Last week I wrote my One Shot about In the Mood for Love (2000), and focused on the work of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His work was complimented by the work of another cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin. Though I couldn’t say which shots belonged to which cinematographer, I knew my One Shot was of the hand of Doyle.
Which brought me to wonder about the work of Ping Bin. As he is equally credited with the beautiful work of In the Mood for Love, I guessed he should also be a very capable cinematographer. Which other movies did he film?
As it turns out, coincidence played a card. My next movie on my list to write about was the Taiwanese film Three Times (2005) by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a love story about a couple who meet and fall in love in three different time periods. My eyes fell on this film, which I saw years ago in an art-house theatre, because of its thematic and cultural relation to In the Mood for Love. As it turned out, when I looked up the cinematographer of that movie, it was Mark Lee Ping Bin! (who apparently is the favorite cinematographer of Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
So, not only am I following up the themes of In the Mood for Love this week, I also give credit to the cinematographer I ignored last week. Which does makes me feel better by the way.
Three times is a collected movie containing three separate stories about love. But this is not a mosaic-like construction like Babel (2006), but rather a linear telling of three separate stories where the only commonality is its two leading actors who play the loving couple. The film thereby suggest a sort of reincarnation and soul-connection across lives and ages, though never so openly and concretely as say, the recent Cloud Atlas (2012). It mostly is just three separate, beautifully subtle love stories with a hope that love is not bound by mortality.
A theatrical way of film
What struck me about the style of the film, and also reminded me about certain parts of In the Mood for Love, was how theatrical the cinematography was. And by theatrical I mean, it felt like it was shot as if the camera was an audience member watching a stage performance. It’s not in the sets or locations, which are all realistic, but in the general static style of filming. Take the opening scene in the billiard-room where our couple first meet and fall in love. One scene, which lasts several minutes, shows them simply playing billiard together while gently courting each other. The camera never moves from its one spot, instead following the movement of the characters with pans and tilts and some changes in focal length in between cuts.
We never see more of the room than its entrance and a part of its sidewalls. We never turn inwards towards the faces of the characters or do any sort of over the shoulder close-ups. We just watch as if we were sitting on a chair looking at the scene unfolding.
This reminded me of the static shots in In the Mood for Love, where I felt it was like you were watching footage from security cameras sometimes. Here, it’s less like that, and more like theatre because the eye of the lens is moving, and nothing really obstructs our viewing angle. It’s just that we don’t leave our spot while looking. This gives the film less claustrophobia and more of a subtle beauty.
Even though Three Times is hardly a happy romantic movie, it does offer more optimism than the, at times, oppressive In the Mood for Love. Especially the first story, a Time for Love, has an optimistic vibe. Though our leading lovers never really glue together, their love is reciprocated to each other, if only through a slight holding of hands.
There is something quite beautiful about this way of filming, because, as in theatre, it clears the room to focus on what’s in front of the camera instead of the camera itself. You start to relax more as a viewer and start to discover subtle things in the image. A movement of an arm, a short glance, the way a cigarette is lit, the colour of the environment, etcetera.
My choice for my One Shot comes not from this first part of the film, but from its last part, a Time for Youth. This part is less overtly theatrical in its camerawork and feels more traditional. But there are some wonderful style-choices in both the cinematography and the lighting which caught my eye.
In a way, this blogpost was the easiest to write down as I remembered little of the film after all those years but for one single shot, which of course would be the obvious choice for this post; that One Shot that stayed in my mind after all those years…
Several things strike me when I watch this shot. First there is this beautiful wall covered with photographs. The wall is logical as our main character is a photographer, but it also has a beautiful thematic relevance…
Secondly it’s the lightning and smoke. To me, two of the most important ingredients to quickly set a mood and dynamic; great, focused lightning (creating focused points of illumination surrounded by darkness) and visible smoke. Want proof? Just look at the classic Blade Runner (1982), where almost every shot is bathed in gloomy light and smoke.
Here those ingredients are used to great effect, but without any attempt at covering up the sources. Often you would choose to hide stage lightning or smoke-machines, but here, creatively, they thought of that fluorescent-lightbar and a burning cigarette to narratively explain the sources of light and smoke, and just put them in the centre of the frame.
To me, that also reeks of theatre! It’s that unapologetic style of just using props to convey certain effects, without attempting to hide their artificiality or simple presence. In theatre it’s obviously difficult to hide an illusion from the audience, as you have a large group of people staring with 180-degree vision at your set, where you can’t manipulate anything in between shots. In film, you can manipulate the viewing-angle (keeping the boompole out of the frame), adjust sets and lightning in between takes and then seamlessly blend in all together in editing.
That Ping Bin and Hsiao-Hsien chose for this style of just putting a light-source in the frame, letting the lead actress grab it, and use it as a prop to light the set, and eventually herself and her co-star, I love that! Then letting her smoke a cigarette and letting the smoke fill the frame, it really makes the scene so much more dynamic visually.
If there is one thing I take from that one shot, is that creative way of using unconventional means of achieving certain effects. You don’t always have to hide your light sources, you don’t always have to, well, follow the general rule. It’s a cliche maybe, but one to never forget!