Wong Kar-Wai entered the Hong Kong film industry as a scriptwriter, but
stopped pre-scripting his own films when he embarked on the second, Days of
Being Wild. Since then he has begun each film with only a few key elements in
place: the basic story idea, the choice of settings, the leading actors, and
some specific images, words and pieces of music. The shootings and editing of
the film is then an aleatory process, in which all concerned discover only
gradually where the film is taking them and what it's 'really' about. It's
unlikely that Wong would be able to make films this way if he weren't also his
own producer... and if he didn't have two more or less permanent collaborators
at his side throughout. One of the latter is the designer/editor William Chang,
who has worked on every Wong Kar-Wai film since the first, As Tears Go By. The
other is the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who had shot everything since
Days of Being Wild.
Chris was born in the suburbs of Sydney and began travelling the world as a
merchant seaman in his late teens. He did various exotic jobs in far-flung
countries and somewhere along the way took a degree in art history at the
University of Maryland. He got into still and movie photography by accident, as
a side-effect of his involvement with avant-garde theatre and dance troupes in
Taipei in the late 1970s; the first feature he shot was Edward Yang's debut,
That Day, On the Beach. A brief stay in France led to work on Claire Devers's
film Noir et Blanc, but most of the films he has shot have been Chinese. He
normally operates his camera himself. Asides from Wong Kar-Wai, he has worked
with Stanley Kwan, Chen Kaige, Patrick Tam, Shu Kei and Stan Lai, among others.
He has recently worked with Park Ki-Yong in Korea, and has a directorial project
of his own in development with a Japanese producer.
Alongside his cinematography, he is a prolific still photographer and
collagist and an increasingly prolific writer. Several books of his photos and
essays have already appeared in Chinese and Japanese, and more are on the way.
This journal, written during and after the making of Wong Kar-Wai's Happy
Together, is his first comprehensive account of the making of a film. It not
only records the production from the cinematographer's point of view, but also
offers a great deal of insight into the unique process which brings a WKW film
Happy Together turned out to centre on one man's struggle to regain mental
and emotional equilibrium after the bad ending of an affair. Lai Yiu-Fai(Tony
Leung) and Ho Po-Wing(Leslie Cheung) arrive in Argentina from Hong Kong as
lovers, but Ho suddenly goes off on his own. He becomes a good-time boy in
Buenos Aires, turning the odd trick for fun and profit. Broke and more upset
than he fist realizes, Lai takes jobs in the city -- first as a tango bar
doorman, then as cook --- to earn money for his ticket home. But Ho turns up on
his doorstep, bruised and bleeding from a beating, and they try living together
without sleeping together. Eventually the break becomes final. Lai's attempts
to put himself back together are aided (unwittingly) by Chang (Chang Chen), a
young backpacker from Taiwan who wants to visit the southernmost tip of the
continent ---'the end of the world' -- before going home. For his part, Lai
decides he must see the huge Iguacu Falls before leaving. When Lai finally gest
out of Argentina he passes through Taiwan and goes to look for Chang... The
film had its premiere at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned Wong the
Best Director prize.
Chris's writing started out Jarmanesque and has become more and more
Bukowskian. It needs only a little more editing than a computer spell-check can
Tony Raynes, 1997
Projections 8 (Faber & Faber, 1998)
Projections is an
interesting series of books edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue. Each book
contains in-depth writings by filmmakers about the art of filmmaking. This
issue has contributions by Abbas Kiarostami, Paul Schrader, Barry Gifford and
Christopher Doyle's shooting diary of Happy Together, called "Don't try for me,
Argentina". In my opinion this is a must for every fan (30 pages, with b/w
pictures by Doyle himself), but I think the same text was already published in
Sight & Sound (May 1997).
14-15 August: Hong Kong - Amsterdam -Buenos Aires
Another thirty-six-hour flight into everything I've spent more than half my
life flying away from: mediocrity rather than identity, borrowed values rather
than ideas of one's own. All the reasons I hated and left Australia so long ago
come closer with each time zone and more terrifyingly magnified through the
bottom of each in-flight glass. Don't try for me, Argentina... I don't know
how I am going to try for you! Going there we gain a day. Leaving, we lose
30 August 1996: The Breakdown
Did a story breakdown for WKW today, and turned it into as good a synopsis as
I could. It looks a little feeble in this form: few 'motivations', little
apparent action, no subplot. Thank God we're all self-assured and intuitive
enough to believe that something interesting will eventually evolved from this.
It reads like this:
The blue-green magnificence of the Iguacu Falls. Pull back to reveal that
the image is in fact a souvenir lampshade by a messy bed in a love hotel. Two
silhouettes overshadow the Falls and the desolate room. A red convertible
crosses the brilliant white expanse of Salta salt flats, just this side of the
Bolivian border. Tony and Leslie are loving and partying their way south. At
noon on 23 September (the vernal equinox) they cross the Tropic of Capricorn.
Now there is no turning back!
Their sex that night is abrupt and violent. They part in the morning.
Leslie is in tears. Cut to Buenos Aires. Leslie is distraught, but hesitates
to throw himself from the La Boca Bridge.
Tony gets off a bus in La Boca, holes up in the Hotel Rivera. Plays at love
and odd jobs. A good fight is as welcome as a good fuck. His self-respect
diminishes with every glass he knocks back.
