Capturing the Heart of Hong Kong

Cinematographer Chris Doyle discusses his new film project and his relationship with his adopted city.

Courtesy of Christopher Doyle

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle might not be a household name, but Asian film buffs know him for his collaborations with Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai: cult film festival favorites like In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, and Days of Being Wild. Doyle hails from Australia; prior to his career in filmmaking he worked as an oil driller and even a cow herder. His fluency in Mandarin and languid visual style brought him in contact with auteurs in the Asian film world in the 1980s—among them Edward Yang, Zhang Yimou, and Wong—which might explain why Doyle is much better known in Asia than in Hollywood, where his most visible film is M. Night Shyamalan's 2006 Lady in the Water.

Hong Kongers know Doyle as Du KeFung—something of an enfant terrible in their corner of the world. That's perhaps because in the press Doyle has a record that includes not showing up to interviews and mouthing off about other people's films (to many journalists' delight). But on the heels of Hong Kong's umbrella movement, it seems as if Doyle might have turned over a new leaf. His latest film project is both serious and seriously experimental: Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterous, aims to capture the real Hong Kong in a trilogy of short films that focuses on children, young adults, and the old. The fictional documentary uses ordinary people as actors, as well as footage from Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, where Doyle has been seen hanging out. He's compared this movie's process as akin to jazz: There's a score, but also a lot of improvisation.

The Chinese film industry is making more money than ever: 2014's box office hit nearly $5 billion, and some are predicting the dawn of a golden age of Chinese cinema. While controversial films will still be banned, even Hollywood has been bending to the government's censorship demands. Given that the Chinese government has restricted all press and social media coverage about Hong Kong's umbrella movement, it's almost certain that Doyle's new film will also be banned, making it the sort of underdog experimental picture he's known for. His current campaign to raise money for Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterous on Kickstarter reached half of its $100,000 goal in just 1 day.

I spoke with Doyle and his collaborators Jenny Suen and Ken Hui about what they hope to accomplish with the movie.

Bourree Lam: What were some of the stories you were aiming to tell in this movie, and how did you conceive them?

Jenny Suen: We didn’t really conceive of any of the stories. We researched the stories by talking to the kids. So I didn’t ask them any kind of specific questions, it was very basic stuff like “What do you do when you go home?” “What do you want to be when you grow up?” kind of thing.

Christopher Doyle: Since I’m not the same age and I wasn’t born here, some of us have different relationships with this community and it’s about, what are the kids' stories? The most interesting way for us to approach them was for them to tell their own stories. So that was the basic point of departure.

It evolved from that road to interviews that became the structural impetus, or the direction that our imaginations took off from. So it’s this kind of mélange of very subjective, personal responses to where these kids are at this period of their young lives. And us taking that to try to give it a kind of parallel, or if you can say, more poetic visual representation of some of the ideas and how we felt and responded to their dreams, and their personal situations and their relationship with other people in the city. That became the stylistic conceit.

Lam: Can you talk about your relationship with Hong Kong?

Doyle: Hong Kong and I have a very long relationship from our collaboration with other people’s work or working on other projects together. Then it got to a point where so many people were making so many films in China, people like us felt like we had to speak up …We want some ongoing relationship with this generation, which is more or less frustrated, if not dissatisfied, with the financial and socioeconomic, and in the background, the political journey of this period of time. Even though I wasn’t born here I started making films here. In terms of my relationship it came from having this longterm interaction with Hong Kong. We have certain talents, we have a certain idealism, we have a certain voice, and we'd better speak up for ourselves.

Lam: How did you find different participants for this movie, and how did you get them to be part of your film?

Suen: For the first part, it was very organized. We had casting sessions. I talked to probably over a hundred kids. For the second and third part [of the movie] it was more organic. They were people we knew or saw on the street. There was one [man] who we would see carrying cardboard and making cardboard things on the street all the time, and Chris thought that he was [some kind of crazy sculpture artist when in fact] he was making the piles for recycling. But it turns out he was one of the best actors in the film so far. [The actors in the film] were just people we encountered. There was one actor who’s a waiter from a Peking duck restaurant, and every time I tried to order something he would tell me it wasn’t good and try to get me to order something I didn’t want. Sometimes we'd have an idea, like we wanted a tram driver and I rode a tram for three hours and tried to get real people to consent to an interview, which was actually quite funny because [the tram driver] can only talk to you when the tram stops.

