A hard-drinking Australian seems an unlikely figure to be one of the most important and influential cinematographers in Asian cinema, but that is exactly what Christopher Doyle is. His richly atmospheric, improvisational style has worked its way into the lexicon of both music videos and mainstream Hollywood fare. Moreover, his photo-collage artwork and his bizarre, often drunken public antics have made him a sort of cult celebrity in much of Asia.
Born in 1952 in Sydney, Doyle fled the banality of the suburbs to spend much of his early life on the road. At various points in his life he was a well digger in India, a Norwegian merchant marine, a cow herder on an Israeli kibbutz, and a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand. In the late '70s, Doyle was rechristened Du Kefeng by his professor at the University of Hong Kong, and his life has not been the same since. Soon afterward, he moved to Taiwan and fell in with the Taipei art crowd, including such future members of the cultural elite as Hou Hsiao Hsien and Stan Lai. In 1978, he was one of the founding members of the Lanling Theatre Workshop, the first modern theater company in Taiwan; he also created a landmark television series, Travelling Images. Yet Doyle's first breakthrough occurred in 1981, when Edward Yang asked him to shoot his feature debut That Day on the Beach over the angry protests of the studio's 23 salaried cameramen. Fearful that Taiwan's relatively modest film industry might stunt his career, he again hit the road and got a gig shooting Claire Devers' Noir et Blanc (1986) in France, only to discover that his heart still belonged to Asia. That same year, he returned to Hong Kong and shot Shu Kei's second feature, Soul, a pastiche of John Cassavete's Gloria (1980) starring noted Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Ke Yizhong. Though the reviews for the film itself were mixed, people noticed Doyle's unique camera work and he soon found regular work in the Hong Kong film industry.
Doyle's true artistic and commercial breakthrough occurred with his first collaboration with auteur Wong Kar-Wai in Days of Being Wild (1991). Doyle's loose, ambient style seemed to match perfectly with Wong's melancholy, largely improvised script; the two quickly formed a lasting professional relationship that would prove to be extremely beneficial to both of them. Wong films such as Ashes of Time soon became synonymous with Doyle's ethereal look, while Wong's loose and woolly directorial approach allowed Doyle to experiment and perfect his trademark style. Though he worked with such noted Hong Kong directors as Sylvia Chang in Mary From Beijing (1992) and Stanley Kwan in his Red Rose White Rose (1994), he gained international attention with his groundbreaking cinematography in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (1994). Featuring a lush, saturated color palette and dazzling camera work, Doyle's atmospheric look made the film crackle with a rare vitality. After shooting Chungking Express' quasi-sequel Fallen Angel, Doyle adopted a more restrained look for fifth-generation filmmaker Chen Kaige in Temptress Moon (1996). After teaming up with Wong Kar-Wai again for Happy Together (1997), featuring sumptuous black and white cinematography that seems to swoon with melancholy, Doyle began to get gigs on the other side of the Pacific. His cinematography was one of the few bright spots in Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998), and he also shot Barry Levinson's return to Baltimore, Liberty Heights (1999). During that same time, he made his directing debut with Away With Words (1999). Co-scripted by film critic Tony Rayns and starring Japanese indie star Tadanobu Asano, the film received divergent reviews when it was screened at Cannes. Some attacked it for being self-indulgent while others hailed it as extraordinary. Doyle kicked off the new decade in high style earning international acclaim for his work on Wong-Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love. He then changed gears by shooting the low budget Jon Favroau feature Made. He continued to act as cinematographer on a series of internationally well-received films such as Hero, Rabbit Proof Fence, Eros, The Quiet American, and Three…Extremes. He collaborated again with Won-Kar Wai on 2046, and although the film itself failed to match the acclaim of In the Mood for Love, critics universally marveled over Doyle's cinematography. In 2006 he joined forces with M. Night Shyamalan on his 2006 effort Lady in the Water.