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This article was written By Rowena Santos Aquino on 15 Jun 2016, and is filed under Features.

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About Rowena Santos Aquino

Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer and critic who writes on Asian cinemas, documentary films, and film festivals.

Like a Moth to a Flame: A Profile on Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing

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This piece is also a preview of the upcoming, first North American retrospective of Lee-lensed films at the Museum of Modern Art, ‘Luminosity: The Art of Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing,’ 16-30 June 2016

Famed Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (b. 1954) has had an eclectic, nomadic life from an early age, domestically and internationally. At age ten he was sent from his hometown of Fengshan, Kaohsiung City to Taipei to attend a school specifically for children of military parents killed in action (his father, an officer in the Nationalist army, had died when Lee was barely five years old). For his secondary education he went to Keelung City’s Maritime Vocational School, after which he fulfilled the mandatory three-year military service in the navy as an assistant engineer.[1] He got his start in cinema subsequently by taking a training program (bumped from the waiting list due to someone dropping out[2]), concentrating on cinematography, at the state-owned (i.e. Nationalist) Central Motion Pictures Corporation (CMPC). He became an assistant cameraman in 1977 at CMPC studios, and debuted as a cinematographer in the early 1980s.

His timing could not have been more auspicious: the early 1980s also saw a group of young Taiwanese filmmakers making their collective and individual debuts and would become known as the ‘Taiwanese New Wave’ or ‘New Taiwanese Cinema.’ Signaling their collective arrival were the anthology films In Our Time (1982) and The Sandwich Man (1983), to which Edward Yang, Tseng Chuang-hsiang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Wan Jen contributed, among others. It was a transitional post-Chiang Kai-shek period (following his death in 1975) that would gradually give way to a post-Martial Law era in 1987. Like Lee’s entry into filmmaking, early Taiwanese New Wave films were linked to the state insofar as they were CMPC productions. However, unlike pre-1980s state-supported filmmaking, which were driven by genre spectacles and ‘healthy realism,’ these early Taiwanese New Wave films betrayed the influence of European modernism on the one hand and meticulously presented the ordinary, everyday, and personal in dialogue with the sociopolitical on the other hand. During this time, Lee met and began a cinematic partnership with one of these Taiwanese New Wave auteurs, Hou, which would prove to be one of the most innovative, reflective, and challenging approaches to honouring and pushing the visual language of cinema.

Of Moths and Men

‘When I’m with Hou Hsiao-hsien, every day’s a fine day.’[3]

Lee is most closely and immediately known as the primary collaborator of his fellow countryman filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. As the elder of the two, Hou can certainly be regarded as one of Lee’s mentors. Lee has said, ‘Working with Hou Hsiao-hsien, I learned so much about working with nature.’[4] Inversely, though Hou has worked with other cinematographers throughout his career, Lee has been his most renowned partner-in-crime in the realisation of his minimalist, ‘also-like-life’ aesthetic, consisting of low-key lighting and natural light sources, meditative pacing and camerawork, long takes and long shots, and (from the 1990s on) sensorial textures and colours, despite or because of constrained budgets. As Hou has stated in an interview, ‘What he delivers never lets you down’ [and so] dares me to take more risks.’[5] Undeniable, then, is the presence of one in the realisation of the other’s works.

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So intertwined are Hou and Lee’s filmographies and aesthetics that Kevin B. Lee, in his 2007 review of Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), writes that through his collaborations with Hou ‘Lee has established his own sub-genre, which might be termed “mothimatography” for all its instinctive gravitation towards light and movement, letting those elements frame the shot and define the scene with mercurial consistency.’[6] Indeed, Hou and Lee in their films mobilise light and movement at their subtlest to paradoxically capture both the wispiness and weight of time — past and present, as it relates to emotion and the unfolding of a situation, relationship, or history — in minute detail. The fineness of detail in which Hou and Lee capture the everyday and episodic in the characters’ lives, even the seemingly inconsequential, is what ultimately enables the narratives to move the spectator on a deeply affective level, in spite of the distancing effect of medium and long shots. Consequently, to watch their collaborations is about plunging into reality and reverie simultaneously, or constantly navigating between them, so that the emotional is visual and vice-versa.

