what that film is about.”
And share he does. Touching upon everything from Derek Jarman’s Blue and Ai Weiwei’s clashes with the Chinese government to the videos of people swimming with sea turtles in slo-mo, Doyle finds inspiration just about everywhere. “The journey is to get rid of the shit. In any Asian philosophy it’s always all about nothingness. We should remove ourselves from the process, be open and just receive” – he stressed. “I know that if I can do it, as fucked-up as I am, anybody can do it. You learn to look – that’s the great process of what we do. And instead of making an installation in some art gallery, all these textures and colors inform your day. That’s the astonishing privilege of being a cinematographer – it’s just a celebration of looking. You know that we never work? We just look all day. What a great life we have – I am here and you actually believe everything I say, you poor fuckers.”
Yes – as anyone who remembers his rather heated reaction to Life of Pi’s Best Cinematography Oscar win will surely attest, Doyle has never been one to keep his mouth shut. Not so much a cinematographer as an unstoppable force of nature, he tries to capture what words can’t. And if it means drinking wine on stage, slamming the establishment and dancing with our esteemed juror Matthew Libatique to Bla Bla Bla Cha Cha Cha (true story that) – so be it. Just a friendly word of advice: kids – don’t try it at home. He might have a penchant for the F-word, but this man is a true professional.