Published in Exposure, UK

Cinematographer Arthur Wong on location

Cinematography may be a matter of art and craft. But for the new Hong Kong film A Chinese Ghost Story, it is more about finding ingenious solutions to get around some constraints uniquely found in the Chinese film market.

A remake of a beloved romantic supernatural classic that has been done time and again, A Chinese Ghost Story posed a challenge from the word go. The crux was the ghost theme of the old Chinese classic, which centres on the love affair between young government official Ning Caichen (Yu Shaoqun) and alluring maiden Nie Xiaoqian (Liu Yifei) from the supernatural world.

They may be just another genre elsewhere, but ghost films are banned in Chinato “protect adolescents’ psychological health”. So to make sure A Chinese Ghost Story could make it to the screen across mainland China, director Wilson Yip and his team have made numerous adjustments to the folklore. These included changing the mainland version of the film’s English title to the innocuous “A Chinese Fairy Tale“. All ghost characters have also been replaced by demons, who dwell in theBlackMountain and are targeted by demon hunter Yan Chixia (Louis Koo).

The biggest challenge, however, involved depicting the slaughter of the wicked demons without making the film look creepy or violent. At the same time, it was imperative to keep the mystical pulse and tone of the original tale. This was mainly the task of Arthur Wong, a celebrated Hong Kongcinematographer with nine awards under his belt – and a knack for adapting to challenging situations.

“We had to adapt to the mainland market. As ghost has no place there, we have created somewhat of a new Oriental fantasy genre,” explains Wong, who was also the cinematographer of A Chinese Ghost Story II, a 1990 Hong Kong production directed by Tony Ching Siu-tung.

“When the demons appear or disappear, they turn into the shape of an animal. When they are killed, they are sucked in and annihilated with the use of special effects. There’s no blood, no heart being ripped out. It was a matter of skilfully avoiding the censorship issue, something I had to bear in mind all along.”

As the first cinematographer in Asiato film in high definition (Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet, starring Milla Jovovich), Wong is well versed in using high-tech means in his work. And yet he stresses that technology is no more than a tool to facilitate storytelling. Telling a good story through visual images is always his focus; every step he takes is anchored around this cause.

The only cinematographer who has won the Hong Kong Film Awards three years in a row twice, Wong is known for his simultaneous use of multiple cameras. In A Chinese Ghost Story, he shot with four cameras at the same time, which he says was a minimum number for maintaining continuity of actions and emotions. “This approach also took a lot of pressure off the actors because they didn’t have to do an awful lot of takes for one scene. So they had a fairly easy time working with me.”

To ensure authenticity, Wong turned to Fujifilm. “Fujifilm goes very well with the skin tone of Asian faces,” he explains. “When I shot Double Vision in 2002, which was the first Taiwanese movie Columbia Picture invested in, I had a meeting [with Columbia Picture]. I told them I had to use Fujifilm. Everybody nearly fell off their chairs. They had already bought [a different brand of films]. I suggested doing a ‘Coke-or-Pepsi test’ to see which film showed a better skin tone. So we did, and they were immediately convinced!”

Another unparalleled strength of Fujifilm, according to Wong, is its excellence in delivering the cold colours blue and green, which effectively enhance the unnerving atmosphere in A Chinese Ghost Story. “This is an absolute advantage for the movie. On this basis, we added a lavender hue to the green colour of theBlackMountain to enrich the overall tone,” he says.

In many ways, A Chinese Ghost Story is “a dream come true” for Wong. When he made the 1990 version, while there was no censorship concern since mainlandChina was not the key target market, technical limits abounded.

“Many actions, changes of colours and computer-generated imagery (CGI) we see in the latest version were simply impossible in the old days. Today the technical boundary is almost unlimited,” he says. But he reiterates the importance of striking a balance between special effects and storytelling. For A Chinese Ghost Story 2011, Wong believes the balance is perfect, with the technical elements being not a bit less and not a bit more.

“You don’t use special effects for the sake of using them. The money is worth spending only if the effects can enhance storytelling. I know some of the CGI companies are fed up with me because I always tell them there’s no need to add CGI to this or that. But I am slightly different. I am a believer of less is more.”