Dust-Wind

Accordingly, retrospectives of either artist always already implicate the other. MoMA’s ‘Luminosity’ retrospective features four of the ten feature films that Hou and Lee have made together, from one of the earliest — Dust in the Wind (1986), their second collaboration — to their most recent, The Assassin (2015). Their first collaboration was Hou’s autobiographical A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), the middle film of Hou’s ‘coming-of-age’ trilogy that begins with A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and concludes with the sombre, delicate Dust in the Wind, about a young couple moving from the rural to the urban and how it colours their transition from adolescence to adulthood.

In the late 1980s, after what appears to be a dismissal from CMPC, Lee traveled to Hong Kong and discovered an altogether different world of filmmaking. Lee was essentially based in Hong Kong for practically a decade, which perhaps explains the longest gap in his collaboration with Hou. Their next film together after Dust in the Wind came seven years later, the semi-documentary The Puppetmaster (1993), based on the life of master puppeteer Li Tien-lu, also screening as part of MoMA’s ‘Luminosity’ retrospective. A shorter gap of three years preceded their subsequent film, Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996). These two films constitute the last and second of the films in Hou’s ‘Taiwanese History’ trilogy that begins with City of Sadness (1989). Thereafter, Lee has lensed each of Hou’s films.

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If Goodbye South, Goodbye concludes a segment of Hou’s filmmaking, then his next film with Lee marks a dazzling one. The Flowers of Shanghai (1998) came as a bold, sensual surprise: so different from Hou’s previous works in terms of palette and texture (not to mention setting) yet just as probing of the everyday and slice-of-life – in this case, of women who work in Shanghai’s high-class brothels – and also ever so gracefully advantageous to Lee’s languid camerawork and deft maneuvering around the faintest of light sources to generate spaces of emotion to feel and for the actors to perform. To his credit, Lee’s adamant refusal to make another black-and-white colour film (meaning flat or dull tones) and infusion of colours in The Puppetmaster helped to initiate this new, explicitly vibrant, colour-layered period of Hou’s filmmaking that would continue to the present. The Flowers of Shanghai is also part of MoMA’s ‘Luminosity’ retrospective, to be followed by a Q&A with Lee.

Crucial to being able to channel the emotional towards the visual and vice-versa is both men’s staunch preference for shooting with celluloid film. David Bordwell wrote in 2013, ‘In all his films for Hou, Lee’s exceptionally low lighting levels and deep, layered shadow areas would give even Gordon Willis a run for his money. Lee’s subtle lighting has always registered magnificently on film.’[7] They have continued do so up to The Assassin, which is luminosity personified, in part thanks to celluloid, and certainly the most striking contribution to and interpretation of the wuxia genre of late. The film is sensuously gravity-defying; not in the sense of complex martial arts fighting scenes but rather in the sense of perfectly balancing between, as I have written elsewhere, the thickness of detail of the world of the characters (including their costumes and the spaces in/through which they move) and the frailty of feeling.

In addition, Lee has worked with Hou on the latter’s short film contribution for the omnibus To Each His Own Cinema (2007), titled ‘The Electric Princess House.’ In fact, Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsiu-chiung’s documentary on Lee, Let the Wind Carry Me (2009), begins with the shooting of ‘The Electric Princess House’ in the Madou district of Taiwan, establishing immediately how integral to each other the two men have been to their respective artistic trajectories.

The Moth to a Flame

Mark Lee Ping-bing: ‘If I could have a choice, I’d rather not leave home.’[8]

Also included in MoMA’s ‘Luminosity’ retrospective, Let the Wind Carry Me is a mixture of sit-down interviews with Lee about his work and with those who have worked with him on a film in some capacity on the one hand, and observational footage of his jet-setting travels in the name of work, award recognition, and/or vacation on the other hand. Co-directors Kwan and Chiang interviewed and accompanied Lee wherever his work took him for a period of three years. As a result, their documentary is a very intimate and revealing look at Lee on set, interacting with colleagues, and off the set, sharing bits of his biography and his thoughts on the craft of cinematography. One of the most pleasurable portions of the documentary is being witness to Lee and Hou discussing and troubleshooting ways to shoot scenes for Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) on location, the two obviously in their element.

Though Lee and Hou’s partnership constitutes one of the principal subjects, the documentary has an underlying chronological structure: it details, through interviews with Lee and behind-the-scenes footage of him on the sets of previous films, his beginnings, his Hong Kong days, and how his being in demand as a top-notch cinematographer whisks him hither and thither around the world.

