To him that final shot is everything.
If you were only to watch one of Mark Lee Ping-bin’s films, I’d suggest you watch Dust in the Wind. If you’ve already seen it, then you know it’s a classic from 1987. Despite how early this is in their respective careers, both Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Lee seem to have fully realized their styles in this film. The two would go on to make deeply sensitive portraits about ordinary life together for years.
Hou is famous for his phantom ride shots, and this film opens with what is perhaps the most celebrated one. So like Flowers of Shanghai, the opening is a real knock out. Although Millenium Mambo is a film that’s really special to me at this point in my life, I’d say that Dust in the Wind is probably my single favorite Hou film. It feels likely that my love will only grow deeper for it with time. It is a film about two young lovers who move from rural Taiwan to Taipei in the 1970s. It’s part of a series of films of theirs that are referred to as Hou’s “coming of age” trilogy. The other two are A Time to Live, a Time to Die and A Summer at Grandpa’s. A Time to Live, a Time to Die is very good, but I have yet to see A Summer at Grandpa’s.
Dust in the Wind’s crowd was far more respectful than those that made up the Flowers of Shanghai screening. The theater wasn’t really that full this time around. That surprised me as I figured there’d be a lot of people there. Lee said that it was again “too bright for me” and suggested that it only looked just right for one second when the final shot starts to fade to black. To me it looked great, but I’m not a cinematographer. You should trust Lee over me. Still, the film print really showed its age with lots of scratches on the print. It didn’t at all detract from my enjoyment though. It’s a very old film print after all.
In an email, someone at MoMA shared with me that they would be recording the Conversation with Mark Lee Ping-bin event on YouTube. As a result, I chose not to take notes during the event. Well, they still haven’t uploaded the recording so I’m assuming they won’t be at this point. I did write some stuff down to be safe when I got home that night but not much. Oh, why didn’t I take notes?! I learned a lesson here. You can’t trust an email.Luckily, I have a good memory and have much worth sharing with you.
It quickly became apparent Lee would be speaking in Chinese for the event. I was very happy to see that he was utilizing the translator this time. It was interesting to hear the Chinese-speaking audience laugh at what he said before the translator could get the joke across. Also, he often would get so wrapped up in what he was saying he’d forget to slow down for the translator. La Francis Hui would often have to get his attention to remind him of the poor translator who seemed to really break a sweat trying to keep up with him. It was such a funny scene to witness.
The event started with that opening take from Flowers of Shanghai. Hui asked him to guide us through what all went into that shot. He basically covered all the things he said in the Q&A from Flowers of Shanghai again. You can refer back to my previous article for information on that. When the translator told the audience what he said, he would mime along with her to emphasize what he was saying. He’s such a lively personality! I really hope MoMA uploads that video, as he had a great presence that night.
We moved on to a clip from Crosscurrent, which was almost entirely shot on a boat. The clip they showed really made me want to see the film, but I heard someone behind me after the event say that the movie was terrible. (Well, the cinematography in that shot made it seem worth a watch to me.) It was an exhilarating scene to watch involving a ghostly woman hiding amongst some rocks near the river. It takes awhile for Lee’s camera (which is on a crane attached to a boat) to reveal—no, to discover her! Hui commented that it seemed like Lee almost lost her for a second. Even though it’s a very slow moving clip, you do feel a sense of excitement when his camera finds her. I felt the same thrill La Francis Hui seemed to have watching it.
Still talking about Crosscurrent, he told a funny story about living on the boat. When he arrived, the man who owned the boat told him that the director and Lee were getting “the VIP suite.” He said that the room—and only this room— flooded constantly. (I couldn’t help but think of the films of another Taiwanese filmmaker, Tsai Ming-Liang, as he often makes films about people whose homes are slightly flooded.) Everything was wet all the time, and it made for tough shooting conditions. He joked that you should never trust anyone who tells you that you have the VIP room. After that, he said that Yang Chao (the director) was a very courageous filmmaker, and that Lee really admired him for that. He was very proud of what they accomplished on that river.
We moved on to the ending scene of Dust in the Wind. It’s the one where Wan comes home and talks to his grandpa. You then get that gorgeous landscape shot that the movie ends on. Lee talked about how lucky he was to have such a beautiful day to film it on.
“You need a lot of luck when filming with Hou Hsiao-hsien.”
He made a joke about Hou trying to control the wind and getting frustrated when he couldn’t. I can’t seem to make exactly what he said lucid. He also went on to say that to him that final shot is everything. The passage of time changes much for Wan—his girlfriend marries that postman, he goes to war, etc. Yet the beauty of the mountains didn’t change. The beautiful landscape is still there waiting for him when he comes home. Lee said that he can only wish that this shot inspires people to believe there’s always hope even when everything changes.
I’m pretty sure that Dust in the Wind clip was the one we ended on, but somewhere along the way Hui (who was just wonderful by the way) asked him what he thought of digital filmmaking. He laughed at her saying something in Chinese, and she responded back in Chinese to him. The translator explained that he said something like, “You ask this because you expect me to hate film prints don’t you?” She said yes with an honest laugh behind it. He said that Norwegian Wood was his first time shooting on digital, but Millennium Mambo was his first time thinking about digital filmmaking. Millennium Mambo was his and Hou’s idea of what digital might look like, but time proved them to be very wrong. He said that Hou was totally against the idea of digital when it started taking over, but Lee remained open to it. He saw it as a chance to do something different. Maybe he would discover new colors or something!
He then talked about the first film he shot on digital: Norwegian Wood. My feelings on that film are complicated. I’m a fan of the book, and I just love the cinematography and music. (Johnny Greenwood did the music, by the way. It also features songs by CAN, which I thought was an excellent choice.) The acting and execution of the narrative leave much to be desired. Lee described working on that film as a heartbreaking experience. He was encouraged by people on set to watch what he filmed on a screen in the tent. (I guess he’s talking about daily raw footage on a monitor.) He said he was terrified of the monitor and refused to look at it. He didn’t want it influencing him at all, and he was scared of what he’d see. He also commented that the film didn’t look the way he hoped it would. The colors don’t look right to him on digital. Again, he described the experience as heartbreaking. | Cait Lore