Local legend Wing Shya talks to us about capturing cinematic moods, photographing Asia’s biggest stars and his new solo exhibition in a Beijing courtyard.
Wing Shya first established his signature aesthetic during his collaborations as a photographer with Hong Kong’s most celebrated filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Films such as Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), Eros (2004) and 2046 (2004) proved a learning curve that would evolve his style through a series of experiments and accidents. On set, Shya would go on to capture the raw emotive essence of Wong’s films and stars including Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Daniel Wu and Gong Li. Spontaneous moments, unfiltered expressions and unguarded moods became Shya’s speciality.
Cinema has proved a central axis for the artist and photographer, so it’s perhaps no surprise that short films and feature films – Hot Summer Days (2010) and Love in Space (2011) – soon became part of his arsenal. This free flow between film, photography, installation and art cumulates in Moods, Shya’s solo exhibition in Beijing’s traditional siheyuan complex of 1921 in Wangfujing. Instead of a more traditional exhibition, here galleries are organised into emotive themes such as Nostalgia, Intensity, Fantasy and Dreams.
“As I went deeper into the layers of his work,” explains curator Shelly Verthime, “I understood the sensitivity with which he invites the audience to utilise all senses to feel the stories told by his images, which become connotations to unspoken emotions. The narrative is embedded, never literal … His is the story within the story.”
This exhibition follows on from the 2017 retrospective exhibition Acting Out at the Shanghai Centre of Photography, and the 2006 show Distraction/Attraction at Japan’s Mori Art Museum – he was the first non-Japanese photographer to exhibit there.
“Shya re-purposes the artistry of cinematography into beautifully crafted mise-en-scene,” adds Verthime. “This unique cinematic style, he’s created and stamped as his own … He invites the viewer through an imaginary keyhole into an immersive panorama of a forbidden world.”
For more than two decades, Shya’s work has been characterised by his distinctive capture of emotion, and use of focus and colour, so that poetic sensuality seeps through his work. The Hong Kong-born photographer and director talks about his latest solo exhibition, as well as his evolutions within both film and photography.
Legend Wing Shya on Photography and Hong Kong Cinema
This exhibition is called Moods. Why this concept and title?
Actually, my curator decided on it. She decided everything in this exhibition, and I didn’t get too involved in it. I trust her eye, and sometimes I enjoy seeing somebody else picking out and creating, more than if I did it myself. It brings a different point of view to my work and becomes something new to me.
What’s your own mood these days?
I’m very calm. After the pandemic I’m staying at home more, travelling less and I’ve become more stable and calmer. I enjoy this kind of calm, this sense of silence.
What makes a good photograph in your eyes?
I enjoy seeing something in a particular moment. Nowadays there are so many videos and moving images everywhere, but when I look at a photo and I feel that it’s capturing a moment or someone’s soul, I really enjoy that. I enjoy that more than something that’s a straightforward portrait. It’s capturing a moment that you can never see when people are moving in real life as it passes so quickly. But when you can see it, when you can capture it, it means a lot.
Tell us about the new work in Beijing that you did just for this exhibit.
I’ve been to Beijing so many times that, honestly, I don’t really look at the city sometimes, as I’m usually just going from the car to work. But this time I really had to stop and look at Beijing – look at the colour, the water, the refractions of light, the light coming through the trees in the evening … I was watching the people, being in places I’d never been, like nightclubs or live-music houses. Some of these places I’d never go to myself, but I asked the producer to take me to the area where all the youth hang out – different locations where you get a feeling of different kinds of people.
The exhibition is set up in different galleries in a renovated historic Beijing siheyuan courtyard house, not far from the Forbidden City. This is a very different format from your usual museum or open gallery space. What do you want people to feel when going there?
When I was young, I always dreamed of doing a show like this. This is really a dream come true, especially doing it in Beijing. I used to go to people’s houses for dinner in Beijing – some magazine chief editors have a siheyuan house – and I’d see modern photos hung up in their house and notice how it becomes very powerful. When you have this kind of traditional Chinese house, if you put up modern photos or paintings the contrast is very strong. I think that’s the same in the exhibition.
Some of your most famous work is capturing an intimate moment from Asia’s biggest actors and actresses on film sets. The style is quite distinctive – how do you do this?
I learned from Wong Kar-wai. I see how he directs and I try to capture what he’s trying to say. He always taught me to do one picture that can tell the story of the whole movie, so I’ve always tried to capture this one moment with the actors … The actors and actresses barely see me when I take these pictures on set. They’re not focused on me. I’m like a ghost, everywhere but nowhere, which makes it easier because they’re not looking at me.
As a photographer who moved into film directing, how do the two compare?
Film is totally different work. In a movie, you must really tell a story. I really enjoy talking to the actors about how to act in a scene – it’s about the human condition and emotion given from the script. With photography, to me, you never think about this, you just capture one moment, one image. In film, it’s really challenging to get to know the different styles of the different actors and see how to create this fictional character together. Also, with the various camera movements and matching music, it’s difficult but so much fun. I also feel that I don’t have a strong style in film, because it really depends on what I feel the script needs … I don’t try to create my own style. But somehow, with the colours and the imagery, some people do recognise it and say this is very “you”. But it’s not something I try to do.
Which of those stars did you feel were special, straight away?
It’s hard to say, everybody’s different. Maggie maybe, she’s more emotional. Gong Li, you can feel the qi, you know, you feel a very strong energy from her. Tony Leung, there’s so much detail about him … I learn about their characters during shooting, not before. I’ve made so many mistakes, so I learn during the working process.
After directing your two comedy feature films, Hot Summer Days and Love in Space, will you continue in this genre?
I’ve actually done two more comedies, but they’re still in postproduction and not yet released. One of the movies is called Puppy Love: it’s a comedy featuring a lot of dogs, so that was so much fun to film. The other, I can’t release the name yet. When I watch films myself I like romantic comedies. I search for these human stories with touching moments.
What’s your hope for Hong Kong cinema? After the martial arts wave and comedy wave of yesteryear, what do you think is coming next?
I honestly don’t know. But there’s a lot of themes around relationships in Hong Kong cinema right now, which I really like. It’s a small city and I’ve seen films where, despite low budgets, they’re putting a lot of effort into making stories that can really touch the audience. I really like that.
How do you feel about this recent rise of Asian cinema around the globe?
I think it’s amazing. Especially since Tony Leung can be a leading actor in a Hollywood film. It’s a great opportunity for Asia to speak to the world.
(Hero and featured image: Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love, photographed by Wing Shya)