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This last point is also the source of another of the documentary’s strengths and principal subjects, which is understanding Lee not only as a cinematographer but also as a son (his mother figures prominently in the film) and a (largely absent) husband and father. Co-directors Kwan and Chiang were able to draw out of Lee rather frank reflections about the ‘cost’ of his work. He shares how well aware he is of being an invisible father for his wife and two children in the U.S. and an intermittent presence in his mother’s life in Taipei. Yet he would not have it otherwise. Moreover, over the course of the documentary, one gets a sense that his mother is one of the main driving forces of his work, for example, through the footage of Lee’s dedication of the Golden Horse Film Award for cinematography for In the Mood for Love to her and in their trip together to Norway when he receives the Films from the South Festival Honorary Award for his body of work, even interviews with Ms. Lee herself.

The documentary does not judge Lee, however. More than anything, it celebrates Lee’s exquisite work in a lyrical way (the montage of train scenes in the films that he has worked on is particularly memorable), including the different, unspoken facets of his life that do not involve cinema.

Transnational (Cinematic) Frames and Flames

Mark Lee Ping-bing: ‘As a cinematographer who grew up in Taiwan, I’d like to bring a Taiwanese perspective to the works of filmmakers from other countries.’[9]

Since beginning his career in the early 1980s in Taiwan, Lee has worked tirelessly with a variety of filmmakers in different parts of the world and different languages. It is not for nothing that Kwan and Chiang’s documentary has not only the title of Let the Wind Carry Me but also the subtitle of ‘The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee.’ If Lee’s work with Hou presents for the most part Taiwanese national histories and experiences, past and present (which would change from the late 1990s on), then Lee’s work with other filmmakers presents transnational/trans-Asian/pan-Chinese perspectives, resulting in a fascinating filmography of transnational, multilingual cinema.

In Hong Kong, he has lensed for filmmakers Ann Hui, Wong Kar-wai, Patrick Tam, and Ivy Ho, among others. Significantly, it was during his extended stay in Hong Kong from the late 1980s and 1990s that he was first connected to a Wong Kar-wai film: Fallen Angels, for which he served part of the second unit. He has also worked with French-Vietnamese filmmaker Trần Anh Hùng and Frenchman Gilles Bourdos; mainland Chinese filmmakers Tian Zhuangzhuang, Xu Jinglei, Jiang Wen, and Yang Chao, among others; Japanese filmmakers Isao Yukisada and Koreeda Hirokazu; and other fellow Taiwanese Sylvia Chang, Jay Chou and Wang Leehom, among others.

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MoMA’s ‘Luminosity’ retrospective rightly includes a number of such transnational/trans-Asian/pan-Chinese collaborations, from Hui’s understated dark romance Eighteen Springs (1997), based on an Eileen Chang novel; Wong’s infinitely gorgeous In the Mood for Love (2000); screenwriter Ho’s directorial debut Claustrophobia (2008); Lee’s two works with Trần: the ultra sensuous and compelling The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) and Norwegian Wood (2010), based on Haruki Murakami novel and Lee’s first use of digital film[10]; one of the three films lensed for Bourdos, Renoir (2012); Tian’s moody, shadow-filled Springtime in a Small Town (2002), a remake of Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small Town; Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent (2016), for which Lee won the Silver Bear for his cinematography; and Lee’s second pairing with Chou for his colourful musical romance The Rooftop (2013).

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Such an expansive and prolific filmography makes Lee one of the two cinematographers who have arguably contributed a substantial part to the post-1970s history and look of (transnational) East/Asian cinemas. The other cinematographer who shares with Lee a similar transnational/trans-Asian/pan-Chinese filmography is, of course, Australian Christopher Doyle (by whom he has been overshadowed). Only two years older than Lee, Doyle also began his cinematographic career in the early 1980s and with another Taiwanese New Wave auteur, Edward Yang, for That Day, on the Beach (1983).

Wong Kar-wai, who has worked with Lee and Doyle, particularly on In the Mood for Love, has provided an amusingly illuminating description of each cinematographer’s personality and approach to lensing: ‘[Lee is] very disciplined. To make a comparison, if Chris Doyle is a sailor, then Mark Lee is a soldier. He’ll do whatever you ask him to. Many cinematographers are show-offs, but Mark Lee is very quiet. He never says much on the set, only what needs to be said.’[11] Similarly, Sylvia Chang, who worked with Lee for her 1999 film Tempting Heart, has compared his manner and demeanour on the set to a soldier going to battle.[12]

Mark Lee Ping-bing: ‘What I try to do is to integrate real light and colour with people.’[13]

