One of Hong Kong cinema's reigning bad boys isn't a director, actor, or martial arts choreographer. He isn't even Chinese. Christopher Doyle has served as cinematographer on over 30 films in 20 years, establishing a visual style so distinct that his credit line alone conjures a world of neon-smeared nightscapes. The seven features he's made with director Wong Kar-wai rank among the most swooning evocations of city life of the past decade. For the Australian-born Doyle, being a foreigner is unquestionably his most prized asset. "A traveler notices more than the locals do about color or how people dress," he says. "It's about being close enough and yet far enough away."
The 52-year-old cinematographer, who can talk a mile a minute (in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French) and whose preferred wake-me-up (on this morning, at least) is a cold Stella Artois, would seem an unlikely candidate to shoot a martial arts epic. Doyle had made only one other mainland China film when director Zhang Yimou hired him for Hero, a Rashomon-like tale of warring assassins set in the third century B.C. Though it opened in China two years ago, Hero is only now being released in the U.S.--and in an uncut version, quite possibly a first for a Miramax import.
Told in color-coded flashbacks, Hero represents Doyle's boldest chromatic experiment to date--an action extravaganza more interested in abstract beauty than adrenaline. "The concept is 'what is reality?'" says Doyle. "You can use the English metaphor, 'Everything is colored by how you look at it.'"
Hero revolves around a nameless assassin (Jet Li) who claims to have eliminated two of the land's most wanted killers (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung). When his story is challenged by the Qin Emperor, Hero fissures into a series of alternate scenarios filmed in successive shades of red, blue, white, and green. "The colors came out of a response to locations," Doyle says. "I think they were much less theoretical than personal, like the rooms of your house."
Eager to debunk cinematographic dogma, Doyle claims to rely on intuition, and pity the reporter searching for "meaning" in his work. "You could step back and analyze things, but that's like a psychoanalyst analyzing your reasons for having a beer in the morning," he says. "I'm having a beer because I like beer and I'm thirsty, and it's lunchtime. Well, it's breakfast time. I think that's more real and more valid. I'm pretty much the anti-[Vittorio] Storaro. I don't believe that bullshit. He would try to dogmatize it. I mean, his theories are based on Goethe and Goethe's been dead for 400 years! "
Despite Hero's worldwide box-office success, Doyle still prefers the peripatetic existence of a gun for hire. His next film, Last Life in the Universe, was shot in Thailand for a fraction of Hero's $30 million budget. Director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang says working in Thailand forced Doyle to reconsider his hyperactive visual (and working) style. "When it comes to Thailand, he cannot impose," says Ratanaruang. "He doesn't know the place and he doesn't speak the language." Last Life, which already opened in New York, achieves a visual serenity atypical to the Doyle cannon. "When Chris frames a shot, it's usually very dynamic. There are lines going everywhere in the frame," explains Ratanaruang. "In the film, you can see that Chris is trying to have some kind of style. But he just gives up and shoots it because the space overwhelms him."
Always on the run (when asked where his home is, Doyle replies, "Cathay Pacific, 33B"), Doyle is more in demand than ever. He has completed Wong Kar-wai's 2046 ("It's the flip side of In the Mood for Love; they actually fuck."). He's set to shoot a Nike commercial in Beijing ("No shame, really"). And he's scouting locations for his second collaboration with Ratanaruang. "We found an incredible space in Macau that wasn't structured the same way it was written in the script, but that kind of helped the rewriting," says Doyle. "The earlier I get in, the more informed I am, the further the film can evolve. The unfortunate thing for many cinematographers is that they have such a solid training. Going to NYU doesn't help. Looking helps--that's the real training."