Christopher Doyle on shooting Chungking Express for Wong Kar-wai

One of the world’s leading cinematographers talks working with Chinese grandmaster Wong Kar-wai and their new restoration of Chungking Express.

Ann Lee

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)

Eyes glistening and voice thick with emotion, Christopher Doyle is on the verge of tears. “Wong Kar-wai has given me so much. You know I spent more time with him than I’ve spent with any woman in my life, including my ex-wife.” The Australian cinematographer lets out a roaring cackle as he looks back on his working relationship with the Chinese director. Since their creative partnership began, on Days of Being Wild (1990), their collaborations are considered some of the most influential films in modern Hong Kong cinema.

The pair parted company after the protracted four-year shoot for futuristic romance 2046 (2004), but their split hasn’t dimmed Doyle’s affection for their friendship and work. “We talk all the time. Why would you do that if you didn’t care?” he muses during a video chat from Hong Kong where he has been based for the past 30 years. “Why would you care if it wasn’t about this wonderful thing called love?”

And it has been love and the exploration of it on screen that has united them. Usually unrequited but always giddy, euphoric, tender, soul-pummelling love. The kind that leaves emotional bruises that refuse to fade despite a lifetime spent trying to forget. From bitter breakups in Happy Together (1997) to extramarital affairs in In the Mood for Love (2000), each Wong movie is a thoughtful study of love and heartache conducted with sensual languor.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)

The pair have recently been working together again to restore Chungking Express (1994), Wong’s international breakthrough hit that won him the backing of Quentin Tarantino. The movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, although Doyle has no idea whether that means it will be re-released. Starring Tony Leung, Faye Wong, Brigitte Lin and Takeshi Kaneshiro, the film was shot in just 23 days during a break from making Ashes of Time (1994). It was split into two stories, both about heartbroken cops licking their wounds after being dumped by their respective girlfriends. 

“Three weeks ago I looked at it with Wong Kar-wai. We restored it a little bit, and we were laughing all the time,” Doyle reveals. “We had wonderful memories of the process. We shot it fast and in a way that has a big energy to it. It was ad hoc and improvised in many situations. We were shooting in the middle of the busiest part of Hong Kong. We had to get what we could and not what we wanted sometimes.”

Doyle was one of two cinematographers who worked on the film. Andrew Lau Wai-keung was responsible for the first segment of the movie featuring Lin and Kaneshiro, while Doyle took over on the section starring Leung and Faye Wong. Having worked with Wong Kar-wai previously on Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time, Chungking Express would be the film where they really honed their signature dreamy neon-drenched style. It was one that captured the vibrant energy of a city in flux, at the time facing massive changes with its impending handover back to China in 1997 after 156 years as a British colony.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)

There’s a softer intimacy to the part lensed by Doyle, a love story between Cop 663 (Leung) and Faye (Wong), a worker at a local snack counter whose chosen method of seduction involves breaking into her crush’s flat and secretly cleaning his apartment. One of the cinematographer’s fondest memories of working on Chungking Express was of Faye Wong, who was then well on her way to becoming one of Asia’s most successful singers. With little acting experience, the movie would be her big-screen debut. 

“Every time we shot a scene with Faye, she would just walk off set and get into her car,” Doyle laughs. “Because she thought she’d done her job. But that is not how films works. We’re not Stanley Kubrick. We don’t do 50 takes for everything. But sometimes you need to have another look at what’s going on. But to Faye it was like, ‘What do you want? I’m here. I’m Faye Wong and this is what you get.’ I thought it was quite refreshing. Like, ‘Fuck you! You want me? This is what I can give you.’ Sometimes that is the right attitude. Instead of getting obsessed with this and that.”

Doyle would work with Leung, another regular Wong Kar-wai collaborator, many times. But for him it wasn’t so much what the actor would do that impressed him the most but what he didn’t do. “He’s not intimidated by the camera. Tony is not John Malkovich. He doesn’t need to perform. It’s the opposite of method acting. I think the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with don’t do anything. You just want to watch them. They have a chi that just transcends. It passes through my camera to the audience.” He leans forward joking about Leung: “It’s like, ‘Move your eyebrows please!’”

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)

Not that Wong Kar-wai would ever give any kind of direction like that to his actors. He is famous for his haphazard style of filmmaking – this means he tends not to use a proper script while his actors are encouraged to improvise and let their characters develop naturally. His shoots are notorious for dragging on for years. The director still hadn’t finished writing Chungking Express by the time production started. He wrote the second story in one day and developed a third one that he ended up using for his next film, Fallen Angels (1995). 

“The Wong Kar-wai style is to change a situation rather than a performance,” Doyle explains. “You just say, ‘So that didn’t work. We’ll just flip everything around and see what happens if we put you over there and she says this to you.’ It’s much more intuitive and organic. It’s people moving in space. The space happens to be Hong Kong in a certain period of time.”

One of those spaces was also his own flat in the business district of Central, which became Cop 663’s home. It was there that Leung forlornly talked to inanimate household objects cajoling them to keep the faith after his girlfriend leaves him. It was there that Faye Wong danced around to a Cantopop version (sung by her) of The Cranberries song ‘Dreams’ after sneaking in.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994)

Doyle recalls: “I was still living there. I had to sleep on the floor. I would not recommend people shooting a movie in your flat. There was a scene where we flooded the place. Then we left. I guess I went on to another film. Two or three months later, I came back and the people downstairs were going to sue us. We’re on the third floor and it flooded through every apartment downstairs. Art has its consequences!”

After making eight films together, Doyle went on to work with Gus Van Sant, Neil Jordan and Jim Jarmusch. Wong returned with My Blueberry Nights (2007), followed by The Grandmaster in 2013, and his next movie will be Blossoms, a sprawling historical epic based on Jin Yucheng’s novel. Will they collaborate again? “Yeah, of course. If it’s only three months, no problem. If it’s five years then no!” He hangs up laughing but soon he’s calling again with a more serious and enigmatic response. “Kar-wai has given me so much. I must return. Hong Kong has given us so much so we have to share. That’s it. There’s no other choice in life. It’ll happen. Don’t worry. It’ll happen.”

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