I am brutal on directors. Not in a “Where’s my half-caff soy latte!?!” kind of a way, but in my expectations. I show up on time—all the time. I don’t need my ass kissed. I don’t throw tantrums.
But I want my directors to show me something. Something new. Every time.
Directors on Parts Unknown are given tremendous license to try just about anything they want in the cause of being different, being creative, upending expectations, destroying conventional story arcs.
A director with an idea—for a destination or a new shooting or editing style or new equipment, any new way of telling a story that is likely to cause fear and confusion at the network (and possibly with our audience)—is welcome to try.
I have enthusiastically supported shows in black and white, anamorphic, told in reverse, shot on deliberately eroded 16-millimeter film stock, dream sequences, animations, shot completely at night, and in places, I would never otherwise have gone were it not for the passion of the director.
I hate nothing more than a competently shot and edited episode. One foot in front of the other, a plodding, well-put-together hour of storytelling that trudges efficiently toward predictably heartwarming closing remarks.
So when our extremely talented director for a long-planned Hong Kong show had to drop out at the last minute for emergency gallbladder surgery, I knew right away whom to call.
I knew, as it turned out, an accomplished film director. Someone with over 30 years in the business, who had worked with some of the most innovative directors out there, like Gus Van Sant, Abel Ferrara, Olivier Assayas, George Romero, and of course, her father, Dario Argento. Someone with a reputation—even a compulsion—to be audacious.
I’m talking, naturally, about Asia Argento, with whom, it is fair to say, I am quite close—and who is well acquainted with both the Parts Unknown production process (aka the chaos method) and the crew.
Her mission, on just a few days’ notice, was to go to Hong Kong and shoot an episode we had been dreaming about and planning for six years: a look at that city through the eyes of the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who, in his nearly 30-year career there, has shot some of the most iconic and defining depictions of that city, in Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and many other films.
It has long been my hope to get Chris on the show as a guest. Little did I know—or ever expect—that he would end up shooting most of it along with our crew.
The resulting Hong Kong episode is therefore both unlike any other episode, but … well … also … historic in the sense that never before has such a heavyweight director of photography lent his efforts to a television travel show. Or a director with three films under her belt, for that matter.
We looked at the Hong Kong that’s disappearing before our eyes—of hand-made noodles, dai pai dong, small shops run by artists and craftsmen, street stalls, and fishing villages. And a bit of the new as well: a young Hong Kong that is wary of the future and what might come with it.
As we do at our best, we chucked convention out the window.
In keeping with the Christopher Doyle philosophy, we “reacted to the room” and the people. We threw out our Pelican cases full of gels. Avoided, wherever necessary, the fascistic concept of continuity. Messed (often midscene) with the equally tyrannical and artificial notion of blocking. We filled the frame with living, breathing people—moving through the busy streets, markets, houses, and teahouses of Hong Kong as they do.
And we came home with a very nice slice of a great and beautiful and always delicious city, as seen through the eyes of a longtime resident who loves it deeply.
Bonus: Mike Ruffino, Parts Unknown’s composer, created this killer, Cantonese version of “Rising Sun Blues (House of the Rising Sun)” especially for this episode:
Highlights from Hong Kong on Explore Parts Unknown:
- An illustrated love letter to the dai pai dong
- A conversation with Happy Paradise chef May Chow
- A primer on Hong Kong’s complicated relationship with China
- A photo essay from Simon Go on the city’s disappearing storefronts
- A feature on Hong Kong’s annual bun festival
- Two blistering Cantonese remakes of “Rising Sun Blues,” from show composer Mike Ruffino.