‘Time gives meaning to life. Where you put your time is how your life will be’, muses Ping Bin Lee at the start of Let the Wind Carry Me, a documentary about the celebrated Taiwanese cinematographer by Chiang Hisu-chiung and Kwan Pen-leung. Indeed, time is a recurring subject here, both in terms of Lee’s visual themes and the familial sacrifices that he has made over the course of his 30-year career. Although mostly associated with Hou Hsio-hsien due to such collaborations as Dust in the Wind (1987), Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Café Lumière (2003), Lee has also been responsible for the exquisite visuals of films by Sylvia Chang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Anh Hung Tran and Jian Wen, while sharing director of photographer duties with Wong Kar-wai’s then-regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle on the ravishing In the Mood for Love (2000). Doyle has already received the documentary treatment in Yves Montmayeur’s In the Mood for Doyle (2007), an insubstantial study commissioned by French television which found the perpetually semi-intoxicated cinematographer on the set of M. Night Shyamalan’s ill-fated The Lady in the Water (2006). The directors of Let the Wind Carry Me were more fortunate as they caught up with Lee in Paris during the production of Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) and were able to observe the enduring working relationship between Lee and Hou. Although he has undertaken more commercial assignments like Murderer (2009) and Love in Disguise (2010), the focus in Let the Wind Carry Me is largely on Lee’s work with the aforementioned auteur filmmakers.
The approach is mostly chronological, starting with Lee’s early-1980s apprenticeship at the Taiwanese film body CMPC, where he quickly moved from assistant cameraman to cinematographer, then his relocation to Hong Kong. Lee soon adapted to the hectic pace of genre production, operating with a hand-held camera in order to capture the fast-moving fight sequences. Outside the system, he developed his method of working with natural light and came to accept meteorological changes as, ‘gifts from God’, hence the desert snowstorm in The Sun Also Rises (2007). There is some effort to probe Lee’s rootless nature as there is talk of how the cinematographer is rarely at home on his birthday, and the time that his Los Angeles-based family was threatened by a forest fire while he was away on location. Much of this personal detail is recalled over footage of Lee waiting for flights and trains, or dragging his luggage down hotel corridors. Glimpses into the way he sees the world are provided by his interest in pottery – he likes to take old and muddy objects, then meticulously clean them in order to reveal the original form – and his view that, ‘Every time we shoot in a room, we set up lights here and there. When several lights are done, the room disappears. The room becomes completely fake.’ Lee states that he aims to, ‘integrate real light and colour with people’ but there is little technical illustration of how he achieves this aesthetic, and analysis of camera movement and shot composition is kept to a minimum.
Attention to Lee’s signature shot of trains moving through rural and urban landscapes – a comment on the temporality of human experience that has been credited to directors rather than to their cinematographer – raises the issue of authorship, yet the succession of images sadly remains in show-reel territory. Another relevant topic that resists further exploration is the increasingly transnational nature of Asian cinema, with Lee being shown in France, Japan and Taiwan, while commenting, ‘Now the world gets smaller but home’s further away’, although there is no effort to sketch a cinematic network. Instead of positioning Lee as an aesthetic lynchpin of Asian auteur cinema, the documentary once again emphasises that he travels a lot and tries to ‘find excuses’ to pass through Taipei in order to visit his 80-year-old mother. Lee, a generally jovial gentle giant with a bushy beard who dresses like a construction worker, comes across as the kind of artist whose easy-going manner is actually a method of maintaining privacy, so it is left to the anecdotes of directors and actors to fill in some of the blanks. Hou recalls Lee quietly ignoring his instructions on The Puppetmaster (1993) in order to achieve the ‘old-fashioned sitting room’ look, while Millennium Mambo (2001) star Shu Qi comments on how such a seemingly insignificant detail as the placement of a bowl of popcorn in a bar scene is still an essential part of his lighting scheme. As such, Let the Wind Carry Me is a moderately engaging documentary that will be probably more rewarding for art-house enthusiasts than it will be for cinematography students.