Documentary of cinematographer Mark Lee at SFIFF

On May 4, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) showed the third screening of Let the Wind Carry Me, a documentary about the life and art of Mark Lee. Even though it was scheduled during a weekday afternoon, the theater was packed with filmmakers and film buffs who came to learn about Lee’s brand of cinematography. Co-directed by Kwan Pun-leung and Chiang Hsiu-chiung, only Kwan was present to participate in the Q&A. But much to the audience’s surprise, Lee and his family were also in the audience.

For almost 30 years, Lee has collaborated with well-known director Hou Hsiao-hsien and many notable international directors. With over 40 films under his belt, he has truly established himself in his field and now regularly works outside Asia.  In talking to directors and his colleagues, his talent for setting up visual poetry is praised, along with his generosity for sharing his technical knowledge. One director related how Lee arrived for the start of filming without any crew.  When Lee was assigned one, the mainland Chinese director said, “Within one week, they became his faithful vassals.”

At its heart, this is a film about a man who loves what he does for a living and considers himself truly fortunate, yet he acknowledges it is a profession which takes him away from his family for long periods of time. It is a conflict between one’s creative life and one’s home life.

In one especially poignant scene, the man is again far away working on a film. During a break, he checks his phone and realizes he has received 20 phone calls within 20 minutes. He looks at the phone with dread, fearing it can only be the worst of news. Too apprehensive to listen to his messages, he says a silent prayer, hoping it’s not any of his family. Then he gets a text message, congratulating him on winning the National Literary Award, Taiwan’s highest award. He reflects back with a sense of relief, yet in the midst of his happiness, there is no one for him to embrace. His epiphany – what is important is our family.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked Kwan if he was intimidated to shoot a film about a great cinematographer. Kwan responded, it was nerve-wrecking at the very beginning, but thankfully for Kwan, Lee gets really involved in him films and didn’t pay him much attention.

The questions that followed were aimed at Lee. Some of the questions addressed his particular cinematography style. He responded by highlighting his desire to capture “luxurious realism” by enhancing reality to make it look real. He ascribes much of it to luck, but he also advocates the use of simple lighting.

When asked to compare digital media versus film, he responded it is up to the director’s preference, but he did say even without state-of-the-art equipment, you can make a perfect image. The most important part, he emphasized again, was the lighting.

Someone also asked him, now that he is so well-established, how does he work with a new director? Are they intimidated? How does it work out?  Lee likens the experience to a Chinese kung-fu master. He already has 30 years of experience, but if someone has only been practicing for three years, he hopes he can pass on his experience so the young director may learn some short cuts and benefit from his experience.

For the many who have worked with Lee, the constant mantra remains one of admiration. Lee and the directors he works with may not always agree, but according to Hou, “He always delivers.”

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