Leslie works in a gay tango bar. Dancing and tricking his night away without
reflection and remorse. He plays hard to get when Tony crosses his path again,
but softens to his loneliness. He steals first a Rolex, then a passport from
one of his tricks; the pawn money will pay for Tony's ticket home.
His hands crushed by the angry trick, Leslie retreats to the Hotel Rivera,
where Tony nurses him. Then Leslie betrays what begins to look too much like
love by running off with a cheap Milonga pimp. Back north... a Bolivian border
town. Wild, colourful lights pattern the ceiling and walls. Leslie, stoned,
stares through the waterfall lamp at the predicament he has fallen into. His
Milonga trick has passed out or OD'd, Leslie flees once more, not forgetting his
one-once stash of coke. NO Rolex to get him out any more, Tony agrees to
rendezvous with Leslie at the Iguacu Falls.
It's going to be a very visual 'landscape and spaces' kind of film, which
should make me happy enough. William Chang and I will have more than enough to
occupy our days.
I carry a 35mm still camera on the set most days now, partly in my own
interest, but often also because there's no other photographer on set. The
photos on these pages could not have been taken by anyone else, not because I'm
better than other photographers but simply because I'm in the middle of whatever
is going on and sometimes have the chance to capture what I see.
'No-One Speaks English... and Everything's Broken'
The whole of Buenos Aires is a Tom Waits song. What used to be 'The Paris of
the South', with the tenth-highest living standard in the world, has been
reduced to a hallucinatory exchange rate, an infrastructure as bad as the food
and an impossibly low minimum wage which makes exploitation, corruption and a
'parallel service sector' inevitable. The streets all run
north-south-east-west: grids of boredom and artificial restraint imposed upon
every town in the country. This plan is not just a topographical legacy from
Spanish colonial times but a blueprint of the Argentine mind, which is proud to
be third-class European.
Robert Rauschenberg said you're not an artist if you can't walk a block and
come up with five new images and even more ideas. Edward Steichen said you can
photograph a world in your room... and later Robert Frank and others showed us
how. Here, I'm starting to wonder if I'm losing my mind and eye. I haven't
taken a single 'personal ' image since I got here. Somehow I just don't 'see'
this place. It just doesn't 'talk' to me. Shit.
We're going north-west, via Rosario Cordoba and Santiago del Estero, on Green
Bus Balut. It's a thirty-hour ride to Jujuy, with only two stops en route. My
visions of either running into Brad Pitt and Bertolucci on location or being
crammed in with coca-chewing peasants laden with livestock and provisions turn
out to be wrong: this is a modern touring coach. Its number is 100, which, my
Chinese assistant assures me, is very auspicious. I drag myself up the front to
check how 'auspiciously' we're doing. We're travelling Argentina style: no
streetlights, no headlights, lots of traffic that shouldn't really be on any
road, lots of horn.
Tropic of Capricorn
The northern province of Jujuy borders Chile to the east and Bolivia to the
north. We're scouting it in a dilapidated taxi, looking for a route and a
reason for Tony and Leslie to have come to such a place. The first road sign
we've seen in hundreds of kilometres reads 'Tropic of Capricorn'. I was once a
sailor, but too green to remember how we navigated by Capricorn or any of the
other stars. Wong, though, is impatient for new ideas: ' I need to know the
metaphysical meaning of the tropic of Capricorn...' And he isn't joking:' You've
got until this time tomorrow.'
Surfing the Tropics
What we call 'The tropics' lie between imaginary lines of the Tropics of
Cancer and Capricorn, respectively 23 degrees 27 minutes north and south of the
equator. These points represent the northernmost and southernmost points at
which the sun can be found overhead on the longest day of the year. As they
call it here, 'the day when walls have no shadow.' The zodiac sign of Capricorn
is represented by the knees in the human body. It's an earth sign which holds
things and gives formation to water. Henry Miller sees Capricorn as a
manifestation of the poet alienated from society, creating his own destiny and
ultimately finding renaissance in death - which sounds more like what we're
looking for and expecting of Tony and Leslie in the story. That's all I have
for Wong by noon the next day.
First Day Shoot
The first day of filming is not really a shoot, more an affirmation that
we're here. We pick up 'ambience' shots in and around the stinking, oil-slicked
port called La Boca and the facade and roof of the Hotel Rivera, where Tony and
Leslie will make love. Don't really know what I'm doing. Just playing it by
ear, trying filters and film speeds, not looking for inspiration so much as a
few visual ideas. Finally we get lucky with a bus disgorging passenger and
turning under the derelict bridge into a vast expanse of sunset light. It's
loneliness, departure, loss incarnate. At last I have a visual theme to build
on, a direction in which to explore the 'character' of this place.
Haven't seen Wong for days now. He's locked up in some hotel room, sorting
through the jumble of images and ideas we've accumulated since we arrived. He's
getting keyed-up for the flash flood that the actual filming will have to
We've always talked more about music and literature than about the content,
intent or the 'meaning' of our films. Wong pretends to have a structure,
although we all know it will change day by day. We never know what the story
will eventually become or where the search for it - what I call the journey -
will take us. The worst thing is not knowing how long it will take. I often
feel like Kafka's watch or some other useless thing. When we work this way, my
role's a sham: I pretend to know how the morning sun will fall or how many
lamps it will take to light a room, but all I really know is how I see the space
and what I hope I can do with it.
