Hong Kong Legend Wing Shya on photography and Asian cinema

The 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 while working as a photographer with Hong Kong’s most famous filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Movies like Happy together (1997), In the mood for love (2000), Eros (2004) and 2046 (2004) demonstrated a learning curve that developed his style through a series of experiments and accidents. On the set, Shya captured the raw emotional essence of Wong’s films and stars like Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Daniel Wu and Gong Li. Spontaneous moments, unfiltered facial expressions and thoughtless moods became Shya’s specialty.

The cinema has proven to be the central axis for the artist and photographer, so it may come as no surprise that short 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 accumulates in Moods, Shya’s solo exhibition in Beijing’s traditional siheyuan Complex from 1921 in Wangfujing. Instead of a more traditional exhibition, galleries are organized here according to emotional themes such as nostalgia, intensity, fantasy and dreams.

Hong Kong Legend Wing Shya on photography and Asian cinema
The 1921 Beijing showroom for Moods

“As I delved deeper into the layers of his work,” explains curator Shelly Verthime, “I understood the sensitivity with which he invites the audience to use all of their senses in order to feel the stories that are told by his pictures, to feel the ones to unspoken emotions will be. The narrative is embedded, never literally … His is the story in the story. “

This exhibition follows on from the 2017 retrospective Act out at the Shanghai Center of Photography and the 2006 exhibition Distraction / attraction at the Japanese Mori Art Museum – he was the first non-Japanese photographer to exhibit there.

“Shya transforms the art of cinematography into a beautifully crafted production,” adds Verthime. “He created this unique film style and shaped it as his own … It 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 characterized by its distinctive capture of emotions and the use of focus and color, so that his work permeates poetic sensuality. The Hong Kong-born photographer and director talks about his latest solo exhibition as well as his developments in film and photography.

Legend Wing Shya on photography and cinema in Hong Kong

Hong Kong photographer legend Wing Shya
Wing Shya
This exhibition is called Moods. Why this concept and this title?

Actually, my curator decided to do it. She decided everything in this exhibition, and I didn’t get into it too much. I trust their eyes and sometimes I enjoy watching someone else choose and create as if I were doing it myself. It brings a different perspective into my work and becomes something new for me.

How is your own mood these days?

I am very calm. After the pandemic, I stay at home more, travel less and have become more stable and calmer. I enjoy this kind of calm, this feeling of stillness.

What do you think makes a good photo?

I enjoy seeing something in a certain moment. There are so many videos and moving pictures everywhere these days, but when I look at a photo and I feel like it captures a moment or someone’s soul, I really enjoy it. I enjoy that more than a straight portrait. It captures a moment that you can never see when people are moving in real life because it passes so quickly. But if you can see it, if you can catch it, it means a lot.

Tell us about the new work in Beijing that you just did for this exhibition.

I’ve been to Beijing so many times that, to be honest, sometimes I don’t really see the city as I usually only drive from my car to work. But this time I really had to stop and look at Beijing – look at the color, the water, the refractions of light, the light that falls through the trees in the evening … I watched the people, was in places I had never been before , like night clubs or live music houses. Some of these places I would never go to myself, but I asked the producer to take me to the area where all the youth hang out – different places where you can get a feel for different people.

Maggie Cheung
Pictures from the Wing Shya exhibition Moods
The exhibition is housed in various galleries in a renovated historical Beijing Siheyuan courtyard house not far from the Forbidden City. This is a very different format than your usual museum or open gallery space. What do you want people to feel when they go there?

When I was young I always dreamed of doing a show like this. This is truly a dream come true, especially in Beijing. I used to go to people’s homes for dinner in Beijing – some magazine editors-in-chief have a Siheyuan house – and I saw modern photos hung in their house and noticed how very strong they became. When you have such a traditional Chinese house and you hang modern photos or paintings, the contrast is very strong. I think that is also the case in the exhibition.

Some of your most famous works capture an intimate moment from Asia’s greatest actors and actresses on film sets. The style is pretty distinctive – how do you do that?

I learned from Wong Kar-wai. I see him directing and I try to capture what he’s trying to say. He always taught me to take a picture that could tell the story of the whole film, so I always tried to capture that one moment with the actors … The actors and actresses barely see me when I take these pictures on set. You are not focused on me. I am like a ghost everywhere but nowhere which makes it easier because they are not looking at me.

How do the two compare as a photographer who switched to film directing?

Film is a completely different job. In a film you really have to tell a story. I really enjoy talking to the actors about how to act in a scene – it’s about the human condition and the emotions that the script conveys. In photography, for me, you never think about it, you just capture a moment, a picture. In the film, it’s really a challenge to get to know the different styles of the different actors and see how you can create this fictional character together. It’s also difficult with the various camera movements and the right music, but it’s so much fun. I also feel like I don’t have a strong style in the film because it really depends on what I think the script needs … I’m not trying to create my own style. But somehow some people recognize it by the colors and the imagery and say, that is very “you”. But I’m not trying to do that.

Images from Wing Shya's exhibition Moods
Images from Wing Shya's exhibition Moods
Pictures from the Wing Shya exhibition Moods
Which of these stars did you find special straight away?

Hard to say, everyone is 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 are so many details about him … I get to know your characters while we’re filming, not before. I’ve made so many mistakes so I learn as I work.

After directing your two feature film comedies, Hot summer days and Love in spacewill you continue in this genre?

I actually did two more comedies, but they’re still in post-production and haven’t been released yet. One of the films is called Puppy Love: It’s a Comedy with a Lot of Dogs so it was so much fun filming it. On the other hand, I cannot publish the name yet. When I watch movies myself, I like romantic comedies. I’m looking for these human stories with touching moments.

What are your hopes for the cinema in Hong Kong? In your opinion, what is the next wave of martial arts and comedy of yesterday?

I honestly do not know. But there are a lot of relationship-related topics in Hong Kong cinema these days that I really like. It’s a small town and I’ve seen movies that, despite a small budget, put a lot of effort into making stories that can really move audiences. I really like that.

What do you think of this recent rise in Asian cinema around the globe?

I think it’s amazing. Especially since Tony Leung can be a leading actor in a Hollywood movie. It’s a great opportunity for Asia to speak to the world.

(Hero and Portrait: Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai’s In the mood for love photographed by Wing Shya)

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