Christopher Doyle's Trilogy Shows Hong Kong Through a New Lens at TIFF

Hong Kong Trilogy Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The celebrated cinematographer directs an impressionistic love letter to his adopted home — and records history in the process.

Christopher Doyle is best known for his decades-long collaboration with Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, with whom he created the seductive and resplendent visual style of films such as Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000). He has worked as a cinematographer for more than two dozen other directors, including Gus Van Sant, Jon Favreau and Zhang Yimou, while also directing his own — often eccentric — films.

His latest project, which screens in TIFF’s Contemporary World Cinema section, is Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, a trio of impressionistic shorts about three generations of Hong Kong society. Doyle and his producer, Jenny Suen, spent more than a year interviewing hundreds of people from various walks of Hong Kong life. The audio recordings were then used as voice-overs to structure a loose narrative Doyle gave to the figures’ lives onscreen. The result is a visual poem of sorts. 

The film’s first chapter, “Preschooled,” is a 30-minute piece construed from the voices of Hong Kong schoolchildren. It was originally commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and screened there in an omnibus of shorts in 2014. The idea to extend that project into a feature emerged, as Doyle says many of his better ideas do, in the heat of a drinking session. “We were banging away on bongos upstairs at one of our favorite little bars in Hong Kong, and I had felt so invigorated by the experience of making the short, I suddenly had this idea to make it into a feature with two more parts, one about the Hong Kong youth who were there partying with us and something about the older generation.”

Doyle says the third section, “Preposterous,” about the city’s elders, turned out to be the most difficult. “They’re more reticent, humble and not as outspoken,” he says. “But it was important to have all of these generational rhythms.”

Later, just as Doyle was beginning work on the central piece of the trilogy in the fall of 2014, Hong Kong’s student-led “Umbrella Movement” erupted onto the city’s streets, giving the project an unexpected and historic backdrop. 

“We faked some press passes so that we could film right in the heart of the camps,” Doyle says. “But everyone in Hong Kong knows me, so no one was really buying it. The police were nice to us though, coming up and asking for autographs.”

Indeed, Doyle says the city’s film buffs have come to consider him one of their own. “I’ll always remain something of an outsider in Hong Kong — but I’m a very intimately connected outsider,” he says. “The pleasure for me now is trying to give something back to this place that has made me who I am."