What do we call our trademark shots in English In Chinese, They're
kongjing. They're not conventional establishing shots because they're about
atmosphere and metaphor, not space. The only thing they 'establish' is a mood
or a totally subjective POV. They're clues to an 'ambient' world we want to
suggest but not to explain.
WKW's most famous quip about his reason for working in HK rather than
Hollywood or anywhere else is: 'I'd rather work with first-class gangsters than
bad accountants. Gangsters have more pride, they're more ethical. Even if they
fuck you, they'll kiss you first.' So... we drop the local production crew.
The money question were always awkward, and their explanations got just a little
too weak. A commission or make-up is understandable, but they have quoted us
$1,500 a day for use of a bar location whereas the over turns out to happy with
$500 or less... Should we blame the Central Bank of Argentina or Alan
Dances with wolves
Flak from the fired production house is stalling us; they've alerted the
unions and other authorities, made some notable non-specific threats and blocked
out access to a number of locations. And we're making very slow progress with
the work permits. More than half the crew have to go to Uruguay today to get
new fifteen-day tourist visas when they re-enter Argentina. We've been warned
this may be the first of many such trips. Expecting the worst, we've started to
bribe our way forward for the best.
It's all about Angles
Wong's toothache has affected his ear. His normal
'tall-man-avoiding-low-ceilings' walk is pronouncedly lopsided these days.
Maybe that's the only way to see this place: from unexpected, unusual angles,
not just 'through a beer or wine glass darkly', as all of us have tended to
since we got here.
Leslie Needs Love
Leslie in high hells walks like a trick-tired whore. He looks great as a
red-head, but his make-up looks pasty: a bit like a weekend cross-dresser
hiding five o'clock shadow. But Leslie is worried: ' Am I convincing enough
Not just camp ' He really wants to know. Actually, he needs more to be
convinced than 'convincing'. And so we preen and powder and switch to a
modified bouffant and mother-of-pearl glam look. 'Am I a woman A real woman '
he asks his mirror more than us.
Our nagging suspicion that we're finally making the Days of Being Wild sequel
which so many have expected from us for so long clicked when Leslie started
humming the theme from Days as he prepared for a shot today. Checking his
custome and make-up in a wall mirror, he turned exactly like Carina Lau in Days
and mimicked her glorious 'How do I look '?
10 September: Who's on Top
We do a Polaroid session to give the lovers a 'past'. We look almost as if
we know what we're doing, and they look as if they've been at it on and off for
years. The evening passes in semi-drunken speculation about who exactly gets to
We discuss the film's structure, fairly sure that sex should start the film,
but also that in the chronology of their days together. Tony and Leslie should
be seen fucking only on their last night as a couple. Should we go for a 'down'
effect or should we film it as if their love will never die Should it be the
antithesis of the 'down' that is to come or should the relationship be a
roller-coaster of conflict from the start We go with the 'up' tone. They do
too. Their first kiss is very mellow and natural. It starts to feel like this
film is about intimacy, not sex.
Tony and Leslie try to touch and feel their way around the bed, each other
and the scene. William has suggestions. Wong and I are not much help. We
clear the room. It's just 'the boys' and the two of us. Don't know how or why
(we've never resolved it), but Tony is 'on top'. Don't know how or why either
but the position I take for myself and the camera is as discreet and evocative
as a camera position can be. It's a beautiful and sensual scene.
But Tony is devastated when the scene is done. 'Wong said that all I'd have
to do was kiss Leslie,' he confides to me. 'Now look how far he's pushed
My Gaffer Love My Focus-puller
Wong has appropriated the names of my crew members for Tony and Leslie's
characters. We end another love-hotel sequence with a close-up of their names
cut into a heart shape in the wooden wall: 'Po-Wing loves Yiu-Fai forever'. My
focus puller loves my gaffer, and we never even guessed!
We came to Argentina to 'defamiliarize' ourselves by moving away from the
spaces - and hopefully the preoccupations - of the world we know so well. But
we're out of our space and depth here. We don't even know the city well. So
why do we still tend toward bars, barber shops, fast-food joints and trains
What happened to the inspirations from Manuel Puig's structures and Julio
Cortazar's conceits We're stuck with our own concerns and perceptions. If
it's true that every artist basically has only one things to say, then... we'd
better do our best to say it more eloquently this time!
Friday Night, La Boca
Everyone else's Friday night bash is our logistical nightmare. The birthday
dance at 3 Amigos versus the 'lowlife' party at 11 Piccolo across the street.
Street kids cruise our equipment; we try to tie it down. The street is raucous
and violent, and there's nowhere to put our lights. The 'rush' of getting in
and our as quick as we can energizes my mini-crew. We're so guerrilla and
unobtrusive that one bouncer tries to cosh us for running out without paying our
Five Stars Minus Four
Spent most of the evening waiting William to turn Leslie's five-star room in
the Kempinski into something tacky and nondescript. He re-wallpapers two more
rooms and I add a lot of orange to the fluorescent light in the bathroom. I've
done a rush-job English text for these two scenes, which show Leslie with an
American John. Everything that Leslie hasn't already claimed for himself, our
American bit player is doing his best to forget. In the script I call him
White, with apologies to Tarantino. The actor has so much 'attitude' and needs
so much to 'communicate' that we're calling him 'Mr Hollywood' before the night
We're gone for 'high-key' colours and lighting this time, and lots of grain
to boot. I'm pushing the film-stock so much that we're losing the blacks. Is
it the exposure The locations Or the lack of budget for the lights we need
to maintain the tone we're after I don't know until we get back to HK. Here
all we see is a video transfer of some of our negatives.
When one of the Argentine lighting crew says, ' Your style is like not
lighting at all!' our line producer Jacky suggests we just steal some table
lamps from our serviced apartments and leave the generator at home.
If only film was jazz, if only we could 'jam'.... We get closer to this with
each film; my camera becomes more and more of a musical instrument. ON and off,
different film speeds, frame changes in shot... these are my key and register
shifts. I riff, you solo, we jam towards a free form that we believe a film can
Director for a Day
Wong is holed up somewhere reworking the script and schedule. Leslie has to
leave very soon, and there's to be a general strike on Thursday and Friday. As
if boring us to death, delaying us to death and cheating us to death weren't
enough, these bastards now want to mobilize us to death. We've been here for
forty days now, but we've worked for only ten. Today, William Chang and I take
over. It's likle a music video shoot. We suggest a situation and some
dialogue, choose a space and let the actors do the rest. We don't know what it
means or where in the story it might go....
Fat Man's Feet
We're shooting lots of anecdotal shots, trying to outline the development of
Tony and Leslie's relationship. Scene 27A Take 3 is OK, and so we move on to
27F. No one except Wong has any idea of how these numbers come about or what
they mean. But our tastes and telepathy are close enough to agree that 'B'
should be brightish and that 'D' should be twilight shot. I'm working off
instinct and the possibilities of the space. I have no idea what Wong is
working off... The structure and implications of his film are like a fat man's
feet: he doesn't really know what they look like until the end of the day.
First day in Hotel Rivera - our main location, at last! We come to grips
with the fickle power supply and offers of blow jobs from the live-in whores.
We're just about done with carjoling and bribing the rest of the residents when
someone who looks like an escapee from Pro Wrestling Live! emerges from the end
of the hallway and threatens to shoot out all our lamps - not to mention us too
- if we don't piss off. We make frantic calls for our bodyguards and the
police, then ask ourselves why we don't have our own armed protection.
I always get depressed when I miss the timing on a complex shot. I know that
it's excusable, since we don't have rehearsals and generally 'shoot from the
hip', but it's a bitch to come so close to great and then have the film run out
or the actor's timing lose sync with mine. Our kind of camera much as I need
him/her to 'lead'. And I can't ask for another take most of the time; I'm
afraid that would slow us down.
28 September: Film Roll 218, Sound Roll 90, Scene 29F
We're on our sixteenth take of a shot in which Tony's hands clasp his head.
In, then out of focus for most of the shot... on a 14mm lens. 'Smoother,'
demands Wong from the monitor room next door. Smoother is everything I want to
be, I'm thinking. But I'm tired and the shot is complex. All I can say is, '
I'm only human.' The thirty-plus kilos of my camera, magazine and filmstock
address me like an anxious lover from the bed. Don't know why I'm this way. I
just have to get it right this time.
There's something ominous about the number three in this film. It comes
before four, which is a homophone for 'death' in Chinese. Is 'death' where Tony
and Leslie's Love is taking them Outside the 3 Amigos cabaret bar, bus number
33 is about to stop. This is the third time I've put the same lens on the same
camera in the same part of the same street. They dance to a song called
'Milonga for 3'. Now Wong is talking about adding a third character to the
story: 'We need a third character to catalyze the film and their love...' I've
heard this kind of stuff before; it looks like we're in for the long haul. It's
all getting a little too 'mystical' for m e with all these 3s...
Old Bridge at La Boca
We have more bridges in this film than a hundred calendars could use. Our
two lovers quarrel and go their separate ways at dawn on a bridge. The location
is not just a metaphor, it's the shadow on their loves... On the bridge in heavy
morning traffic I can't hear a word the actor or director say. I guess when and
where they'll move, and when emotion seem close to bursting I pan discreet away-
but what should be a smooth transition turns into a quick pan. It's not a
stylistic choice: I'm barely balanced on two apple boxes, and they're shifting
from under my feet.
We check out tomorrow's location, the vast Retiro railway station and its
even vaster men's toilet, where Leslie will be cruising and dealing dope to make
ends meet. We're not quite sure how we're going to handle the space or the
situation, but I doubt we'll be as explicit as the fat black cock the guy in the
urinal next to me is shaking at me.
Boulevard of Dreams
There's indolence in the clouds... and cynicism in the air. My crew's hearts
are drained sallow by all these empty days. Implications about all we could or
couldn't do. Incriminations, Threats, I walk Corrientes Avenue. The so-called
'street that never sleeps' is as tired as I am. More listless, lonely...
dazed. Its souls are as lost as the glory of its past. Its neon colours are
faded, and tango bars are gone. The film is one long dark street tonight... not
my kind of Boulevard of Dreams.
Can't work out why people queue outside Dunkin' Donuts on Florida Street
Downtown. There's no crowd inside, but at least thirty in the cold outside.
Are donuts aphrodisiacs here Are there uses for donuts only Argentina
My camera assistants from HK are young and dedicated. They married early.
They are very 'straight'. Weeks of complaining about how bored they are here
earned them a night out on the town last night. When I ask them how well they
'scored' they mime puking gestures and tell me they had to drink their beer
through straws and couldn't even use the toilet. It turns out they went to a
gay bar by mistake. We've been filming two men simulating blow jobs and anal
sex for weeks now, and 'my boys' still think you can get AIDS from a beer glass
or a sweaty handshake.
