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What is the 21st Century?: Going Places with Yu Lik-wai

An interview with the great Chinese cinematographer.

If you're going to talk about cinema at present, even if you're not talking very thoroughly, it's inevitable that Yu Lik-wai's work, if not his name, will come up. If anyone's got answers about the present, it's the man who shot Unknown Pleasures. Yu is one of our greatest cinematographers, probably the greatest shooting exclusively in digital formats, and he also happens to be a damn good director. It's the former that he's best known: as Jia Zhang-ke's director of photography and producer, he forms half of one of the great partnerships in filmmaking. The famous story (possibly apocryphal) is that Jia saw a few minutes of Yu's 1996 documentary Neon Goddesses at a film festival and decided they had to work together. Apart, they're two singular men who think very seriously about the world they live in and cinema's ability to express it. I think it's impossible to call Yu's work anything other than "motion pictures;" while we can say that many of his contemporaries model the image on painting or photography or a page of text or a television screen or a computer monitor, it's impossible to discern within his work any influence other than the most basic ones: the idea of a camera and a spectator, and the history of that idea. Plastic City, Yu's most recent feature, is a film in whose images you can see all the issues, concerns and desires of a 113-year-old film history, the same way The Cotton Club can sometimes feel like a memoir written by the movies, age 90 or so.

It's 2 am in Chicago and 3 pm in Beijing. Plastic City is playing in the Chicago International Film Festival. I can hear a ticking clock on Yu's end of the line, as he can probably hear me taking sips from a glass of water. Our coughs sound identical, which suggests that either the same cold has made it to his side of the world, or that we both need to smoke less.

***

NOTEBOOK: I'd like to start at the beginning of film history. At the beginning of movies, with the image, which was really what movies were when they started: just moving pictures.

YU LIK-WAI:  The cinema image is the mechanical reproduction of our reality and I think the most important issue is how we choose this reality. It depends a lot on your point of view. I think I learned a lot from silent movies, because when I studied in Belgium I watched a lot of silent movies at the Cinémathèque Royal in Brussels. Elaborate film language was already developed in the silent movie. What we are trying to do now is a kind of expansion of what's already been done.

NOTEBOOK: Well, movies, or the movies as I'd like to talk about them, are about 115 years old. That's a long time. But what I like about your films—as a cinematographer and a director—is that sense that cinema has a history, but that it's young.

YU: The medium itself is quite old. The physical medium. But besides the medium, we have the context, which is very young, and through which we can re-imagine the language itself. We can re-invent something. The second influence I had, the second big impact on my education and on my work were documentaries. I have a lot of training in documentaries. And this documentary training, and the point of view it gives me, allows for a revitalization. Two tendencies: the silent cinema aesthetic, which is a very old heritage, and day-to-day observation, day-to-day discovery. To combine these two elements—that's my belief.

NOTEBOOK: Love Will Tear Us Apart is closer to what people think of as a "documentary image." In Plastic City you're going more for expressionism.

YU: I think that of the two tendencies, expressionism, or silent cinema, is the one I love to re-discover. But it comes and goes between the two tendencies—the "big tradition" of silent cinema and the observational, more realistic approach. It's the coming-and-going between these two tendencies that makes me feel curious, actually—to be able to explore the possibilities of both and to create something that fits myself out of them. I think that's the most important thing. I think I learned the most from people like Murnau. He was the most important figure in silent movies, in terms of modernity. He’s very modern—still very modern in a lot of aspects. And of course you have the other expressionists, like Fritz Lang, who had very strong images, too. Watching silent movies, you can learn a lot, simply because they’re not “talky,” because they had to use the image to deliver the narrative of the film. That’s why I think it’s an important heritage to explore and re-invent.

