Mark Lee Ping-bin at MoMA | Flowers of Shanghai and a Q&A

Mark Lee Ping-bin had a big grin on his face. It seems like he always does.


So my Mark Lee Ping-bin saga starts off rather sad. I flew into NYC on the day that Crosscurrent was playing. My flight was set to arrive a few hours before I had to be at MoMA, but then my flight got delayed for several hours causing me to miss Crosscurrent in its North American debut. I’ve flown before, but never alone and not in many years so I guess I learned a valuable lesson from that experience.

If you don’t know much about the film here’s some background. It’s Lee’s first collaboration with Yang Chao. Crosscurrent is Yang Chao’s first film since 2004. It’s an ode to Yangtze River, but I had no idea if it’d be good or not. I haven’t seen any of Yang Chao’s work, as it seems his films are altogether unavailable. He has only made one feature prior to this one called PassagesPassages was up for the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes in 2004 but lost to Or (My Treasure) a French-Israeli film. Still, it was a major disappointment to not be able to attend this event, because even if it was terrible I knew it’d be gorgeously shot since it’s our guy Lee. Plus the screening had a special glow given that it’s the film’s North American debut. It was show in 35mm, but MoMA was screening it from a DCP. I did hear some murmurs about the film in my time at MoMA. Most seem to agree that the movie is pretty weak, but the camera work is astounding. I did learn some things about the production of Crosscurrent during the Conversation with Mark Lee Ping-bin event, but I’ll get to that later.

Most my sadness over missing Crosscurrent was entirely forgotten the next day, as that was the day I’d be seeing Flowers of Shanghai. It is directed by Hou Hsaio-hsien. I’ve seen 11 of his films, and I admire all of them to varying degrees. This is one of the ones I just love. It stars one of China’s biggest stars Tony Leung (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, etc.) and one of Taiwan’s biggest star at the time, Annie Yi. Yi actually did a trilogy of films with Hou Hsaio-hsien and Lee. The other two are Goodbye South Goodbye and Good Men, Good Women. I prefer the latter of the two, but Flowers of Shanghai is my very favorite of hers and my third favorite Hou film. This particular film has less than 40 takes in it with minimal lighting and an opening shot that’s infamous. It’s over eight minutes long!

This film really shows off Lee’s skills as a cinematographer considering that he uses natural lighting—and so little of it—to light his scenes here. It’s hugely impressive, set in late 19th century Shanghai in a brothel, and the film is in Cantonese. Prior to this screening, I had only seen it on a long out of print DVD and the quality isn’t the best. I felt spoiled to be seeing it on a film print.

The screening went very well despite a few hiccups. The print was rather bright—so bright that Lee joked that he needed sunglasses. It didn’t really bother me so much, as it was such a leap in quality from the DVD I had previously viewed. Also, someone’s phone rang three times! I was so annoyed. I mean, we’re at MoMA to see a film print of a rather tough to see movie. You’d think it’d be a bunch of hardcore film nerds with respect for a film screening in attendance. I chatted with the person who sat next to me after the film ended, and he commented that it was free night or something like that at MoMA so some people in attendance probably just wandered in and had no idea what they were seeing.

MoMA’s La Frances Hui then took the stage to guide a brief Q&A with Lee. She advised the audience to keep in mind that these questions were for a cinematographer and not a director. Still, one of the first questions was about what “this movie was really about.” My friend laughed at how cross both the stranger who I had just met (his name was Sho), MoMA’s La Frances Hui, and myself looked over this question. It was obnoxious! After getting through that cringe-worthy moment, La Frances Hui commented on how she counted 38 takes in the film while watching it today, and Lee said he recalled there only being 33, but he trusted her count. Then he joked about the script for Flowers being only one page.

“Do you want to know Hou’s secret?” he asked the audience.

He went on to tell us several things about how Hou works that Lee thinks leads to success for the both of them.

“Most Hou films have no rehearsals. Everyone checks with me because I can pretend to know something.”

I did not expect Lee to be so charismatic and funny. He really was very warm and full of humor.

“We don’t like doing multiple takes. Always do something different. We never tell actors where to move. Something different happens and the change is what’s interesting. Like real life…natural…like it just happens.”

He adds that Hou will go to crazy lengths to make sure everyone is in the dark about things to conjure naturalism. He explained that Hou will tell ACTOR A to get a certain list of lines across however the actor wants to, and then tells ACTOR B to get a certain list of lines across however they want to. Hou never tells ACTOR A what ACTOR B is saying and vice-versa. He usually does not tell anyone else on set what he told to those actors. This includes Lee, so that Lee’s camera is discovering everything like we are. It’s all on Lee’s instinct. He praises Hou for this approach to film and suggests that young directors try the same if they are trying to find a style.