A little too much of the wrong colored light distracts me when I view the
rushes of our gay-cinema scene. No one else will see these images the way I do,
but I see them this way. Why did I accept 'realism' instead of making
'poetry' It's the little details that hurt the most. Consoling myself with a
'you learn by your mistakes' isn't going to change the scene or the light.
Walk on the wild side
'I hope you're treating her well...' Wong takes me aside for a confidential
word. 'She's my local so-called girlfriend, an Argentine Chinese who takes her
virginity as seriously as her first-year medical college exams. The whole town
is on to you two,' warns Wong, ' watch your step.' I am sanguine until I learn
that her father is the branch chief of Taiwan's infamous Bamboo triad gang.
1 and 2 October
We discuss 'pick-up shots' to fill in the details of Tony's life in Buenos
Aires. Wong's list includes: 'pizza', 'phone-card', 'cigarettes' and
'abattoir'. I'm confused. 'Why abattoir ' Wong laughs, 'That's what I wanted
to ask you! Where else could someone go if they'd failed at suicide ' I ask if
he's ever been to one, and he replies that he hasn't. I tell him, ' It's all
blood and pieces, stench and sound. It's cathartic, to say the least.' He says
he doesn't want catharsis, finding it too 'obvious'. I tell him to wait until
he sees the blood and guts before he talks about anything being 'obvious'.
An old vegetarian like me just has to laugh: our meat-eating crew is
wilting, throwing up at the sounds and smells of the slaughter of cows. I
always believed that, 'If you can't kill it, you don't deserve to eat it.' If
killing cows is disturbing, what do war and abortion do to your daily life
Tony (who has to play a slaughterhouse worker) gets drunk. The crew members are
coating their stomachs with yogurt and scrubbing their hands very hard.
Leslie's hands have been crushed by one of his jealous tricks. We're not
shooting sequentially, so Leslie's in and out of the plaster casts on his hands
six or seven times a day. It's time-consuming and frustrating. 'I can't pee
when I'm wearing them,' Leslie complains. One of the gayer members of the crew
volunteers to help him with his fly. Leslie suggests that's really a job for
line producer Jacky....
We've been joking lately about how many shots we're doing per scene. 'Our
basic two ' I ask about the passport scene. 'No,' replies Wong, 'I want to make
it more choppy - at least one cut per phrase.' We end up with fourteen different
angles for five lines of dialogue. ' I think we've over compensated this time,'
I say after the fourteenth shot.
At first we hesitated to repeat our 'signature style', but eventually it was
just too frustrating not to. We do more and more in-shot speed changes as the
film goes on. From 'normal' speed to 12 frames per seconds or 8 frames per
second --- or the other way around. And our notionally taboo wide-angle lenses
are being brought in more and more often to make a 'flat' image more
'interesting'. I've always associated our 'blurred action' sequences with the
adrenalin rush triggered by fear or violence. This time around it's more
'druggy.' We change speed at 'decisive', 'epiphanal' or 'revelatory' moments.
The actors moves extremely slowly while all else goes on in 'real time'. The
idea is to suspend time, to emphasize and prolong the 'relevance' of whatever is
going on. That is, I'm told, what a hit of heroin is like. The bitch for the
actors is knowing how fast or slow to speak.
Money makes the world go around
None of us is sleeping well these days. Everyone feels down. Forget
'devotion', forget 'idealism'. We only work well when we work... and we've
worked only 10 per cent of the time we've been here. Our energy dissipates with
these constant questions and doubts. My camera and lighting crew have no money
to eat, and since we're not shooting that's all they want to do. I'm not sure
if I'm more loyal or just less energized than they are. It's always been this
way on the films I've done with WKW. The money I could have made by not doing
the WKW films could keep me for years. But we've come so far together, and if I
really cared about the money I would've gone into real estate long ago.
Wong's difficulties may be partly self-inflicted and his methods
irresponsible to everyone but himself. But every film is a journey, a choice.
And we chose to help this journey happen and so, as far as we can, we should
accept what the choice entails. But I should also take care of my crew, who
always follow my lead. I have to speak out for them. In my experience, it will
make no difference. But tonight I must make a stand.
Leslie is back, but not for long enough to make the trip to the northernmost
border where we planned to shoot the opening scenes. These days Wong is
regretting his preference for working with stars. They consume most of our
budget and our energies, and their comings and goings force us to change story
lines and even dictate how much sleep we get. We have to accommodate their
schedules... and pamper their moods. The one consolation is that we get the
last word. At the end of the day, we're the ones who get to throw them on the
We're still stuck in the same ten by twenty-foot room in the Hotel Rivera
we've been in for the past month. We have no scaffolds, so no top shots, no way
to get a little distance and no way to shoot from across the road. The only
part of the room we haven't already shot twenty time is the washbasin/shaving
mirror corner by the door. Wong is frustrated: ' Where the hell is Tony going
to die ' All I can suggest is that the blue - tiles and shower curtain - will go
well with the blood. 'We can't afford two day's blood,' is his cryptic answer.
A production assistant explains that the 'cut-throat make-up' is $300 a pop.
Wong tells me that we'll save the cut throat and blood for a later day; I'll
have to match it with what we shoot today.