The auteurial characteristics of Lee’s cinematography, as already mentioned, include working with the most minimal and/or most natural of lighting sources, most notably with Hou. For Lee, too much lighting of a room in which a scene will be shot makes all of its distinct qualities disappear.[14] Another characteristic is mobile framing, to a point that Xin Zhou has aplty described Lee’s cinematography as ‘stalking and feline.’[15] Astonishingly, Lee does not ‘like to preconceive ideas for framing’ and instead ‘prefer[s] the uncertain movements during the process of filming.’[16] Such openness to movement and uncertainty is precisely what gives rise to that hypnotic, third-person yet personal perspective found in the films that he has photographed, inducing an intense curiosity and respect for all things in and out of the frame, especially the actors. With Lee, the actors gain a freedom to move in a way that remains true to their understanding of the characters in relation to the settings and lighting, which then end up influencing Lee in his framing choices. Trần has related: ‘When [Lee] moves his camera, the psychology of the characters are always on his mind. That aspect of him is quite precious to me.’[17] Again, with Hou in particular, Lee’s cinematography creates a paradoxical weightlessness and thickness to the characters and narrative world that is unrivaled.

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Yet still another characteristic, perhaps not exclusive to Lee but at the very least presenting one of its most romantic variations, is what I like to call (for lack of a better term) the ‘lattice shot.’ In such a shot, drapery, a lattice window or window railing of some kind obstructs the view of the character(s), thus giving the impression of peeking in at him/her/them and of a hovering presence/perspective when accompanied by Lee’s signature deliberate camera movement, and above all injecting a sense of poetic mystery into the scene and space, however banal it may be. In a 2009 interview, Koreeda, who worked with Lee for Air Doll (2009), shared, ‘I was always impressed at how he could shoot a scene so simply and yet draw out so many emotional responses that were not in any shooting script.’[18] Such ‘emotional responses’ arguably stem in part from Lee’s lattice shots, even if they are incredibly brief, as they appear oftentimes when a dramatic situation is developing.

1. Tempting Heart (1999)

Tempting-Heart-1999-frame-grab

2. Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

Springtime-in-a-Small-Town-2002-frame-grab

3. Secret (2007)

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4. The Assassin (2015)

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Paired with ‘exceptionally low lighting levels’ and little close-ups, preventing the spectator to see character reactions/expressions, Lee’s lattice shots betray both the trust in the actors on the part of the filmmaker and cinematographer and vice-versa in pinpointing the emotion to be visually and aurally conveyed to the spectator without the ‘traditional’ clarity of the close-up.

Another quality that links a number of the films that Lee has lensed for filmmakers from various parts of the world, and which maybe attracts him to certain projects, is the confinement, or singularity, of space in which the narrative unfolds; or put another way, the confinement of the narrative world to a smattering of characters and spaces, even if both the immediate and/or international world around them chugs along and history happens, as in Eighteen Springs, The Flowers of Shanghai (in brothels), In the Mood for Love, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Spring in a Small Town (inside a house), Secret (2007, Jay Chou, within a school), Claustrophobia (2008, Ivy Ho, in a car), Norwegian Wood, and The Assassin. Wong Kar-wai’s statement that ‘[Lee] blooms when he gets to an open space’[19] therefore becomes ironic. One could say that Lee thrives best within the contrast between confined worlds/places and open spaces, in that he expands the former with emotion while imbuing the latter with the constricted perspectives/situations of his characters. Such a tenuous quality that teeters between the elusively emotional and visually material perhaps accounts for the kind of novelistic aspect of Lee’s cinematography, with its richness in detail in the interplay between character(s), situation, place/space, and lighting.

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A related thematic thread that also connects the aforementioned films is the impossibility of love, or love thwarted/betrayed, at the hands of the lovers themselves, of chance/mis-timing, or of sociocultural/historical conditions.[20] So consumed are the characters with their relationships, past and/or present, that their perspectives are incredibly contracted, thereby accounting for the confinement, or singularity, of space of the films’ narrative worlds. Lee is therefore associated with a veritable catalogue of unconsummated cinematic love affairs in cinema.

In late 2015, Lee accepted the offer of being the new chairperson of the Taipei Film Festival, following the controversy of resignations that hit the organisation.[21] Let us hope that this new appointment will not curb Lee’s output, despite having an already prolific, stunning filmography behind him.