***

Here, in color and widescreen, is a shot straight of out of a late silent. This is the first image of Plastic City after the credits and it really is, I tell Yu, a silent image, a Lang image. A hand holds a stack of bills above a crowd and loosens its grip to let them flutter into the wind, down on the people. It's a perfect opening shot for a gangster movie—a strong image, a metaphor for the appeal of gangster fiction. The fantasy at the heart of gangsterism: the tough hand that take the money, but which can also loosen its grip enough to let it trickle down to the community. What gangsters want to be, and what we want them to be.

***

NOTEBOOK: Plastic City is a much more audacious than Love Will Tear Us Apart or your second film, All Tomorrow's Parties. The camera’s almost constantly moving. You’re using a lot more close-ups. You didn’t shoot the film yourself; you’ve used, on all three of your features, the same cinematographer, whose name escapes me...

YU: Yiu-Fai Lai.

NOTEBOOK: Yes, that’s it. You’ve worked consistently as Jia Zhang-ke’s cinematographer, and Yiu-Fai Lai has worked consistently as yours.

YU: Well, in some sense, I think it’s important to work this way because it’s a kind of partnership and affinity that we can share. It’s almost a kind of complicity. Each film has a pact. You have to believe in this pact and respect the pact between you and the director. It’s our “Constitution.” For a director, the work is more personal. When I direct, I take more risks, I have more freedom. But there’s still always a pact, though maybe I have a certain freedom.

NOTEBOOK: You shot Plastic City in Brazil.

YU: Well, several things drew me to the country. First, the city itself. São Paulo is an immense city. I’m very attracted by the urban element—that city landscape, the chaotic organization of the city itself. The space is the first character for me. Before I really constructed the story, I just fell in love with this backdrop. And then I went on to develop this story, because I wanted to make a movie in São Paulo. And, second, the attraction also comes from the people. I think the Latino spirit is the opposite of Asian culture. They’re more extroverted, they’re more open. I think this contradiction of the Chinese experience in Latin America is already a very high contrast starting point for any kind of story.

NOTEBOOK: Since we started by talking about the image in general, I’d like to ask you about the movement of the camera. It moves a lot in Plastic City. It dollies forward. Sometimes it’s handheld. There are a lot of tracking shots.

YU: It depends on moments. The movement itself can add a lot of motivation. In this particular movie, in Plastic City, the movement is more motivated by this chaotic city called São Paulo. I think this city, when you want to film you, you want to be more dynamic. The place itself seems to be moving. The people, too, they move more—you have to follow them.

NOTEBOOK: In your Chinese films the camera moves less. It’s more static.

YU: Well, in the films I’ve done with Jia Zhang-ke, the movement is motivated by contemplation. Jia draws a lot on Chinese pictorial traditions. Even when the camera moves, it’s more like it’s slowly drifting. I don’t see any motivation to move the camera violently when doing his movies. When we tackle a film like Plastic City, subconsciously, you move the camera more quickly. I don’t know why. Not because of other Brazilian movies, like City of God, but I think you’re influenced by the people and place. Even the color you go for is more vibrant, more saturated. There you see more color than you’ll ever see in China. When you make a movie in Brazil, you can’t be too contemplative. There’s more energy to observe. You have to move more just to see what’s around you.

***

The colors of Plastic City are stark as shadows against a wall. Ambers, alizarin reds, toxic greens. Watching it, even on a small screen, you feel as though you've just stepped out of a poorly lit airport terminal into sunlight, and, besides having to re-adjust your eyes to the brightness, you feel a little lost, surrounded by unfamiliar buildings. Even the color of the taxicabs throws you off a little. And somehow I feel as though, to a Brazillian, Plastic City looks as unfamiliar as it does to someone who has never been there. "This isn't São Paulo," they might say. That's true, but it's São Paulo as it might appear—as a permanent state of unfamiliarity. An outrageous strangeness. That the film should appear as alien to a native of the city as to a non-local might be one of the highest compliments it could be paid.

***

YU: The first actor cast was Jô Odagiri. I cast him one year before shooting. For two reasons: one, because I really wanted to make a film about Asian people that was modern. Physically modern. And he is very modern. He’s not traditional. He can be very exorbitant, and at the same time he’s very Asian. And at the same time he has a certain spirituality, which I wanted to have in the film. I wouldn’t be satisfied having a gangster movie. I wanted a certain spirituality.

NOTEBOOK: Are you religious?

YU: I don’t have any religion, but I believe in things. Maybe Buddhism has a big attraction to me, but I don’t practice any religion.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a spiritual element to Murnau. He’s trying, in some ways, to communicate the human spirit.

YU: Well, I think there’s a place for the spiritual in film because in some sense we have some responsibility in making movies. It’s a commercial product, but it has to convey something to people and it’s kind of important to have this aspect.

NOTEBOOK: And there is a certain spirituality inherent in the idea of filming faces. In Plastic City, it seems more like the film is lit for the face, especially Anthony Wong's face, which is very beautiful—I could watch him chew a piece of bread for two hours. When you work as a cinematographer, it seems like you're approaching people more as figures occupying a space, as whole bodies, while in Plastic City, the body is just what supports a head. I have a question, though: you mentioned both the expressionist and the documentary traditions. Do you feel, with actors, that you're using them or working with them? I mean, in the sense that, do you feel as though they're elements in an image, or whether the image is capturing some aspect of them—that you're "catching their images?"

YU: It’s a bit of both. Anthony is a very talented actor. He believed in the project. He really...gave...how do you say it?

NOTEBOOK: He gave his all?

YU: Yes. And Odagiri is more opaque. He doesn’t say a lot of things, he interacts. But I think that, at the end it’s very important, because I chose him as the main character, Kirin, because his physicality and his personality go with the character. He may be too opaque for me, but in the end it doesn’t matter because, as you say, I “caught his image” and he is the sort of person he plays in the movie.

NOTEBOOK: Earlier, you said that, by picking a modern subject, you could revitalize a film aesthetic.

YU: The uncertainty and mobility of the reality we live in gives you the motivation to make a movie. Maybe one day I’ll do a historical subject, maybe some legend, but I think that at this moment in my life, I want to do modern subjects. It’s what keeps me curious about people.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a very modern feeling to the film. This movie couldn't have been made ten years ago. I don’t mean in terms of technology. The sort of globalization that is at the heart of it didn’t even exist in the late ‘90s. It’s something that’s very specific to the 2000s. But your first film is much more anchored in life in China.

YU: If I hadn’t gone to Brazil by accident, I wouldn’t have ever made this film. I would have never encountered this city in reality. I think Brazil is now called an “emerging country,” as is China. The big difference between the rich and the poor, the government, there are a lot of similarities to our societies. But our cultures are very different, and people react to things very differently. This gives me a lot of motivation to put this Chinese experience in Brazil on film. I really wanted to see how people react differently according to their culture. And maybe this film is not so much about globalization. In the last decade, these two countries have developed so fast that they have to face a reality that didn’t exist ten years ago.

***

Yu Lik-Wai's first two films as director, Love Will Tear Us Apart and All Tomorrow's Parties, are currently playing on The Auteurs.

A thought I can’t help but think after reading this: if only Yu would make a silent film? Return to Murnau…
“Not available to watch in your area” — man, that chafes, I’ve been trying to see All Tomorrow’s Parties for years :( The famous story (possibly apocryphal) is that Jia saw a few minutes of Yu’s feature debut, Love Will Tear Us Apart, at a film festival and decided they had to work together. It was Neon Goddesses (Love Will Tear Us Apart postdates Xiao Wu). Jia had a short at the same festival and they struck up a conversation about Bresson. That’s how Jia tells it anyway. Edwin Mak — IIRC Dance Me to the End of Love is basically a silent, albeit a short. I think it even used intertitles for dialogue.
Yes, you’re right — for some reason I’d remembered the story as being with Love Will Tear Us Apart, though that doesn’t make sense chronologically. Hadn’t heard the Bresson bit, though.

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