This is what any cameraman most hates to hear. It's so difficult to match
parts of scenes shot days, weeks or even months apart. It's too easy to mess up
little details or the light, and almost impossible to maintain continuity. I
hear myself thinking out load: 'Why can't we do the whole scene when we have the
blood ' The answer is that we have only so many more days with Leslie before
he has to return to HK. I should've known.
Mosquito Capital of the World
4am on what the script describes as 'a pampas road far into the
countryside'. Our 'road movie' is taking shape in bits and pieces by a slip
road two hours south of Buenos Aires. Leslie sleeps/Tony eats. Tony
drinks/Leslie sulks. Tony tries to thump some sound out of the car radio/Leslie
can't read the map. They argue. Leslie leaves. Tony cries. We start shooting
just after dawn has broken. Leslie leaves Tony in a fog both real and
metaphorical across a vast, grassy space dissected by the approach roads to the
Patagonia Highway. This distances are huge. Leslie walks and Tony chases.
Everyone's out of breath. We're almost out of film, each take is so long. I
sit in the long grass trying to keep my hand-held camera a little steadier than
my nerves. Five seconds into the next five-minute take, my hand stings. Then
my left cheek.... and my right ear. I hear the sounds of many hands slapping
much flesh. My assistant slaps my thigh. There's a sudden piercing pain in my
balls. Wong himself finally can't take it any more. He shouts out, 'Cut!' I
jump up screaming, ' Welcome to the mosquito capital of the world!'
The Metaphysical Meaning of the Tropic of Capricorn II
It's been six weeks since we first set ourselves this intractable problem.
We're now twenty days too late for solstice, and a thousand kilometer too far
south. It's 5pm, and the sun is going. We need an immediate solution. How to
light the Tropic of Capricorn is like asking how to screen darkness, how to
frame a memory or how to color loss - all those unanswerable questions that a
camera - people have address somehow. We decide on a 'line of light' to suggest
passing through this imaginary Tropic. You'd need arcs or strobes for that kind
of effect even in this feeble, fading light. We have two 1,000 watt 'sun guns'
(hand-held battery lamps)... and a make-up mirror which barely fills my hand!
There are no natural motivations for the sun to make such a shadow or line, and
we have no physical reference like a signboard or a sundial. All we have area a
flat plateau and the sun stetting behind a couple of glove of trees. 'Just
flare the lens,' says Wong, to no one in particular, 'We have no choices.'
So, trees and flare it is. A stretch of open road. Sunlight flickers
through the trees and flares the lens (with a little help from the make-up
mirror). I change film speed and aperture. Tony and Leslie look enigmatically
into the light; they're overexposed for a few seconds - increase frames per
second - the image darkens a moment and they look at each other in romantic slow
motion. It looks great on the video monitor. Wong smiles: 'OK!'
Haven't you ever seen a Wong Kar-Wai Film Before
We shoot Tony driving through the morning, then lock down the camera and wait
for the light to change so that we can repeat the shot later with Leslie driving
in a slightly different light. 'Why Wait ' the continuity girl is asking.
'There are half a dozen shots we could do in this free time!' She's Chinese,
but grew up here. that's no excuse as far as we're concerned.
A chorus starts up: 'Haven't you ever seen a WKW film before '
Repetition may be the basis of Wong's style... but judging by the blush in
her cheeks we won't need to ask that particular question of her again.
Days of Being Tired
Our third twenty-hour shoot in as many days. Leslie must leave tomorrow. We
hustle to get his half-dozen scenes done in a single night. Leslie's in a
buoyant mood. Happy to be leaving, relishing all the chaos his departure will
cause. My gaffer and I are so tired we spend two hours trying to convince each
other that we actually agree on where all three of our lamps should go.
'Compromise, Chris!' exhorts Wong. 'It won't matter how good or bad the light is
if we don't have an actor to stand in it!'
I don't know why I bother going to see rushes, I usually sleep through them,
and the good labs are always somehow two hours out of town. We all laugh at the
'silly' bits and make a few in jokes. They give me the lab technical data...
which I always manage to lose. Technicians smoke and shuffle their feet,
waiting for instructions I can't or don't know how to give. I never know how to
talk about what we see- at least, not intelligently or technically enough to be
of much use to anything but this diary.
The Back of Leslie's Head
Leslie's gone (again), but we still need him for this and that. Obviously we
can't do dialogue or close-ups, and so we cast for the back of his head. All
sorts and sizes of contenders come to the office, some so brave their
determination could bend a fork. One of them is asking, 'you don't want me to
sing or dance ' An assistant replies, 'No, it's posture that counts,'
dismissing him with a Polaroid snap, a telephone number and the classic, gruff,
'We'll let you know.'
We're reduced to counting our filmstock by the foot. My assistants are
running up a sweat just keeping the fifty foot 'short ends' in the magazines.
We average only one take per magazine - sometimes two. Take a smoke or beer
break and wait for my clapper-loader to prepare the next. We're running out of
old stock, and it's just too expensive to buy more here. We test a replacement
which will need finer tuning and extra lighting for it to matching the tone of
the rest of the film.
Wo Jintian Bu Shouhua
My clapper-loader has a sign taped to him: Wo Jintian Bu Shouhua ( I am not
speaking today ). Everyone is asking why, but no one can or will explain. I
suggest that the direct get one too, and he immediately slaps the
clapper-loader's sign on me.
