The Chinese cinematographer is known for his work with acclaimed director Lu Chuan, including Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, City of Life and Death and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe.
Growing up in Beijing, China, new Society member Cao Yu was entrenched in cinema due to his father working as a screenwriter at Beijing Film Studio. One day, when the young man was in his seventh year of school, Cao’s father took him to the studio to watch a group of foreign filmmakers shooting a feature his father said was called The Last Emperor. Later, when watching the film on the big screen, Cao was taken aback by shots of the Forbidden City as well as the Beijing Film Studio.
“They were too gorgeous and splendid to look like what I saw in my eyes. I even went to the Forbidden City and observed carefully from the shot angles, but [what I saw] still looked different from the film. I asked my father why, and he told me it was because of the magic of the cinematographer. Thus, I remembered a name hard to pronounce in Chinese — Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC,” Cao says.
“I decided to become a light-shadow magician [who could make] people doubt their eyes just like Mr. Storaro.”
Cao studied cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy, where, in his school’s library, he first discovered American Cinematographer. “I found out that the magicians were open to sharing their magic tricks; [many] proudly put ‘ASC’ after their names,” he says. Cao shares that he photocopied many articles to read and study. “To be honest, AC taught me more than film school [about how] to be a cinematographer, who should first be an artist. I don’t remember how many times I prayed to one day put ‘ASC’ after my name, and I wished I could have the opportunity to share my magic tricks with others. It became my conviction, encouraging me to move forward.”
Cao’s thesis film received accolades, and after graduation, he served as director of photography on Chicken Poets, directed by Meng Jinghui. Since then, he has collaborated with acclaimed director Lu Chuan on multiple projects, including the features Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, City of Life and Death and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe.
Kekexili: Mountain Patrol won best picture at the Golden Horse Film Festival, where Cao also earned the best cinematography award. It was also honored with accolades from the Golden Rooster Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards. For his work on City of Life and Death, Cao earned best cinematography honors from the Golden Horse Awards, Asian Film Awards, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and San Sebastián International Film Festival.
For his work in the Chinese-Hong Kong romantic comedy See You Tomorrow, directed by Zhang Jiajia, Cao earned a best cinematography award from the Hong Kong Film Awards as well as a nomination from the Golden Horse Awards. His feature credits also include Legend of the Demon Cat, directed by Chen Kaige, and Forever Young, directed by Li Fangfang.
His upcoming credits include The Eight Hundred and Early Youth.