On February 20, the 66th Berlin International Film Festival’s main competition awards were announced. Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing won a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution (cinematography) thanks to his highly creative and poetic filming of Crosscurrent. Now his sixties, this is Mark’s first international award, and he went in person to collect it. Crosscurrent will have its Asia premiere in the Awards Gala section at the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF).
It Well Deserves the Award
Directed by Mainlander Yang Chao with Qin Hao, Tan Kai, and Xin Zhilei star ring, Crosscurrent is a magical love story set on the Yangtze River. Yang’s first feature film, Passages, won the Golden Camera-Special Mention in the 57th Cannes International Film Festival in 2004, showcasing his passion for the on the road genre with a river theme.
From the writing of the script in 2009 to the shooting in 2012, the creation of Crosscurrent was a long and eventful journey. In January 2016, the film entered the finals of the 66th Berlin International Film Festival’s main competition. As for why it was selected, festival director Dieter Kosslick explained that the film tells a touching story in a beautiful, unique, and poetic way with a hint of sadness, which hasn’t previously been seen at the Berlin Film Festival. “Though obscure, it’s not beyond the Berlin Film Festival and its audience,” said Kosslick. He believes that a good movie should tell a particular story with a unique aesthetic sense, which Crosscurrent accomplishes.
At the post-ceremony dinner, the Berlin Film Festival’s main judge Meryl Streep praised Mark Lee Ping-Bing. She told the crew that she wished the jury had been able to give them more awards, but had been unable to do so, due to certain limitations. The highest awards went to European films, with a focus on current European politics. Meryl said that she was particularly impressed by the poetry-reading scene in Crosscurrent. Another judge, editor Nick James from “Sight & Sound”, said to Yang Chao: “I promise that I will recommend this film again if it is released in the UK.”
Crosscurrent was described as “magical realism” by Screen Daily – Berlin Film Festival’s official magazine. It also said that the film has shone a spotlight on poetry, Buddhism, and the Yangtze River. Mark’s evocative cinematography was highlighted as “sometimes clear while smoky with rough grain texture”. According to Mark, the resolution was only 2K when Crosscurrent was shot in 2012.
“There was so much water vapor on the Yangtze River that in many large panoramic scenes you just can’t tell the water from the sky. If shot in 2K digital, it might work on a 60-inch HD TV, but it won’t be clear on the big screen. On the other hand, the vapor or sand from up-stream northwest had a fairly limited impact on the camera. We took a lot of protective measures such as using a rain cloth to keep it dry. More importantly, as the film machine was mechanical, it was more durable than a digital equivalent. Because there were lots of scenes on the boat, the light inside the cabin formed a sharp contrast with that outside the cabin. There was not enough space for lamp lighting in the cabin. The camera worked better in this respect than digital photography.”
Mark Lee Ping-Bing remarked that the beauty of the Yangtze River shone through in the texture of film. In order to show this beauty to the best effect, he and director Yang Chao strengthened the “heaviness” of the river to clarify its layering, in the style of a traditional blurred landscape ink painting.
In his thirty-plus years in film, Mark Lee Ping-Bing has produced more than 70 movies, including classics such as Dust in the Wind, A City of Sadness, Summer Snow, In the Mood for Love, Millennium Mambo, After This Our Exile, Secret and Norwegian Wood. He is also a regular cinematographer for Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan’s film master. In 2015, his production The Assassin won the Golden Horse Film Festival Best Cinematography Award. It was the 11th time that he had been nominated for the Award, and the 6th time that he won it. He was also a record-holder of the Best Cinematography Award at the Golden Horse Film Festival. His Silver Bear at Berlin International Film Festival was his second award at three major European film festivals. In the 53rd Cannes Film Festival of 2000, he shared the Technical Grand Prize with Christopher Doyle and William Cheung for Wong Karwai’s In the Mood for Love. Mark believes that Crosscurrent is different from the grandiose style and classical beauty at which Hou Hsiao-hsien excels. It is presented in the most natural form, which is at once a breakthrough and a challenge to cinematography itself. Crosscurrent is a rare masterpiece both of image and of expression.
Great Beauty is the Ultimate Truth
Born and raised in Taiwan, Mark’s impression of the Yangtze River has always been vague. His initial reason for working with Yang Chao was to illustrate the Yangtze River with images of Chinese landscape painting. “Culture is common. I think the Yangtze River a fantastic place, from the history and geography that I’ve studied. That’s why I wanted to shoot the movie.” In an interview after the ceremony, Mark and Yang Chao talked about their cooperation. “I can always find a way to understand the director I am working with”, Mark said. “Yang is a scholar as well as a director. He has aspirations as well as responsibilities. He teaches at colleges and universities, so he has a responsibility to pass on his cultural ideas to young people. His movies attract a lot of attention, which places him under a certain amount of pressure.” Yang Chao said, “If Mark’s imagistic expression of the Yangtze River can be connected with traditional Chinese culture, our job has been done.”
Speaking of his creative process, Mark stressed that he sticks to the “director- oriented” theory. “It is the director that is the center, and I’m just a passenger. I was there only for the few months of the creative process. However, it’s my aim to think about how to turn the director’s text into the image and how to equip the image with a literal sense.”
The crew was full of praise for Mark’s dedication and professionalism. The shooting environment was challenging, but Mark’s devotion never waned, even though he was the oldest member of the group. He said, “I think every new film is a new life form, which can only be realized with nourishment and accumulation. This is one of my responsibilities.”
The directors that Mark cooperates with are usually famous, with strong literary temperaments; Yang Chao is no exception. Mark commented, “They are ambitious and aggressive, trying to make something out of nothing; and they are willing to do whatever it costs to achieve their goals, which I think is necessary for success. All successful directors must turn the impossible into the possible. “They must have extraordinary imagination. In my mind, this is their weapon.” Mark admitted that he has a “self-abusive” tendency when choosing films, “The most painful moment is also the most meaningful, and that’s what I pursue. The ones that give me the most pain are the ones that I want to work on.” He turned down the movies Kung Fu and Red Cliff because he preferred to work with new directors than with famous ones, given the same length of shooting. “Movies must have vitality and modernity. I’ve turn down blockbusters, because I’d rather be with young directors than famous ones.”
When it comes to the style of his cinematography, Mark doesn’t agree with the idea of “pure beauty”. “I don’t like it, because beauty has many forms. My light is very real, which is beautiful. Real light doesn’t mean pure beauty or the beauty of a salon. I won’t pursue flashy or fake beau-ty. Rather, what I seek is real – the simplest thing. In my mind, the simplest beauty is the best; the most vital beauty can touch people most.”
At this year’s HKIFF, Crosscurrent will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on April 2 and 2:30 p.m. on April 4. For more details, please refer to the official HKIFF website.