11E, Scene 3, Roll 417
Tony scores hash in the men's toilet of Retiro station. He commits himself
to the task a little more diligently than the scene strictly requires. 'Just to
ease the pain in my ribs,' he claims. The next scene will show him leaving
Buenos Aires by boat. The sea is calm, but the harbor stinks. We get an
unexpected 'alternative ending' when Tony throws up and slumps miserably over
the side of a trawler heading out to sea.
Top-heavy and Round-footed
I'm faint. My feet seem to roll under my weight. I totter and stagger,
top-heavy with a stifling cold. Illness, tiredness and going to the toilet are
rarely accounted for in scripts, and so there's no one and no time to feel sorry
for me. But I do feel apologetic and remorseful that my work tonight will be
less smooth and interpretive than I expect it to be.
Another Star System
Many Westerners are surprised to discover that our stars don't have private
trailers or secured resting places and take their meals on the sidewalk or in a
local greasy spoon along with the crew. Today Tony wants to move out of his
five-star hotel suite and into the serviced apartments with the rest of us.
This happens because Leslie has gone, and the question of 'face' has gone with
him. I wonder if it's the camaraderie or just the mahjong games and the
home-cooked Chinese food he really wants.
Wong wants me to give Tony more presence: 'He's so unfocused and so
de-energized these days.' No-one dares tell WKW that four months here has done
that to him - and to the rest of us as well.
October Ends... November Neer Will
Christmas in Argentina no longer sounds like a crew in-joke. Shirley Kwan
and Chang Chen have arrived to join the cast - or what we're starting to call
the 'casualty list'. They idle in their rooms waiting for their roles to
materialize while WKW hides in nearby coffee shops hoping for the same. We stop
shooting for the umpteenth time to 'save money', to 'acclimatize our new
stars'. Now that they're here, we fret over what to do with them and over the
thematic justification for them to even be here at all.
15 November: Tony and Chang Chen
Hotel Rivera - We all hope for the last time. I have to leave for my
so-called 'Master class' at the London Film Festival. The plane leaves at 11pm,
I should finish by 9 at the latest.
It's 9:03PM, Wong insists that I shoot one more scene: 'This shot's
important!' I can't recall one that isn't. Chang Chen is playing Tony's
coworker in some yet-to-be-determined job. (We later settle on a restaurant
kitchen.) They've been drinking too much. Chang gets Tony back to his place;
it's as much of a mess as Tony's ramblings are. Change finds Leslie's yellow
jacket there and innocently tries it on. Through a drunken haze, Tony imagines
that Leslie has come back to him.
We cover every scene in two or three shots, but Chang Chen is not used to our
shooting style. Ten takes into the first shot, I'm sweating more out of
frustration than the physical exertion of the shot. At 9:17, we're on the
second shot. Wong's is still not happy with Chang's approach: 'You're acting
like you know what you're doing!' By now I am so pissed off that I feel like
quipping, 'So do you!' back to Wong. I hold off, starting to find Chang's
awkward and unpredictable rhythm. But my assistant is putting focus in places I
don't think it should be. By the time we start the third shot, I'm barking at
Jacky, 'Get production to hold the plane for me - I'm already an hour late!' I
try to see my light and not my flight, forget the exhaustion get the shot.
Out of Love
I once claimed my best work was done when I was saddest and just 'out of
love'. I was very much in love with Denise when we started this film and so I
half-expected that it wouldn't be so good. But she seems to have taken my
metaphor too seriously, and I've been away from HK for too long. An old
boyfriend wants her back.... she has to move on. She breaks the news to be
during my flying visit to London. When she says, ' It hurts, but I have to
leave you', it does hurt more than she or I imagined it could. But when she
adds, ' At least now I know you'll make a better film!' I know it's time to get
philosophy out of the bedroom and to keep my bullshit to myself.
The Eyes of WKW
Every other day WKW says, ' You're my eyes' - especially if we're stealing a
shot or having to move too fast to set up the tv monitor. Sometimes it sounds
encouraging, sometimes more like a threat. Most often it's a huge
responsibility. But sometimes I wish I could be his mind too. Then maybe I
could help more with the creative blocks and move the film along.
Chance and Accidents
All camera-people have a love-hate relationship with the tv monitor which
allows the director - and just about anyone else who's interested - to 'monitor'
what the camera's eye sees. Wong says, 'Don't change a thing' as often as he
says, 'That angle's not interesting enough.' Today what he like most was what
he saw on the monitor when my assistant laid the camera on Tony's bed when I
took a break to go for a pee. We messed up the bed a little bit more,
half-covered the lens with a dirty shirt and some underwear - and the style for
a whole sequence was born. Sure, this style is a mirror for the discarded
feeling Tony has now that he's broken up with Leslie for the umpteenth time.
But it wasn't intellectualized into being, or even planned. It just seemed
visually more interesting and unexpected, and solved the problem of how to
picture this minuscule space which we've been in and out for thirty day by
Style is more about choice than concept. It should be organic, not
We're not sure if we got up at 5:30 or 6:30. we're in Argentina. The
Iguacu National Park is in Brazil. The gates open at 7:30. Because we can't
agree whether they're an hour ahead of or behind us, we'll be either an hour
early or at least an hour late. We're confused and worried. We want an empty
lonely falls; no tourists distracting us (or, ultimately, the audience) from
Tony's troubled, emotional state.
The Devil's Gorge
No video, no photo, no place I've ever been has prepared me for the Falls.
