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Away with Words
Year: 1999
Asano Tadanobu, Kevin Sherlock and Mavis Xu
Director: Christopher Doyle
Writer: Tony Rayns, Christopher Doyle
Cast: Kevin Sherlock, Mavis Xu Mei-Jing, Tadanobu Asano, Georgina Dobson
The Skinny: Christopher Doyle's first film is not entirely what you'd expect. Visually stunning it is, but underneath the surface a very personal and heartfelt film transpires. That is, if you can get past the dizzy, frantic, drunken filmmaking that Doyle is famous for. Maybe beer will help.
by LunaSea:
     Everyone's first film is always considered to be personal. As a result, most directors' first feature often showcases inexperience, fear or tentativeness. But it also reveal spontaneity and talent (or lack of it). When the director happens to be an acclaimed cinematographer like Chris Doyle, things are even more difficult. Anybody familiar with Wong Kar-Wai's films certainly knows who Doyle is and what he's famous for. He has worked with some of the finest directors in the business (plus Eric Kot), and won several awards in Hong Kong and elsewhere. He's also a famous photographer (especially in Japan, where Away With Words made a good financial return) and has acted in a few films, most notably Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story and Takashi Miike's Andromedia. What's interesting is not Doyle the cinematographer, but instead Doyle the man. Beyond the quality of this film, Away With Words is as good a chance as we'll ever get to see what's really going on in Doyle's mind.
     The reason why Wong Kar-wai is the only one to have worked with Doyle more than once (other than Stanley Lai) is that both are instinctive artists, whereas many directors expect something else from cinematographers. Doyle's way of handling sources of light is often off-putting for many people, because he uses the camera as his eye. It doesn't matter where light comes from, as long as it delivers what he wants. For that reason, his creativity is often supressed by other people's vision and needs. Here he has complete freedom and no one to answer to. You'd expect the film to be a visual tour-de-force, with the director exploring every trick in the book and basically using his camera as the screenplay. Instead, what makes this film enjoyable is the nature of its characters, and the way Doyle opens himself up personally. Away With Words is difficult to understand if you don't know Christopher Doyle the man, or at least his personality. And, the reaction this film got in Hong Kong and Cannes showed that while the man has cult status, people don't really know and respect him as anything more than a freak show or "peculiar" celebrity. They treated Away With Words as a pure, unadulterated visual orgasm and when they couldn't find Doyle's message behind all that, they started leaving the theaters.
     As he himself often points out, Doyle is not your average gweilo, but rather a "Chinese with skin disease." The Australian has clearly found his home in the SAR, but there's always nostalgia in his eyes of his home, his family, and things he had to let go because of his choices. Australian TV Channel SBS' documentary "Orientations" showed Doyle almost losing control of his emotions while recalling his family. If you only see Doyle as a crazy, hard-drinking man living life without thinking, then seeing him admit his fears can be telling. When he admits that what scares him the most is losing the people who love him, you can understand there's more to Doyle than just goofball antics and amazing visual creativity. With Away With Words, it's as if Doyle finally found something that allowed him to confess his fears and ambitions, and to admit his shortcomings.
     Kevin Sherlock's role as a gay bar owner who is constantly drunk seems to mirror Doyle's tenure in Hong Kong. The man can't find the way home unless he's drunk. He seems to only be able to think with a beer on his hands, and is in constant need of people. Asano (Tadanobu Asano) lives in a world of his own. He's addicted to words and their meanings. After a difficult childhood, he moves to Hong Kong where the only thing that feels safe to him is a blue velvet sofa in Kevin Sherlock's bar. The smell and the color remind him of home, and he establishes a relationship with the barman and Susie (Singaporean pop-star Mavis Xu) only in this "closet world" of his. His relationships are based on different kinds of communication like books, music, food and beer. This is also the way Wong and Doyle started working together. Using scripts didn't work, so they started using other means to discuss cinema.
     One could argue that both male characters are reflections of Doyle's psyche. Kevin represents Doyle's extreme ways of living, thinking and working. Asano is Doyle trying to remember his home, something with which he's been disconnected for decades. Many images have flown away from his mind, and the only way to recall the past is finding things that bring him back to his childhood. That includes feeling the sea, the warm breeze that caresses your body, the smell water generates. Or maybe associating certain colors and moods to familiar feelings. Susie instead may represent people like Wong Kar-wai, who "polish" and clean his work and life. In fact, all Susie seems to do is get the two out of trouble, clean the house and solve their problems. It's the rational mind that gets them back to Earth, even if only for a moment. She represents Doyle's closest friends and collaborators (assistant and friend Kiyomi Ono could be the inspiration for her character) who help him deal with his way of life.
     It's hard to pinpoint a narrative structure here, as the film is just a patchwork of situations. It seems like Doyle is trying to represent his state of mind, full of different thoughts, and going in many different directions at the same time. He's effective in developing his characters, at least on a deeper level (conventionally speaking this may just be a gigantic mess), but he's not trying to tell a story. Doyle often admits that what's important to him is not narrative, but communication. Finding someone whose instincts are similar (like Wong Kar-Wai) helped him grow as an artist. The film's "narrative" is often broken by frantic shots and clips that seem to mean nothing except that Doyle is having fun with the camera. Ozu had the pillow shots, Doyle....well, the MTV shots?
     After working with him for so long, it seems Doyle absorbed Wong Kar-wai's ability to use music as something more than background. It's in fact one of the most important tools he uses in the film. Of course what will remain in people's mind after watching Away With Words will be the amazing images, the techniques, and the abundance of style Doyle showcases. They'll also remember that there isn't much of a story and the film doesn't make sense on the surface. Instead, one should just take the film as Doyle's personal gift to himself and the people who truly care about him. The film may be the only way for Doyle to communicate something about himself, which is perhaps not easy to do in real life given his "persona." His extrovert way of life is quite possibly a mask to hide suffering. Since he can't open himself up to people he cares about (one of Doyle's friends said that when she met him for the first time, he was really shy), it's a good thing he's able to express himself through film.
     Is Away With Words good? That's debatable, but it's certainly a heartfelt work, full of passion and something that rings true. It's also a lot of fun, and a wild ride for people who like experimental works. To quote the film, "Beer is Life!" (LunaSea 2002) Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen