Interview: Mark Lee Ping-Bing
In the Mood for Love
A defining force in Asian cinema, cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing has shot key works for Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tran Anh Hung, and others. Born in Taiwan, Lee served in the Navy before entering a training program at the Central Motion Pictures Company. Beginning as an intern and working his way up, Lee developed an uncanny grasp of artificial and natural lighting.
Over the course of 70 movies, he has attracted directors for his willingness to experiment with lenses, film stocks, and an array of filters, some of which he devised himself. Lee’s signature style employs extended takes, intricate camera movements, and minimal lighting that complement his directors’ goals. On the occasion of Lee’s first American retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, FILM COMMENT discussed the finer points of his contributions to the films in the series.
Lee’s most important work has been with Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, with whom he first collaborated on 1985’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die. Since then, they have made 10 films. While famously also credited on Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and Fallen Angels, Lee is modest about his contributions, describing his work as helping his colleague Christopher Doyle. It is on Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai and The Assassin that one can discern the full scope of his craft.
“I think a film belongs to the director,” Lee wrote via e-mail from his office in Taipei. “I try to understand what each director wants, then do all I can to realize that vision. Hou Hsiao-hsien likes to arrive on set, observe the environment, and then decide how to film. I know that if I come up with a powerful and moving long take, Hou will probably use it. So when I collaborate with him, I work very hard to design these takes.”
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Hou and his crew worked for over a year preparing Flowers of Shanghai, a film set in 1880s Shanghai and shot entirely within four studio sets. Before they started shooting, Hou told Lee he wanted the film to look like oil paintings. Lee designed lights to imitate oil lamps and used color filters for the sets’ white walls. Hou preferred stationary cameras earlier in his career, a time when Lee felt that the director “was not actively involved in framing and lighting questions.” Lee tried some moving shots in The Puppetmaster, but Hou took them out in editing. Lee used the term “glamorous realism” to persuade the director to accept his lighting design and camera movement for Flowers of Shanghai.
Lee photographed several takes for this eight-minute shot, acting as he always does as his own camera operator.
“We didn’t settle on composition and blocking ahead of time. Hou was aiming for total realism, without any artificiality. This is of course very difficult. Since the actors performed freely, it was hard to pre-determine how and when to move the camera.
“The camera moved slowly and constantly during this take, to the right and then to the left, two times. I tried to follow those who are listening rather than those who are talking. These gradual and unnoticeable movements aimed to capture actors’ performance and expressions. You can tell the movements by looking at the oil lamp shades on the table and the frame’s left and right shifts.”
Lee emphasizes how limited his equipment was for Flowers; a 200W lamp, three boxes of Dedolights, a few 150W projection lights (“the kind used in restaurants”), and a 1,000W daylight lamp.
The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000)
This transporting story of three sisters in Hanoi was Lee’s first collaboration with Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung; they also worked together on Norwegian Wood (June 21, 24). The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” plays behind the opening credits, which show Tran Nu Yên-Khê and Quang Hai Ngo waking up in the small apartment they share.
“Music obviously affects how I film, especially the pacing and rhythm. However, most of the time the music isn’t ready while we’re shooting. So I have to assess how the director has blocked the scene, how the actors might move on the set. If I feel that some adjustments can enhance the power of the image, I would raise my opinions and suggestions. But no matter what adjustments are made, the principle is to allow actors freedom within the space.
“This set is very small. It’s an actual apartment slightly modified. It was very difficult to set up lights, especially to convey the morning hours. I set up a light outside of the window to imitate morning sunlight. I almost didn’t light up dark places. I did however use a dim and cold green light and bounced it off a wooden plank. I had asked the Art Department to save a few wooden planks in the color of the set to use as a reflector. The environment, the actors, natural light, and dim artificial light all mixed together to create this scene.”
The Assassin (2015)
“This Hou Hsiao-hsien film was a huge challenge. In fact, each Hou film was challenging in different ways. After countless movies and television programs from Taiwan, mainland China, and Hong Kong, it’s extremely difficult to film the Tang Dynasty period. If we didn’t break out of the prototype they established, our film would look old and uninteresting. How to recreate the glamour and realism of the Tang Dynasty, make the audience feel they were there, was a very difficult project.
“We filmed mostly in Japan, where the temples are hundreds and thousands of years old. It’s hard to set up lights safely, so we used very few even in those enormous temples . . . During filming, I wanted to convey the grandeur and mystery of the architectural structures and avoid moving any of the objects within. The temples have these tall wooden columns that can’t be moved anyway. I used the dolly to move the camera to the right on a flat surface to reveal the three-dimensionality and depth, to capture the enormity of the columns and their mysterious atmosphere. The camera only moved slightly and horizontally but the visual effect is powerful. This is the language of the camera lens.”
The Rooftop (2013)
Lee shot the romantic drama Secret (07), actor Jay Chou’s debut as a director. Their second collaboration, The Rooftop, was a complete change of pace, a period kung-fu musical set on an imaginary island of amusement parks, 1950s-style bowling alleys, and garden rooftops. In place of the restless, prowling camera he used for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, or the classical compositions for Ann Hui’s movies, Lee employs extravagant crane shots that fly over sets up to three stories high.
“This is a nostalgic film that is at once glamorous and modern. I used regular day lights to brighten most of the sets. Only when shooting the rooftop did I set up a powerful light. In order to create a nostalgic atmosphere, I used daylight stock to shoot the entire film. The color change becomes more drastic and reveals an overall color scheme that’s deeply glamorous and nostalgic.
“The scene in which the two lovers ride the motorbike was shot on an actual small side street. The surface was not smooth. I shot from a moving vehicle traveling the length of the street. I had to shoot from another vehicle because it would have been a huge project to place a track on the ground.”
Lee, 61, continues to motor along with his career, winning a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at the Berlinale in February for Crosscurrent. More recently he finished a star-studded film with Tran Anh Hung, Eternité. It features Audrey Tatou, Mélanie Laurent, and Bérénice Bejo, and is scheduled for release in France in September.
Luminosity: The Art of Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing runs at the Museum of Modern Art through June 30. Thanks to La Frances Hui for help with translations.
Daniel Eagan is a critic and film historian living in New York City. He is currently working on the third volume of America’s Film Legacy, a survey of the National Film Registry.