The roar, the rush, the energy - just where we're standing. There's water
everywhere. Tony falls twice, get soaked to the skin. Bright dawn sunlight
makes rainbow around our feet, but Tony's shivering in the shadows.
I ask William if this is a real or imaginary part of the film. We're on our
own again today; Wong's still working out whether this is a flash-forward dream
sequence or the last stop on Tony's physical and spiritual journey and another
possible ending for the film. We decide to shoot it both ways.
Waited in the heat of the afternoon for our Bell Jet III helicopter to be
done with its tourist customers and free for us. It takes an hour to get its
door off and set our camera rig in place. I hang half-way out of the door with
only a jerry-rig frame to support my camera and a seat belt to keep me from
falling to a spectacular death. The take-off turbulence is like a
roller-coaster rush. I go straight into cameraman mode, looking through the
viewfinder rather than straight down. The rig shakes violently. My assistant
double-checks the seat belt clasp. The down-draught from the Devil's Gorge
exerts a powerful centrifugal force, and the rig won't let me tilt down enough
to fill the frame with as much cascading water as we want. And so on the second
run we tilt the whole helicopter 35 degrees on its side towards the gap. I feel
like I am bungee-jumping as we drop at 160 kph 100 feet towards the rocks.
The Sun never sets on a WKW day
Down to Tierra del Fuego, 'the end of the world'. It's 10PM summer time.
The sky is still daylight blue, and I'm getting disorientated by the lack of
sleep and the rising moon. What does the end of work look like It's only when
you get there that you realize it's as abstract as the Tropic of Capricorn.
"Infinite horizons' looks like a great idea on paper, but World's end stickers
and T-shirts don't work here. How to say visually that this is the end of the
Good Luck in Bad Weather
The sea is calm enough for Wong to complain that my telephoto shots are 'too
steady' to match the style of the rest of the film. I 'rough them up' a bit by
rocking the boat in one direction and the camera in the other. We go down to
our favorite 8 or 12 frames per second and pan randomly from the sky or sea to
Chang Chen on the rocks by the lighthouse at the end of the world. Seabirds
shit on my lens and equipment and on Wong. We're circling erratically in a
little yellow boat around a pensive and stoic Chang.
We need to change the magazine... but the spare stock is on the naval boat
that's accompanying our tiny fishing vessel. And they won't budge as we make
our slow way against one of the most infamous currents in the world. I complain
that we'll never get the shot in time if they don't come to meet us half-way.
Through the walkie-talkie, though, comes word that naval captain can't reverse,
only go straight ahead. No wonder they lost to the Falklands Wars! Are
Argentine sailors afraid to go south in case they fall off the edge of the
Back on ship and into port just as a wild storm starts to hit the coast.
The captain retrieves his 'Canal Beagle' cap from Wong, who is reluctant to part
with it. It brought good luck to such a difficult shot.
7 December: Some of us are Done
Wong leaves for HK tonight. William has already gone to do Leslie's concert
costumes. Christmas is looming and flights are overbooked. Wong has left me
here to shoot a week of empty shots. By 10 December, I guess I'm done.
It's early 1997, Chang Chen is twenty years old, the age at which Taiwanese
male are obliged to begin military service. Since it's also the age at which
the teenage girl population of Taiwan has fallen for him, half of the
entertainment industry is pulling strings to keep him out of the army for the
moment, so that he can pursue his career as an actor and singer.
We're in Taiwan for a couple of days to shoot another possible ending for our
story. Tony has come to Taipei to look for Chang Chen; he finds the family's
noodle stall, but the only trace of Chang himself is a photo of him by the
lighthouse at the end of the world, stuck to a mirror by the phone, Tony steals
Taipei hasn't changed much. Film remains an amusement for the gangster
fraternity and amateur auteurs. Everything is ad hoc and totally haphazard. We
fumble through regardless, ending with shots of Tony riding the notorious new
elevated railway through the rain.
Sleep, love and consciousness get lost in the rush to meet impossible
deadlines for Cannes. Wong is editing on an Avid computer, William is at the
Steenbeck. I am doing a video transfer. Music and voice-over are going in,
scenes and whole characters are coming out. The first cut - a week ago - was
three hours long. Now it's down to ninety-seven minutes and there's no more
Shirley Kwan. We play and replay the Iguaca Falls sequence to let the image and
music re-energize exhausted bodies and minds.
The fat man's feet are showing now. We start to see what the film is about.
Wong said it falls into two parts: the first is action and the second is the
characters' reflection on what they've said and done. He feels that what Chang
Chen gives Tony (and what Tony gives Leslie) is not love but courage - a will to
live. It's our brightest film in all senses of the word and looks like having
the happiest ending of any WKW film. It's also much more 'coherent' than our
other films, and very lyrical. Of course, the traditional WKW themes of time
and loss put in appearances. And there are plenty of great lines, my favorite
being: 'Starting over means heading for one more break-up.'
Today (6 April) we're shooting in HK. The film needs some reference to where
Tony has come from, his reflection on his own space. He's looking back from
Argentina, on the other side of the world, and so we turn the camera on its head
and shoot the streets of HK upside-down.
Our interiors are consciously timeless, they're not logically lit. Time of
day is not a concern in this film. Tony and Leslie's world is outside space and
Wong says it's only as he edits the film that he find the true meaning of
much of what we've shot. We didn't really know what certain details or colors
or actions meant at the time we filmed them. They anticipated where the film
would take us. They were in a sense images from the future.... from the time
we've only just reached.