''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'''s cinematographer discusses the film's toughest shots

By Lori Reese
Updated March 29, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Peter Pau: Kevin Winter/Image Direct`

”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”’s Oscar winning cinematographer, Peter Pau, is the guy who managed to cover one third of the world’s population — thanking ”Chinese people everywhere” — in his 45 second acceptance speech. But it was his quick eye, not his rapid fire tongue, that got him to the podium. Pau’s ability to capture the swift, subtle gestures of ”Tiger”’s high flying stars helped the martial arts romance rack up 10 Oscar nods and take home awards in four categories, including Best Foreign Language Film.

The Hong Kong born film veteran, 48, had already shot 32 action heavy features, including John Woo’s classic ”The Killer,” before signing on to ”Tiger.” His first U.S. gig was the fantasy movie ”Warriors of Virtue,” and he even managed to make ”Bride of Chucky” look like no horror flick that had come before. Here, Pau talks about how he helped director Ang Lee make ”Tiger” take flight.

Is it true you weren’t Lee’s first choice?
I think I was his 10th choice, because we had never met. One of [”Tiger”’s] producers finally introduced us, and later I flew to Beijing for an interview.

How did you convince him to hire you?
I told him I wanted to use classical Chinese watercolor paintings as my main reference for framing and composing the shots. He liked that idea very much. We agreed that the film should be as poetic as possible.

Where in the movie can we see those classical techniques?
Watercolors are vertical and narrow and very low contrast. They contain nothing that is truly black or truly white. We couldn’t shoot vertically of course, but we emphasized more negative space for the framing — that is, I would leave more room over the actors’ heads than usual. For example, in the scene where Jen (Zhang Ziyi) was at her makeup table, I deliberately left a lot of space above her to emphasize other parts of the room. I also took a subtle approach to color throughout the film: in the face paint, the skin tones, and the costumes. In contemporary films, we tend to emphasize stark contrast, black and white.

How were ”Tiger”’s action scenes different from other Hong Kong films you’ve shot?
They were extremely challenging. Most films just exhibit the action, but Ang and I wanted the fight sequences to be shot at the same level as the actors, with an intimate view of all their movements. This meant that the camera had to fly, just as the characters do. We did this by using remote control cameras, placed at the same height as the actors, who were suspended from wires.

What was the toughest scene in the film to shoot?
The sequence near the end when Jen and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) are fighting in the bamboo forest. There were only four lines describing the scene in the script. No mention of flying, only that they were supposed to climb over the bamboo and fight each other. Nothing was storyboarded.

How did you decide what would happen?
Very spontaneously. I asked Lee if the scene was supposed to be about confusion, a confusion in love. He said, yes. So I tried to shoot it with that in mind: Li Mu Bai is chasing Jen because he loves her. But he doesn’t know what kind of love he has for her.

This is Lee’s first martial arts film. Did he ever ask you to do anything you couldn’t do?
Sometimes Ang would imagine something really far out and the choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping [”The Matrix”] would have to yell at him, ”Do you know how much it will COST to do that shot?” But most of the time it was wonderful, because he had these crazy, poetic ideas.

After ”Tiger,” you did ”Dracula 2000” (released in December 2000) with director Patrick Lussier. How does working on a Hollywood horror movie differ from working in China?
The director, Patrick Lussier, liked to have everything planned very carefully ahead of time. Everything was storyboarded. This has its advantages. But Chinese directors are more spontaneous, which is good because it allows you to change your mind during shooting. The director can alter a whole scene, the entire page of a script right up until the moment the scene is shot. Sometimes the last minute ideas are the best.

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