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Friday, Aug. 6, 1999

A toast to the cinematographer with the most

Christopher Doyle is more and less of everything you'd expect him to be. He's a lot older than he looks (48), but talks about his adolescence in a Sydney suburb like he had only just come through it (or not yet).

Reclining on a window sill in a Shibuya office building like a naughty Buddha statue, he asks every female on the premises what she is doing tonight ("Only don't tell my girlfriend; she's right outside the door") and then says with perfect seriousness that nothing matters to him as much as being a good person. When he sees someone fumbling with a camera, he says that he himself could never get the film in right: "My God, it's worse than sex for the first time -- the thing just refuses to go in!"

Someone tells him to behave. "Never," he declares. "Then you get no more beer," she chides. "Oh well in that case," replies Doyle, "I'm going to have to reach for the extasy in my pocket," and grins at her horror-struck face.

Doyle is currently one of the world's most sought-after cinematographers. His collaborations with Wong Kar-wai ("Chungking Express," "Happy Together") caused the international cinema world to gasp and clutch at its breast. No one realized how dazzlingly hip Asia and Asians could be until Doyle showed us, and movies have never been the same since. Now Hollywood studios invite him to work on their choicest projects, scripts fly in from all over the world.

"It's amazing," says Doyle. "In Cannes [at the film festival] the Australian press flocked around me, made me feel like I was their prodigal son. Actually I felt a bit strange -- before, they disowned me and now they're reclaiming me as one of their own."

"Away With Words" marks his directorial debut, but actually this is an understatement. The film has Doyle's name plastered all over it: "Away With Words" was also written, shot, casted, edited, revised and probably rocked to sleep at night by Doyle. One of the protagonists is his best friend. A key location spot was shot in the building next to his Hong Kong apartment. Between takes he and the whole crew crowded in his living room to eat snacks and listen to music.

"I believe in making films with people I feel comfortable with," explained Doyle. "It's easier that way and costs much less. This was a little, personal sort of film, its size was something that I could fit into my apartment."

Maybe so, but the effects of "Away With Words" could never be so easily contained. Already heralded by the Japanese media as "a major cinematic event," the film is bound to seal his position as Guru of Asian Cool. To which Doyle, surprised, said: "You mean I'm not that yet? What happened?"

The following are excerpts from the interview he gave last week with what the distributors have described as classic Doyle exuberance. Or maybe he was just eager to get it done so that he could head down to Shinjuku where he had promised to show his gay friend Kevin Sherlock (who stars in the movie) his first Japanese gay bar.

Have you ever thought about returning to Sydney?

"No. For one thing I disagree with the Australian view of life which says that 'Life is a Beach.' And I could never live in a suburb again. The only place for me is in the heart of a small and exciting city, close to the water. That's why Hong Kong works so well for me."

How's your relationship with your mother?

"Not very good. She was really shocked at 'Happy Together,' that I'd actually done a film about a gay couple, with lovemaking scenes. And yet she professes to be a Catholic, which is a contradiction if you ask me. I think that in many ways, I'm much more religious and know more about love than she does."

Are you gay?

"No. I love women. I may get around to guys eventually but right now, I'm too busy with women. But I love gay men. They're my best friends. I could never talk to a straight guy; they're so macho and boring. I hear that Japanese men are the worst in this sense, poor you."

Your work shows an acute appreciation of the male physique. Tadanobu Asano (the main protagonist) has never looked so alluring.

"Yes. You're right, but then Asano is a particularly alluring type of guy. No woman could resist his combination of innocence and naughtiness and fragility. You just want to wrap him in your arms and mother him. Plus, he has a nice hairy chest. Irresistible."

How does working in Hollywood compare to working in Hong Kong?

"Well, it's easier in Hong Kong. I speak the lingo better. For example, certain technical terms I know how to say in Cantonese but not in English. In the U.S., I'd point to a camera lens and I'd be saying 'Uh, I want to use the, uh, that thing. Very embarrassing."

Will you direct again?

"Yes, but only personal films, and only when I have something to say. But let's face it: Other people have much better stories to tell, and they tell it with much more skill and power. Those are the good directors. I'm a photographer, and it's more important that I become the best there is."

"Away With Words" (Japanese title: "Kujaku") opens Aug. 7 at Cine Amuse in Shibuya.

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