Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Maggie Cheung

Maggie Cheung, Toronto, Sept. 2000

THIS PHOTO SHOOT WAS BOTH THE END AND THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING. At the time I didn't have a clue that it would be significant, and when the results were published I considered it both a disappointment and a vindication. I'm posting it here as a watershed of sorts - a dividing line that very nearly cuts my career in two parts. Considering their significance, I wish these shots were a lot better, but to my eyes they're really nothing special.

I photographed actress Maggie Cheung at the film festival, where she was promoting Wong Kar-Wai's lush but enigmatic romance In The Mood For Love. The 2000 Toronto International Film Festival was unique for me - working with my fiancee, who was entertainment editor at the short-lived GTA Today, I'd picked a handful of films and interview subjects, in addition to a daily sidebar featuring festival personalities behind the scenes. We though it was a pretty good package, especially considering the meagre resources we had to pull it off.

Maggie Cheung, Toronto, Sept. 2000

I'd been a fan of Wong Kar-Wai since I saw a retrospective of his films a few years previous at the Cinematheque, and knew that I had to do something with In The Mood For Love when I saw it at the pre-festival press screenings. Cheung and Tony Leung play two neighbours in early '60s Hong Kong who discover their spouses are having an affair. Forced together by this infidelity, they discover an attraction to each other that, with a simmering intensity that builds for the whole film, they never actually consummate.

It's an utterly ravishing film, thanks to the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin, the exquisite costume design, the evocative soundtrack and especially Cheung and Leung, two fantastically attractive people. Cheung, in her high-collared tailored cheongsam dresses and piled-up hair, is a magnet for the camera in every shot, walking down the narrow nighttime streets of old Hong Kong or waiting in the shadows of one of the film's innumerable stairwells.

Maggie Cheung, Toronto, Sept. 2000

One of my shots of Cheung ended up on the cover, and thanks to her superstar status in the Chinese community it had the biggest newsstand circulation numbers of any issue of the paper so far. I felt vindicated for choosing Cheung as a feature interview, despite my disappointment at the shoot itself; either feeling rushed or intimidated, I didn't try as hard as I should have to get a really lovely portrait of Cheung.

I could blame the dim, difficult lighting in the room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor, with its tiny windows (especially small compared to the Four Seasons Yorkville nearby) shaded by adjacent buildings. That would, however, be nothing but an excuse, as I would learn to work with the light in the Intercontinental a few years later, after the hotel superseded the Four Seasons, Sutton Place and Park Plaza to become the main film festival hotel for a decade.

I'm getting ahead of myself, however. This would, technically, be my last film festival for four years. I was assigned to shoot the film festival the following year, but it would be a disaster. For the opening weekend the paper - now a merger between GTA Today and the free daily it had been set up to compete with - lent me one of the new Nikon/Kodak DCS digital cameras, a big, clunky piece of gear that ran on proprietary software.

After shooting all weekend with the camera, I brought it back to the newsroom on Monday to have the paper's tech boffin download my images from the internal drive. He was gone for a worrying hour, and finally came back shaking his head. Everything was corrupted - the whole weekend had been a complete waste. The photo editor told me to go back to using my Canon, and that she'd set up a courier system to get my film to their darkroom every day.

That should have worked, but the next day was September 11, 2001. K and I watched the second tower fall on TV, then she headed to work early to help put out the next day's paper. I went to the press office at the Intercontinental where I was told that the festival would be on hold for the next few days. I sat in a big silent hotel banquet room with for an hour watching endless loops of the attack and its aftermath on CNN with a few dozen other journalists and festival workers. If I shot anything else at the festival in 2001, I have nothing in my files.

I wouldn't shoot another film festival for three years, and as far as I can tell I only did one other portrait shoot between 2000 and 2004. A few months after I shot Maggie Cheung I was offered a contract job at the free daily as the interim photo editor while the regular editor went on medical leave. This turned into nearly eight years of full time newsroom work, first as photo editor, then as a critic, columnist, feature writer and photographer, all while becoming a father (twice.) It would end badly, but we'll get to that later.

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