Doyle: My job is to bring in whichever visual metaphors resonate. Or expand an idea. My part of the team’s collaboration is: This will say something about our community. For example, scaffolding makers building hundred-story buildings. We may or may not find these people, but from our point of view and the audience’s point of view, we want to engage and represent some parts of Hong Kong that have never been represented before on film. I think those things are important. You go into this quasi-documentary area and ask what are the aspects of Hong Kong society that are basically hidden behind the veneer of commercialism. You want to have a relationship with people or social situations or context that they’re not totally familiar with because they should be shared and celebrated. It started from the kids—it was astonishing the difference between total complacency and mediocrity and these sparks of energy we were encountering.

I think that’s what we’re trying to celebrate, the energy of this city. My films are the way they are because I started in Hong Kong. They look the way they do because Hong Kong looks like this. It’s not because I have some stylistic genius, and to anybody who asks me about it at a film festival that’s exactly what I say: The films are the way they are because they come from this place. I think that’s very much the basic and intrinsic thing we’re trying to find out and rejuvenate this energy. What’s happened the past three or four months in Hong Kong is a perfect condensation of that. It’s a perfect crucible of that. It’s a very precise and articulate metaphor for this whole process that started with these kids. And it’s certainly the aspiration of the young people here.

Lam: How did the umbrella movement become part of your film?

Doyle: Because I couldn’t get to work. I live around the corner, and all the usual stuff—it was there. As filmmakers you have a responsibility to your society. It’s so astonishing for me to look at and record, and the characters are so engaged. It articulates our original intentions for the film … It’s such an astonishing celebration of Hong Kong. They didn’t just stop the traffic, they stopped to let us think.

Lam: How was it filming real people there given your connection to the place?

Suen: I was super proud to be from Hong Kong. Everyday I wake up and I’m proud of what we’re doing. There are a lot of people saying the kids are just protesting because they can’t get a decent job, or no one can afford a house ever. They say that it’s the economics, stupid. But I think people do things for many reasons other than money, and part of why we are doing this film is because we feel like we have to assert a new Hong Kong identity.

Doyle: You have to be super conscious of the integrity of people … not exploit it as part of our film, because these kids are doing this wonderful stuff and how idealistic they are. No. These kids are doing what many of us didn’t dare to do, they’re celebrating their city and their idealism in a way that has to be honored. That’s how I personally feel about it.

Lam: I want to talk about using the "real people of Hong Kong" approach. What did you learn about the hopes and dreams of the young and old people of Hong Kong? And what were some of the challenges or advantages of working with real people instead of actors?

Doyle: It’s the same thing for me: even if it’s Gong Li or Leslie Cheung, if you give them something to do, they do better. If it’s something physical or you give them a certain situation that articulates something they feel comfortable with, then all kinds of very wonderful actor-ly things come out because it’s very naturalistic—that’s just the filming side. For example, the guy who’s recycling the cardboard and the trash on the street—he’s probably one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with.

Lam: Really?

Doyle: He is, because he is what he is. Pretense doesn’t get in the way. In my world, 99 percent of what we experience in cinema or TV is usually fake. And the real pleasure for me as a filmmaker is to engage with real people, because they’re not pretending to be anything more or less than what they are … To me, whether it’s a good or bad film doesn’t matter, but I personally have a great sense of these kids. It’s partly our collaboration, but it’s mostly them being who they are. And that was our job, to get them into that space and to give them the space that they feel most comfortable with—and I think that comes through in the film. With any film, if you believe the person in front of the camera, then you believe their story. If you have an engagement with them, that’s my job, then you’ll have empathy for them. I mean, why does world music work? You don’t understand what they’re saying, but you sense the energy of the people who are trying to communicate their point of view and experience. I think that’s what we have to dare to try to do. If you don’t go there, then it’ll never happen.