Jean-Louis Vialard, AFC, discusses his work on CB Yi’s "Moneyboys"

A cause des garçons

par Jean-Louis Vialard

[ English ] [ français ]

Moneyboys is a first Taiwanese film, selected in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, which paints a sensitive and elegant portrait of a young Chinese male prostitute. Director CB Yi and cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard, AFC, decided to work using long takes in a series of different locations, each of which was very carefully chosen, to literally build the ambience and the visual identity of this film. (FR)

Shot between May and July 2019, well before the pandemic, this film was coproduced by Austria (KGP), France (Zorba Productions), Belgium and Taiwan. “It was partly thanks to Tropical Malady (by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) that I’d shot, that French producer Guillaume de La Boulaye introduced me to Bo Chen (CB Yi)”, explains Jean-Louis Vialard. “Bo Chen, the director, had also appreciated my work on other films such as Face à la nuit, and so we quickly and naturally developed a rapport.”

Even though the film is set in mainland China, where homosexuality remains a taboo topic, all of the locations were in Taiwan, which is an isolated paradise for the LGBT community in Asia. “Besides the actors’ accents and several factual elements in the locations, one of the main issues of the film”, explains Jean-Louis Vialard, “was to use the locations we were able to find on Taiwan so that we could maintain a degree of realism. When I arrived in Taiwan, the director had already spent several months scouting locations. The village where the protagonist was born, for example, wasn’t easy to find, as it had to pass for a village on the mainland. It was, in fact, in the middle of an area used to raise ducks where they’d created an artificial island… On the island was a traditional Chinese village used for tourism and wedding photos !”

Mainly composed of locked down shots, this film contains many long takes, even in the few "action" scenes, such as the fight with the character of Brother Bao. “This is what really impressed me in Bo. There isn’t a single closeup or cutaway shot in the entire film. Everything is shot in wide angle, even though, from time to time, the producers would insist that I suggest he do a couple ! In the fight scene, I think his directorial intuition was perfectly justified, by using one of the few high-angle shots for the end of the scene, where the characters are engaged in a melee down in the mud. The break is perfectly expressed in that shot.” A few shots, including the one that closes the first act, also feature camera moves that follow the actors. “It’s a magnificent shot taken by Steadicam operator Chen Hsu Zu. It was the first shot taken during shooting ! We use that building full of passageways and staircases to create a sort of labyrinth the hero finally escapes from to enter the light at the end of the frame. The opening credits begin just after, as a counterpoint, and to signal the end of the long prologue.”

Tunnels, labyrinths and passageways are a recurring theme throughout the film. An example is the web of railings and staircases in the tearoom, or in the covered pedestrian passageway that is the location of one of the last scenes between Liang Fei and Han Xiaolai. “This location was perfect for that scene”, explains Jean-Louis Vialard. “Although it was far away from the others, we did everything we could to make sure it would be possible by making concessions elsewhere.” This location was almost not relit at all, and the DP simply eliminated parasite lights using large pieces of dark fabric, and by judiciously choosing the position for the end of the camera move, where a battery powered Flexlite was placed as a backlight. This is the image that was chosen for the international distribution poster.

Jean-Louis Vialard also used the dolly for mealtime scenes or celebration scenes around tables. Of note is a very handsome lateral motorized traveling shot following the two boys on a motorcycle in front of an immense wall covered in a fresco. “This was a 10-meter-long wall that we found in Taipei and that is used to prevent storm surges. When we shot the scene, we just wanted to shoot in that neighborhood for reasons related to the production schedule. Although most of those dikes are made of plain, grey cement, we accidently landed on that section, which was covered in naïve frescoes.”

Although the film is realistic in its approach to photography, several of the nighttime locations (such as the nightclubs and the cabarets) fully play with very saturated colors. “We shot in the red-light district of Taipei where Japanese businessmen come to go wild. I chose to play with the colored lighting, which breaks with the very cold, white atmosphere of the protagonist’s apartment. I wanted to give those scenes a timeless quality, as though they were an interlude in that young man’s life.”
For the other, primarily urban, locations, the DP also remembers sometimes having had to fight to get extras : “The directorial choice of long takes that Bo made is daring. But the very unpopulated aspect of some of the urban shots sometimes made me ask questions about realism, given the reality of China…”

The director chose to give the same actress the three main female roles in the film. “He didn’t want to give up that idea,” explains the cinematographer. “He is an extremely precise director, and he is ready to fight tenaciously to defend his ideas. It wasn’t always easy to make the production schedule and its multiple locations jibe with her availabilities, but we did it !”

Amongst the most emblematic scenes with the actress is the long confession scene between brother and sister, in the village location, under a tree. “This is a shot that I really like. It was even my preference for the film poster. I shot at full aperture (T1.4), with the 32mm Leitz Summilux, and that way I could focus the gaze on the actors, who alone are in focus, despite the wide shot. We shot at a specific hour so that we could benefit from the ¾ sun backlight, but we increased its level with a big white frame and a SkyPanel-type LED so that I could keep details in the stormy sky in the background. That humid and rainy environment characterizes the entire part in the village because that’s how the weather was the week we were shooting there. Another rather magical scene was the bus scene, which was shot on a rainy day on that incredibly steep road where the wheels were scraping the edge of the cliff. I didn’t light the inside of the bus, but just adjusted the aperture halfway between the shadows and the highlights, and my trust in the Alexa allowed me to navigate later on in color grading to balance it out inside the shot.”

In terms of post-production, Isabelle Julien / Ike No Koi oversaw the colorimetric finishing, on the basis of a shot taken in ProRes 4444. “I work without a DIT, but with LUTs that have been carefully designed on the basis of camera tests with actors, costumes, and elements of the locations. On this film, the camera and lenses came from France. Because they only arrived a few days before shooting, I had to deal with what was most urgent and use a selection of rather neutral LUTs. Isabelle Julien was able to reintroduce the depth and the sculptural quality that I had in mind ; they are so important in long takes.”

“The camera was often set at 2,000ISO at night, but with an ND6 or 12 to reduce the depth, such as in the scene where the two boys are crossing a park and happen upon a dancer during a performance under a streetlamp, with continuous automobile traffic on the boulevard behind her. In fact, Asian megalopolises are naturally over-lit at night. You’re at levels where you can shoot at T4 or T5.6 with no problems. I wonder if it’s not the move to LEDs that have made the amount of lux increase exponentially. In this scene, I simply reworked the light the dancer had set up herself ; all I did was to soften it using a Depron, while the ambient light on the actors was provided by a magenta ambient light (via the Chinese imitation of a SkyPanel that we had on hand, connected to a simple Kino Flo located alongside the park.”

Delighted with his latest experience in Asia, Jean-Louis Vialard nonetheless still hasn’t managed the language. “I communicate with the crew in English, but sometimes it’s true that it’s difficult to follow the actors’ lines with the camera. This was particularly tough during mealtime scenes, such as the ones in the village or the New Year’s celebrations, where I had to follow the actors’ performances. Happily, we did rehearse in advance, and we shot many takes. After some time, you begin to feel things, even if you don’t understand all the words. Also, I do feel comfortable in that environment, where I’m in my bubble, and I can’t understand everything being said around me. In some ways, it allows me to concentrate more on the cinematography…”

Interview conducted by François Reumont, translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC.