In 2018, the 2nd East Asia Film Festival Ireland chose Mark Ping-Bing Lee, a great Taiwanese cinematographer, as the director in focus. The festival offered screenings of four films: In the Mood for Love (2000, opening film), Springtime in a Small Town (2002), Three Times (2005), Seventy-seven Days (2017), plus a documentary Let the Wind Carry Me (2010). In after-screening discussions and master classes, Lee received incredible responses from the audience. What’s notable for him was that all the films were screened from the valuable 35mm prints, except for Seventy-seven Days, which was shot digitally. Based on that, the audience could really feel the colour and the artistic quality of “light.”
Mark Ping-Bing Lee trained as an apprentice at the Central Pictures Corporation, Taiwan’s largest studio and production company. When reviewing his experience of being the assistant camera, Lee regarded “building his aesthetic vocabulary” as the most important part. He explained, “assistant camera is, in effect, to develop a preliminary understanding of aesthetics, lighting, along with photographic equipment. We need to form our own work habits. Every director of photography has different methods of getting things done, but we don’t have to work the same. The only thing we ought to remember is to learn from their mistakes. By working with different people, we could cultivate our own taste of art little by little. Otherwise, we are just passing down a pattern, which is merely skills. This makes the creation lack of charms, and it seems boring to me.”
Then, how did he build his aesthetics? “A lot of times, it grows day by day. To be frank, I cannot tell if I build my own either. However, I want to keep it simple. Painting, literature, poetry – these are the things I am fond of, and I try to explore them in the images. At first, I consider the beauty in the shadows; mysterious, and this inspires me. Such mystery is instinctively associated with the East. In oriental tradition, such as calligraphy or ink wash painting, the strokes and the density of ink present different layers. Nevertheless, it is mostly very difficult to capture the layer in the shadows. Many people use “white” to exhibit beauty, but very few think of “shadows”. This turns out to be my beginning. I make an attempt to find beauty in the “shadows”, but it doesn’t mean that I want to keep the whole film dark. In my opinion, beauty can be presented in various forms, such as happiness, melancholy, or in between. It actually has a very wide range.”
Lee said slowly, “When it comes to images, careful observation is the focal point. By observation I don’t just refer to those well-known poetry or paintings. The change of everyday sunlight or the instant of sun coming out of the cloud after the rain stops can be good sources. Both of them are closely related to images. If there is no light, not only the images, but all the aesthetics would vanish. The remained darkness is even without layers. That’s why I think light is so important. How to observe light, how to get know of light, how to use light, and how to combine light with colour are things I value most. Everybody can have their own taste of art. Nowadays, people tend to spend loads of time on mobile phones, and I believe we can also find some sort of modern or science-fictional lights from colours projected by our phones. Light is everywhere. There is no limit. What’s more, aesthetics is always changing. Each generation shares different opinions of aesthetics. Even though the basic idea remains the same, the presentation keeps changing all the time. Only when we find a modern way can we build new vision and new visual aesthetics. All of the above could be done only through observation. We need to observe the lights. Some people may say they only want to display nature. Of course this is possible, but it would not work if we don’t observe, for the light is moving all the time. When it passes by, we miss it, then it does not exist. If we know when the light will appear and where it would be, the next step is to think whether to capture it, and how to film without interfering it.” Lee recalled a scene in In the Mood for Love, which was shot at a flat in Singapore. Back then, he saw the light on the wall glowing like diamond, so he quickly decided how to keep the light in its most natural form. “If I only treat the light as a prop, it would be meaningless,” he added.
When speaking of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whom he has worked with over thirty years, Lee said, “after Flowers of Shanghai (1998), he gave me a free hand in photography. But of course, I need to have a clear understanding of what he is thinking to present the story. I have to imagine, to explore, and to really understand this man. My experience of working with Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are similar. The two directors may be uncertain in the beginning, and only have a rough picture of the film. However, without doubt, they want to find the perfect fit for the story. When there is still a lot of uncertainty, I would try to realise what the “perfect fit” was before filming by having discussions with them. Was my idea better than theirs? Or was it very far away? I prefer collaboration like this rather than just given instructions.”
In recent years, Lee had been supportive of new directors and rejected all the invitations from commercials. He had been the president of Taipei Film Festival for three years. During the interview, he pointed out the greatest drawback of Taipei Film Festival: “It should not become a public-servant body. If so, the film festival would have no future. I don’t mean that the staff of Taipei Film Festival works like public servant. The major problem is that there’s no money. Under such circumstances, the staff would definitely feel fettered by the tight budget. They wouldn’t dare to make any attempt, and things would only get worse, causing the same situation to enter infinite loop. But undoubtedly, the staff all works very hard; they try their best. Since the city government is famous for Taipei Film Festival, a popular cultural and interactive event, the officials should take the responsibility to figure out how to fund more, or it would become a film festival without spirit, and I don’t want to see that happen. We try to make it an important platform of Taiwanese films, but this goal requires money to back up. If we can only offer economy-class seats for well-known stars or famous people, it is obvious that they are not willing to show up.” He said these words with sincerity, “Taipei City Government should re-evaluate the future of Taipei Film Festival. What can they offer? What do they want to achieve? If they don’t know the answer of both, my suggestion is to stop the film festival. When considering the festival causing too much burden, they should stop it. It is better than cheating people. They give out so little money, but still encourage people to enjoy the festival. How could it be possible?” Hidden behind Lee’s stormy face is a sensitive heart. In this interview, what impressed me the most was his eyes. I saw faith and purity inside. There seemed to be fire. And there seemed to be light.