The Maestro of Mood

William Chang Suk-ping is a man of few words. The Hong Kong film-industry icon rarely gives interviews and is not keen on talking theory. But his images say plenty. Known throughout Asia as the undisputed maestro of mood, Chang will soon be heard around the world with "My Blueberry Nights," his latest project with director Wong Kar Wai, which opened the 60th annual Cannes Film Festival last week. In Wong's first English-language effort, Chang—who is credited as production designer, costume designer and editor—tells the story of passion and loneliness on a road trip across America through the sexy golden stubble on Jude Law's jaw line, Natalie Portman's uncomfortably short blue floral baby-doll dress and Norah Jones's ringlets of dark curls cascading from under a green knit cap. "[Wong] owes a lot to Chang Suk-ping's genius," says film critic Perry Lam Pei-li, who edits Muse, a Hong Kong arts magazine. "Like all the best production designers, he has a great eye for detail. He makes the clothes and the props talk even more eloquently than the characters."

"My Blueberry Nights" marks the Hong Kong duo's ninth film collaboration. Though set in America, it clearly reflects their Hong Kong sensibilities; the hyper-real tones of the settings—roadside cafés, bars and casinos bathed in neon—recall the gritty Kowloon entertainment district where they set earlier films like "Chungking Express." Indeed, Chang, 53, learned his filmmaking skills in the style of his hometown through plenty of hands-on experience and minimal discussion. He describes his approach as "intuition."

Chang is comfortable wearing many hats at once. In most of Wong's work—including "Happy Together" and "In the Mood for Love"—he has handled editing as well as general design, two jobs that are typically held by different people. But Chang says it makes sense for him to do both because the two jobs are "all about the look." For "In the Mood" he created a memorable 1960s beehive-and-traditional-Chinese-dress period esthetic for actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. Speaking between bouts of postproduction in Bangkok a few days before Cannes, Chang says that he aspired to make "My Blueberry Nights" romantic and lyrical. "The colors are very vibrant," he says. "It is the most colorful film that we have ever made."

Like many films these days, the project boasts an impressive multinational ensemble of talent. Renowned crime-story author Lawrence Block co-wrote the script, the Iranian-French Darius Khondji ("Se7en," "The City of Lost Children") did the cinematography and the music is performed by American blues guitarist Ry Cooder. Jones, a Grammy-winning singer, makes her acting debut here as Elizabeth, a woman whose romantic breakup launches her on a road trip across America. Chang says that while he wanted her and Law—who plays Jeremy, an Englishman who runs the New York deli frequented by Elizabeth—to look undistinguished, he deliberately trussed up Portman's gambler in short, ill-fitting outfits that force her to constantly adjust her clothing, heightening her sense of insecurity.

Chang, who went to film school in Canada, first met Wong, then a script-writer, some 25 years ago, when a film-industry friend introduced them. They used to go to dinner together and talk cinema, and Chang worked as production designer on Wong's first film, "As Tears Go By," in 1988. When, in January 2006, Wong began to talk to Chang seriously about working on "My Blueberry Nights," Chang resisted at first because he didn't want to be away from Hong Kong for so long. "I didn't want to leave my cat," he says, half joking. But as he usually does, Chang relented, lured by the high-quality ideas.

Chang compares his bond with Wong to an old marriage. "We know each other so well, we don't talk much," he says. "He just gives me a word and I understand." After the pressures of doing a film together, however, Chang says he has to "take a break from him, so I leave him for at least half a year." He'll go off to do production or editing work for other movies and in advertising. But Chang is not interested in working in Hollywood. He prefers to operate on the fly, and doesn't believe in planning ahead. He says he just knows when the look is right. That makes every film as much his vision as the director's.