Lee also talked a bit about the first long take that’s over eight minutes.

“This scene was all about showing how one man in the scene feels differently than the rest of them (Tony Leung’s character, of course).”

He refers back to how Hou brings naturalism to the process, saying it’s really tiring for actors because they have to stay so focused at all times. That scene was filmed for far longer than the final take suggests. (This is very common on Hou’s sets. Lee said they cut plenty of stuff because it was “no good.” Hou never thinks of it as a waste of film but the cost of pursuing natural beauty.) Lee suggested that this scene was especially tiring given how active the scene is—lots of singing, playing music, shouting across a table, etc. All that he knew was what Hou said about showing the contrast from Tony to the rest of the actors, and that a key moment was when Tony leaves the room.

“I don’t know what anyone was saying! I speak Mandarin Chinese, not the same as the Chinese they speak.”

He said that before they started shooting the scene Hou turned to him and said, “Do you want to try your trick?” Hou is referring to that slow pan Lee does. Lee is perhaps best known for the grace his wandering camera has. He often does slow pans across the room, which really makes you feel as though he’s discovering the scene along with you. It really makes these slow-burn films quite exciting.

A person who spoke Mandarin Chinese asked Lee a question in their shared language. The translator informed the crowd that he said something along the lines of “I feel very close to this type of culture as a Chinese person. It moves me deeply. How do you make its beauty accessible to the west?”

Lee really liked the question, but said that there is no divide between the east and west in terms of beauty. Beauty is universal. He said that he likes to look at classic paintings and arts to find beauty. (In the documentary Let the Wind Carry Me screened later that weekend, it suggests that he discovers new colors looking at pottery.) He doesn’t go to clubs or anything like that. He finds that his western audiences see the beauty just like his eastern ones. For a moment, I considered asking if he did things differently when shooting Millennium Mambo, as that film literally finds beauty in the Taipei club scene. I didn’t though, because I got a little shy seeing him in person.

Here’s a few more points of interest from the Flowers of Shanghai Q&A:

Q: Who would you like to work with next?
A: Directors choose me. If nobody calls me I’d retire.

Q: What was it like filming in Tibet? (NOTE: Crosscurrent, his newest film with Yang Chao, was filmed on the Chumar River in Tibet. He filmed most of it on a boat in that river. Sometimes he used a crane on the boat to hold the camera.)
A: Tibet all looks the same. How do you make something good? It’s all ugly! So you make something fake instead. Then it is very good. Very beautiful.

After the Q&A everyone bum rushed Lee like you would probably expect. My friend, Sho, and myself all stood around talking about what had just conspired. We agreed that we wished Lee utilized the translator more. He spoke broken English fairly well, but he clearly struggled to say things the way he wanted to for lack of vocabulary. Still, it was such a wonderful Q&A.

Sho, who is a cinematographer himself, asked me what brought me to the event. I told him about how I had spent the last few months studying Mark Lee Ping-bin’s work, and that I was going to graduate school for film studies. When he found out I wasn’t from NYC and came up just for this event, his jaw nearly hit the floor. Sho decided that we had to meet Lee and started quietly plotting how we would pull it off. Being a rather shy person, I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. He said that I had to tell Lee that I was studying him and ask for his contact information so I could study his work further. It was best to get over this fear now. Plus, Sho was feeling very motivated to tell Lee how much that film inspires him to make movies.

“This is how you do what you want to do. It could really help you with your studies one day.”

So the three of us walk out together, and I’m still not convinced we’re talking to Lee. Somehow Sho manages to put me directly into Lee and La Frances Hui’s line of sight. It was the perfect time to do it, as they were standing idle by the backside of theater, talking to the translator. I don’t know how we managed it—or rather how Sho managed it. It was all rather swift. I was holding my little white notebook and pen looking like a deer in headlights. After a moment I gathered myself and I told Lee that my teacher introduced me to his work. I had spent the past few months studying Taiwanese films and that his collaborations with Hou were my favorite. I said that at this point of my life Millennium Mambo spoke to me deeply. It gives me strength. I carry scenes of that film in me everywhere I go—especially the first take and the last one.

While I said all this he was signing a page of my little notebook I often use for reviews here at Playback. He smiled at me and let out a soft hum. He was thinking about what he wanted to say back and probably trying to make out what I said to him, “That first take…it was all me.” He had a big grin on his face. It seems like he always does. “I told Hou, ‘sit down, take a break, I’ll do this!’” I laughed and La Frances Hui’s eyes were glowing. She was just as geeked out as I was and very happy with the information he shared. Sho got a word in about how inspired he was by Flowers of Shanghai, and my friend said something in Chinese to him about how he enjoyed the feature. I left so, so happy. There was no possible way I could have a better day than that one. | Cait Lore

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