Select Mark Lee Ping-Bing Filmography

*titles in boldface are included in MoMA’s ‘Luminosity’ retrospective; those marked with *** are especially recommended viewings

 A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1986, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Dust in the Wind (1986, Hou Hsiao-hsien)***

Strawman (1987, Wang Tung)***

My American Grandson (1990, Ann Hui)

The Puppetmaster (1993, Hou Hsiao-hsien)***

Summer Snow (1995, Ann Hui)

Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Eighteen Springs (1997, Ann Hui)***

Flowers of Shanghai (1998, Hou Hsiao Hsien)

Tempting Heart (1999, Sylvia Chang)

In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-wai)***

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000, Tran Anh Hung)***

Millennium Mambo (2001, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Springtime in a Small Town (2002, Tian Zhuangzhuang)***

Café Lumière (2003, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Letter From an Unknown Woman (2004, Xu Jinglei)

Three Times (2005, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

After This Our Exile (2006, Patrick Tam)

The Sun Also Rises (2007, Jiang Wen)

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Secret (2007, Jay Chou)

Claustrophobia (2008, Ivy Ho)

Air Doll (2009, Koreeda Hirokazu)

Norwegian Wood (2010, Tran Anh Hung)

Renoir (2012, Gilles Bourdos)

The Rooftop (2013, Jay Chou)

The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao Hsien)***

Crosscurrent (2016, Yang Chao)

Eternity (2016, Tran Anh Hung)

Notes

[1] Daw-ming Lee (2013), Historical Dictionary of Taiwan Cinema, Lanham, MD & Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., p. 240.

[2] Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsu-chiung (2009), Let the Wind Carry Me: The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee, documentary, Taiwan: Yonder Pictures Limited, Inc.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lee, Kevin B. (2007), ‘On the Circuit: Flight of the Red Balloon, Slant Magazine, http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/on-the-circuit-flight-of-the-red-balloon.

[7] Bordwell, David (2013), ‘Master shots: On the set of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE ASSASSIN,’ David Bordwells website on cinema,

[8] Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsu-chiung (2009), Let the Wind Carry Me: The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee, documentary, Taiwan: Yonder Pictures Limited, Inc.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Director Tran has recounted rather bluntly that Lee ‘était furieux de devoir tourner en numérique avec moi/was furious about having to shoot in digital with me.’ See Bertherat, Émile (2013), ‘Tran Anh Hung: La beauté vient de la justesse.’ See also Associated Press (2009), ‘Asian cinematographer criticizes digital,’ The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/asian-cinematographer-criticizes-digital-91891.

[11] Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsu-chiung (2009), Let the Wind Carry Me: The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee, documentary, Taiwan: Yonder Pictures Limited, Inc.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsu-chiung (2009), Let the Wind Carry Me: The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee, documentary, Taiwan: Yonder Pictures Limited, Inc.

[14] Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsu-chiung (2009), Let the Wind Carry Me: The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee, documentary, Taiwan: Yonder Pictures Limited, Inc.

[15] Zhou, Xin (2014), ‘The Best of Times: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien,’ The Brooklyn Rail, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/09/film/the-best-of-times-the-films-of-hou-hsiao-hsien.

[16] Kwan Pung-leung and Chiang Hsu-chiung (2009), Let the Wind Carry Me: The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee, documentary, Taiwan: Yonder Pictures Limited, Inc.

[17] Chang, Dustin (2012), ‘Adapting Murakami’s NORWEGIAN WOOD: Tran Anh Hung Interview,’ Twitchfilm, http://twitchfilm.com/2012/01/adapting-norwegian-wood-tran-anh-hung-interview.html.

[18] Hartzheim, Bryan (2009), ‘Breath of Fresh Air: An Interview with Kore-eda Hirokazu,’ Asia Pacific Arts, http://asiapacificarts.usc.edu/(X(1)A(jUwcKCb60QEkAAAAYmZlMTUxZDQtMjdmMC00MWIxLThhYmQtNjc5ODI4ZGQ4YjNjJ2JubMjnaoed_2bUUI96GnB9o6Q1))/w_apa/showarticle.aspx?articleID=14573&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1.

[19] Ibid.

[20] On this theme alone, we can include Tempting Heart and Letter From an Unknown Woman.

[21] Cheng, Jing-wen and Lee Mei-yu (2015), ‘Awarded cinematographer assumes post of Taipei Film Festival chair,’ Focus Taiwan, http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aedu/201512030039.aspx.

 

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