Winner of the grand technical award at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, ChenKaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin ranks as China’s first epic film inscale (thousands of actors), length (160 minutes), and cost (by far themost expensive Asian film to date). Chen, 1993 Palme d’Or winner at Cannesfor Farewell My Concubine, spent eight years developing the project. Hiscrucial choice for cinematographer? A former classmate from the BeijingFilm Academy, Zhao Fei.
Born in 1961 in Xian, Zhao Fei enjoyed watching his father, an architect,at work. He liked painting as a child and learned literature and drawing onhis own. Soon, though, Zhao found the movies, which he liked most of all.
But when Zhao was five years old, Mao’s Cultural Revolution descended.”Movies caught my attention,” he says. “But my childhood fell within theyears of the Cultural Revolution. So not many films were being made, norwere many imported. That meant whatever movie I could see became very, veryinteresting.”
When Mao died in 1976, the 10 years of his withering social experiment diedalso. The damage of those lost years, the careers disrupted, the artsravaged, would not heal quickly. But the art schools that Mao had closedreopened, and film once again had a place in China. After a nationwidecompetition in 1978, the first classes in a decade filled the Beijing FilmAcademy. Zhao enrolled in the cinematography course and attended classeswith Chen and Zhang , now two of China’s leading directors.
After graduating in 1982, Zhao immediately found work. The projects varied,but all were with the new post-Mao generation of directors, sometimesreferred to as China’s “New Wave” or “fifth-generation” filmmakers. In 1991he worked with former classmate Zhang on Raise the Red Lantern. Working onthe film, Zhao notes, helped him pull together his years of drawing,painting, and cinematography. “Working with Yimou on Red Lantern reinforcedmy understanding of how light, color, movement, and picture composition cancome together in harmony,” he explains. “I now saw how each of theseelements worked to complement the other, how together they reflected themood of the character, how finally everything helped in realizing thedirector’s passion. I saw how the symmetry within the mise en scene, forexample, both emphasized the theme of entrapment, yet still could be tracedback to traditional Chinese architecture and painting.”
Zhao’s first big-budget feature turned into his greatest challenge to date.For Chen’s The Emperor and the Assassin (opening this December), filmmakersspent 36 months researching, visiting ancient castles, and copying ancienttools and furniture. Four years of labor lay behind the final 400 costumedesigns. The battle scenes included up to 2,000 troops, courtesy of thePeople’s Liberation Army.
Director Chen comments on choosing Zhao: “I wanted to work with him for along time. I admire his intelligence and quietness. He is someone who seemsvery casual and relaxed on the set. Yet he is also very much in control.”
Zhao needed that calm, along with an ability to improvise. Though thefilm’s budget was high, renting the latest in grip gear and lighting is noteasy in China, as the country has not built up much rental inventory. Sohow did he get the camera to whiz along just inches from horses’ hooves inthe battle scenes? “It’s simple,” he says. “We built our own dolly-reallyjust a simple crate.”
Zhao used an ARRI 535, Zeiss prime lenses, and Kodak’s Vision series stock(E.I. 200 and 500). “The props, the colors of the clothes were designed tolook old,” he elaborates. “We didn’t do anything special during shooting orin the labs. That would increase expenses, and there wasn’t any budget forit.”
He used Tungsten for closer shots. But the limited number of 18K and 20KHMIs available, made him use in-scene practicals, windows, and sky lightswhere possible. He feels his background in painting helped him here; hecreated a full three-dimensional space by the keeping separate foreground,middleground, and background areas.
By 1992, Red Lantern and its attendant worldwide acclaim and cinematographyawards had caught the attention of Western critics. Woody Allen took note,and in 1998, when beginning work on Sweet and Lowdown (opening inDecember), he gave Zhao a call. “I don’t know why Woody choose me,” saysZhao modestly. “The only film of mine he had watched was Raise the RedLantern. But I know he is very particular about his light and color. Hefavors soft and warm lighting; he doesn’t prefer cold. He probably likedthe way lighting was embraced in that film; he likes [the lighting] verysubtle.”
Allen does not hesitate to put Zhao right up with the cinematographer’s ownpantheon, which includes DPs Sven Nykvist and Vittorio Storaro. “Zhao’sobviously a great talent,” says Allen. “He’s gifted, the same as with Carlo[Di Palma], Gordon Willis, or Sven [Nykvist].”