Chris Doyle teeters on the edge of a ten-foot scaffold. He wants to perfect the angle of a shot for the film Lost, and is calling instructions to crew in seamless Mandarin. To the 40 or so people watching, the 61-year old – who has had a few beers – looks far from stable. A camerawoman, who is positioned more securely, clings to his waist and only lets go when Doyle makes his monkey-like descent. Later, he is bemused when an aide interrupts to inform him that his leg is bleeding badly.

Doyle has long been the maverick auteur of Asian cinema. While largely eschewing Hollywood he has become one of the few cinematographers to make a name in their own right. He’s worked with some of the biggest Mainland directors, including Zhang Yimou on Hero and Chen Kaige onTemptress Moon. But it was the collaborations with Wong Kar-wai that propelled both men to international column inches, their style coming to epitomise second wave Hong Kong cinema. They worked on eight films together, from Days of Being Wild (1991) through to 2046 (2004). In The Mood for Love (2000), though, perhaps best exemplifies Doyle’s aesthetic: saturated, dreamy colourscapes; lingering, almost voyeuristic camerawork and idiosyncratic framing, in which a thing as simple as a character placed out-of-shot speaks reams about throttled desire.

Today, Doyle is often the best-known name in the credits. This is true ofLost, an independent Hong Kong film being shot in Wuxi, Zhejiang province by unknown director Wong Wai and producer Ken Hui, a protégé of Doyle’s. ‘It’s true I’ve made 90 more films than he [Wong] has,’ says Doyle. His Australian accent has been morphed by his long-term Asian residence and is impossible to place. He sounds at once like a discombobulated Irishman and a lucid Charles Bukowski.

‘I’m the trampoline, I’m the safety net, and sometimes I jump off,’ Doyle continues. ‘People get more confident and they jump to another level. There’s this privilege of trying to do something together, where your small part shows through. What more do you want in life?’ The crew affectionately refers to Doyle as both the ‘crazy guy’ and ‘an artist’ who always has a beer on set. The reason, a producer jokes, Wong Kar-wai liked to work with him so much is because his shots are always out of focus.

Today Doyle is concentrating on a pair of legs. They belong to one of Lost’s main characters, a former Miss Malaysia, who is strapped into a Hervé Léger-like gold body-con dress. The film’s narrative centres on the rivalry between two boyhood friends who are competing on the fictional I Can Singtelevision contest. For this scene, Miss Malaysia surveys a rehearsal. She struts along an empty audience stand in black patent platforms, her pins silhouetted by the illuminated stage in the background. This particular shot seems to call for multiple takes.

Doyle was born on the outskirts of Sydney. But he reckons he was conceived in the back of a car on Bondi Beach. He joined the merchant navy at age 18 and then left to try, among other things, being a cow herder in Israel and an oil driller in India. He learned Mandarin in Taiwan, where he fell into a group of arty types. One, Edward Yang, asked him to film a documentary on 35mm, That Day on the Beach (1983), which earned Doyle his first award. With the realisation that he could go professional, Doyle went to Paris to hone his craft. He has been loosely based in Hong Kong for most of his career and now inhabits a somewhat double persona: there’s Australian Chris Doyle and there’s Hong Kongnese Du Kefeng. The first film he directed, Away with Words (1999), is about a man who can never forget a word because they take tangible shapes in his mind.

After the day’s shoot wraps up, the core crew head to Doyle’s rented apartment. A waifish Chinese woman with wide eyes, pink lipstick and no bra opens the door. (Later, she’s introduced as an ‘artist and a poet.’) She’s prepared dinner, and as we settle down, Doyle plays host, serving made-in-Qingdao vodka and grape juice accompanied by Pocky sticks. As the crew tuck into stewed fish, fried egg and tomato and tofu, Doyle, who is a vegetarian, mainly sips his cocktail and probes us with questions, including: ‘How do you make men cry?’, ‘Your philosophy in life is what?’ and ‘Do you want ice cream?’

Lost is being filmed in an expansive, expensive studio in Wuxi. Doyle isn’t wooed. For one, there’s no nightlife in Wuxi. He also thinks it’s a misguided venture riding on the booming Mainland industry. ‘Everyone said the trees are green,’ he says, as explanation. ‘The trees are red? It’s raining money, so let’s go and sit under that tree. That’s what’s happened.’

Yet he calls the last decade ‘wondrous’ for Mainland China. ‘I have total respect for everyone going out there and trying to get laid, and make money and make bullshit, and buy 75 houses, or like Zhang Yimou have seven children,’ he says. ‘Because they never had it! It took the West 150 years to do what China has done in ten years. I’m fucking proud of the Chinese. They’ve made some incredible mistakes and there’s going to be repercussions. But why can [the West] have an atomic bomb and Iraq can’t? Who the fuck do you think you are?’

The evening is pitching towards insensible. The crew is ruddy cheeked and the beer cans outnumber the bowls. But Doyle has a few things left to say. ‘What we’re trying to do with this group of people here, we don’t want to do [bullshit],’ he says. ‘Because, yeah, anyone here can work for much more money on anything in China. Perhaps it’s nice to have stability to care for your family. But then why are we doing this? We have to ask the questions that other people aren’t going to ask. What do I want to say about my life? We have to say: “This is who I am”.’ he pauses, now teary-eyed, to survey the subdued nods in the room.

‘Art is related to money, politics and social change, the rest is bullshit,’ Doyle continues. And then: ‘So let’s talk about Nazis and Somalia. This I really care about.’


Link to Time Out Shanghai