Rain Li has had an impressive career as a director of photography, working with Christopher Doyle on Paris Je t’aime and Gus van Sant on Paranoid Park. She is also much in demand for commercial work, but took time off in the last couple of years to focus on her new feature film, Beijing, New York, which she wrote and directed.
Asked what’s been happening lately, she says, “The film was made and I got old.”
Born in 1983, Li is far from old, although her career is already well established. Originally from Beijing, she moved to the UK at 15, where she went on to study film at Bournemouth University. She began working as a grip and a gaffer before finding her niche as a DP.
She was just 20 when she first met Doyle, the infamously independent cinematographer and long term creative partner of Wong Kar-wai. She worked with him again on Beijing, New York, which has been or is released widely in China this month. The plot revolves around Chinese-born New Yorker Jasmine, a Chinese woman confused by her competing loves for two men in the two cities. We spoke to Rain both in person and over WeChat.
>>> New York must be the most exposed city on film, but you made it look new. I was especially amazed by the aerial shots of private jets, following close enough to blur the city behind their hazy exhausts. How did you get that footage?
I think the way we approached New York was simple. We didn’t have much time so we used minimal lighting and minimal crew to keep as mobile as possible. We used quite a bit of steady cam to save time. A lot of times a scene with one shot was done in one take because I was filming the New York part on my own. I didn’t want to be distracted by fancy camera work, cranes and movement. The city was so vibrant so we wanted to use deep colours — reds, yellows and oranges, because most of the scenes there are at night.
We actually ran out of budget to shoot the aerial shots. In my mind they were going to be on the last day but I didn’t see them in the call sheet. When he said we haven’t got the money I was so devastated. I said I’m not leaving New York until I get the shot. I waited for a week, and managed to find the money, but we couldn’t afford more than three hours. We chose day, dusk and night, that magic three hours, and we got so lucky — it was so beautiful.
>>> Chris Doyle shot the scenes in China — Chongqing and Beijing. I heard that you wanted to use him in New York too, but couldn’t. What was the problem? Something to do with unions?
Chris did have some issues with unions and how rigid everything is. When you have a low budget, independent movie, just high enough to be on the unions’ radar, it can be very painful. I’ve been through this journey with Chris before and he didn’t want to do it again. Secondly, we didn’t have all the time in the world to get all the paper work ready. Third, we thought it would be interesting if he shot Beijing and I shot New York because I’m Chinese shooting America and he’s a Westerner shooting China.
>>> You cast Taiwanese actress Lin Chiling in the movie, who was originally a fashion model. She went to high school and college in Toronto, and has four or five major film credits — including work with John Woo on the Red Cliff movies. How did you direct her to get the performance you wanted?
Working with Chiling was one of the great experiences of making this movie. She’s a renowned model, a beautiful vase, but not known as a serious actress. I said to her, honestly all I need you to do is to give me one month in New York. I want to have that time with you to help you understand Jasmine, the culture, all of it. From there I just want you to use your heart. I can change the lines to help you feel comfortable, but the bottom line is you have to feel this role. There’s one scene she’s supposed to be drunk and turns up at Joe’s apartment. She couldn’t get to the level I needed at all. I just gave her a bottle of wine; she downed it, downed some whiskey, and then I poured a bottle of cold water on her head to get her in that depressed, fragile, fucked up mode. She really just went for it. She’s really tough.
>>> Two very, very wealthy men compete for the love of Jasmine in the film. We see prime real estate in the two cities, a rolls royce, and beautiful fashion. Are there any paid product placements in the film?
There is no paid product placement at all. That was one thing I put my foot down about.
>>> Ye Liu, the Chinese male lead, has acting credits going back to the 1990s. His character cheats on his wife. Apparently new Chinese regulations say that people who cheat can’t enjoy happy endings in cinema anymore. Is that true, and if so, how did it influence your plot?
When I made the movie nobody had that rule, so it didn’t really affect me at all. Maybe he did cheat on his wife, but I didn’t have any sex scenes in the movie for a reason. If he had sex with Jasmine then I think on screen it would be more explicit, first of all, and second of all it would be difficult for people to consider what’s wrong or not wrong — it’s officially crossing that line.
>>> What is the process for receiving government clearance to release the film in China?
Getting Chinese government approval is mostly really easy, except that I had to cut a swear word. There’s so many movies out there with swear words and it’s okay, but what I had in mind was the word “niubi” [literally cow’s cunt]. They said no way, so I had to lower the volume. I was worried about a smoking scene but that was no problem.
>>> It seems impossible to have a feature film make it from concept to completion without adapting a lot to the conditions you have to work in. And what are three things that you’re really glad that you managed to pull off?
I think financing was probably the most difficult part, and the second part was getting Joe the character. We had our Joe, Ryan Philippe, but he dropped out two days before the movie. Having to put off [filming] to find the perfect Joe — Richard de Klerk — who was even better than the previous option, was a miracle. The third thing is locking down the final cut. So many people were saying change different things but in the end nobody changed the cut; it’s the director’s cut of the movie.
在影视圈里，李晓雨早已经是响当当的摄影师。在出道不久她就已经与国际大牌的摄影师以及导演合作：她曾与鬼才摄影师杜可风合作过《Paris Je t’aime》，还为著名的美国独立电影导演Gus van Sant掌镜过《Paranoid Park》。现时她在影视广告圈里炙手可热。不过过去的几年里，她却沉寂了一大段的日子，那时她正埋头投入到了她的首部电影《纽约，北京》的筹备和制作当中。
我拍纽约的方法特别简单。因为我们没有太多的时间，所以我们用了最简单的照明设备和人员配置来保证拍摄的灵活性。我们用了许多的稳定摄影机来节省时间。很多场景是一Take就过了。纽约的部分都是我自己亲自拍的，我不想用那些昂贵的大器械和镜头浪费了我的集中力。纽约本身就是一个充满活力的都市，我只需要利用它本身在夜晚散发的各种色彩 – 红、黄和橙等等就足够了，而电影大部分场景也是夜景。
>>> 你选了台湾模特出身的林志玲来担任女主角，她是在多伦多念的高中和大学，前后只拍过四、五个主流电影 – 包括吴宇森的《赤壁》。你是如何指导她在戏里的表演的？
在我的电影里不存在这样的潜规则，它并没有真正影响到故事的结局。没错，男主角可能精神出轨了，但我却故意没有在电影里描绘他肉体的出轨，因为我没有表明通过性爱的场面表明他与茉莉直接的出轨；所以这就变得更难判这种（精神）出轨的对与错 – 因为它还没正式逾越那条界线。