If you haven’t heard the name Mark Lee Ping-bin, well, congratulations! You’re in for such a treat.
When I start talking about the cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, sometimes I get funny looks from people; they tend to think it’s a name I made up or something. (Uh, it’s not and it might be vaguely racist to suggest so.) Well, if you’re even somewhat serious about Asian films and are the type to study cinematographers, you’ve probably at least heard the name before. If you haven’t, well, congratulations! You’re in for such a treat.
Lee is one of the very best cinematographers working today and is most famous for his collaborations with the also excellent Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Lee’s so good that even if he’s worked on a poorly reviewed film I still deem it worth my while to see it—his inventiveness as a cinematographer always elevates a production. To this date I’ve seen 13 of the films he’s worked on and all have something special to offer. Maybe that sounds like a lot to you, but it’s not. I’ve only scratched the surface.
Lee has been making movies since 1977 with over 70 titles to his name and has worked with directors from all around the world. Lee has received 21 international awards and two of these are Glory of the Country Awards from the Government Information Office of Taiwan. In 2008, Taiwan awarded him the National Award for the Arts for his contribution to cinema over his entire lifetime. The first major award Lee received was in 1985 for his cinematography on a film called Run Away, and then the next year he won best cinematography on the classic Taiwanese film Dust in the Wind from France’s Festival of the Three Continents. Dust in the Wind also scored Lee his first Glory of the Country Award. Clearly Lee’s been excellent from the very start of his career.
Admittedly, I haven’t been a fan of Lee for very long. I discovered Lee thanks the Saint Louis International Film Festival last year. SLIFF screened The Assassin, and I was overcome by the visuals. It even made my Top 10 for 2015, though I might rank it significantly higher today than I did back in December—the best films have a way of creeping up on you. Shortly after seeing The Assassin, I chatted with my former film professor about it. I told him I was itching to see the rest of Hou’s and Lee’s oeuvres and named a specific few that I was seeking out. That’s when he informed me that many of those titles are near impossible to see, but he had a good deal of them and would loan them to me. I quickly fell in love with the two and have spent better part of this year studying them and the rest of the major players of the Taiwanese New Wave. Although I’ve really grown to appreciate Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Lee’s collaborations are still my favorites of the bunch.
Some time in March it came to my attention that Lee would be stateside for a two-week film series the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was putting on to commemorate his work. Now, I’ve never been to MoMA, let alone New York City, but I knew I had to go. It was too perfect of a way to cap off my trek through his filmography, and it made for one last hoorah before I leave for graduate school in the fall. Know that I’m someone with an undergraduate degree in media communications and am set to leave for England to study film studies at a master’s level in the fall. This translates to me being fairly poor at the moment. (As I type this, I can’t help but think of that running joke in Frances Ha where Benji calls Frances “undateable”. If she’s undateable then I’m unhireable. Ha!) Though I couldn’t manage to attend the entire event I did book tickets for the following film screenings: Crosscurrent (DCP), Flowers of Shanghai (35mm), Dust in the Wind (35mm), Let the Wind Carry Me (HDCAM), Vertical Ray of the Sun (35mm), and In the Mood for Love (35 mm).
Flowers of Shanghai featured a spirited Q&A with Lee himself, and I also attended an event after Dust in the Wind called A Conversation with Lee in which MoMA’s associate curator of the department of film La Frances Hui guides an hour and a half conversation with Lee. I was there for four days and will share my experience of these events in a brief series of articles. It was such a wonderful time, and I hope that the information I can share with you will do the experience justice. Perhaps it’ll interest someone in learning more about Lee or give new information to those who are already initiated. | Cait Lore