Is That All You Can Do, Chris?
Tatler Hong Kong|July 2021
Christopher Doyle’s innovative perspective has made him one of Hong Kong’s wildest and most influential cinematographers. Forty years into his career, a new documentary finds him in front of the camera, giving a rare and revelatory insight into his life
Zabrina Lo

On the final day of filming of Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, cinematographer Christopher Doyle was nowhere to be found. After four months shooting the 1994 action-drama in northern China, Wong’s longtime collaborator got so drunk the night before that the crew almost shot the climactic scene without him. In it, Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung was to leave a fictional city and set a building on fire as his farewell. “At two o’clock in the morning, my line producer called me up and said, ‘Big problem: Chris is lying in his bathtub’,” Wong recalled in a 2008 interview at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. “He was key camera, and he just fell asleep.” Wong started trying to shoot the scene, but then Doyle woke up. “He said, ‘I’m totally sorry. I know what shot you want’,” Wong continued. As the story goes, Doyle stripped naked, covered himself in water, grabbed the camera, ran onto the fiery set, and got the shot in one take. “He came back to me and said, ‘Well, I’m sorry but this is what I want to do.’”

It’s an oft-cited anecdote that exemplifies the dichotomy central to Doyle lore, in which feats of creative brilliance are pulled off amid haphazard circumstances often of his own creation. Within an irreverent demeanour and chaotic working style lies a talent for distilling emotion into moving images; a distinctive, seductive visual language that has arguably forever shaped the way that Hong Kong is imagined by outsiders. “I think that people who would have the temerity to work with me know they’re in for a ride, and I’m proud of that. I’m not even a cinematographer; hopefully I’m a collaborator,” Doyle said in 2014.

For nearly four decades, the charismatic cinematographer has captured Hong Kong in its most dreamy, avant-garde and romantic senses in seminal films such as Fallen Angels in 1995 and In the Mood for Love in 2000, mesmerising local and global audiences alike. Doyle’s fervour for filmmaking has brought him not only great fame and recognition (his more than 50 awards include a special recognition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017), but also notoriety for his erratic personal behaviour, including often alcohol-induced episodes of eccentricity that have become fodder for tabloids. Yet beyond the on-set stories of Doyle consuming multiple bottles of beer before breakfast, or nearly falling out of a helicopter while trying to capture a shot, is a film enthusiast whose life story the world seems to have largely missed.

Four years ago, Australian photojournalist Ted McDonnell and producers Nelson Khoury and Nelson Yap decided that it was time for Doyle to tell his own story in a documentary. “He’s been badly portrayed in the media,” McDonnell says. “Yes, he’s loud and can be obnoxious and arrogant, but the man is a frigging genius, and he needs to be recognised for that.” Made over three years, beginning in April 2018, and set to premiere next month at the Sydney Film Festival, Like the Wind offers rare insight into the life of the legendary Australia-born cinematographer, director and photographer, who narrates the story of his career’s rise in Hong Kong, the city he has called home for more than 40 years.

It may surprise some to learn that Doyle’s childhood in suburban Sydney had very little to do with making films or even taking pictures. As he recalls in Like the Wind, his family had an “antagonism, or rejection of the image”, leaving him with very few memories of going to the movies and family photos from childhood. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this is where his somewhat implausible and serendipitous path to becoming a filmmaker began. When Doyle spoke to Tatler this spring, he set the scene by discussing how documenting family life was never a priority in the Doyle household.

“When we’re looking around for [childhood] photos, there’s nothing, because we just had no interest in taking photographs,” Doyle says. Back then, rolls of film typically came in 24 or 36 images. “We had a camera. It takes about three years for batteries to rust, but ours would rust in the camera before we finished the roll of film. Even now, for this documentary, my sisters didn’t want to go on camera. It’s nothing against me; it’s just not the medium with which we grew up.” Even though he is now a seasoned filmmaker, Doyle rarely sits in the cinema himself for more than 20 minutes, even for his own films. “I haven’t seen the documentary,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t want to know about this guy.”

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