Emoting with Creative Minimalism: Mufeng Han’s Artistry in The Cellist 

Cinematographer Mufeng Han

The Cellist does what film is meant to do; yes, it entertains but more importantly, it informs the audience about the emotional perspective and experience of others. Specifically, this film depicts the very current day dilemma of how performing professionals in the Arts feel when caught between tradition and innovation. In this case, a cellist of immense talent struggles with how performing for an online audience stifles the ability to emote which he has established with a live audience throughout the majority of his career. Along with the dancer whom he accompanies, this musician exemplifies what so many creative individuals have experienced during the pandemic and whether this will become the new normal for them. The minimal cast of this film delivers moving performances which are catapulted by the intriguing visual language presented courtesy of cinematographer Mufeng Han. The lighting design is similarly minimal but abundantly possesses strong choices which elevate the expressive capabilities of the cast. The sets rebuke confinement to manifest emotional spaces rather than physical ones. This DP takes the audience into a state that vacillates between third person and the internal emotional journey of the cellist.

This film stars some familiar, if not quite household name, faces including Jonathan Fishman (of HBO’s Crashing) as the Cellist, Rita Khori as the Dancer (of the TBS Primetime Award Winning Conan) as his dancer/accompanist, Maria Proios, and Ben Zelevansky (of People’s Choice Award Nominated Series The Goldbergs, Primetime Emmy Award Winning Series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Primetime Emmy Nominated Series Bosch). The story centers on an accomplished career cellist who finds himself performing to an online audience and a barebones production team. He finds the experience disconcerting. The human interaction he has experienced his entire life is in the ether; the only proof of the reception of his efforts are online metrics. In a very personal way, The Cellist explores how artists of a certain age and genre of music are coping with the evolution of entertainment. This specific scenario is timely and fairly unexplored in cinema. Director Jesse Nesser and DP Mufeng Han have taken some big swings to create a somewhat nebulous setting which is still infused with familiar elements. Mufeng describes, “For this film, the story is about an individual confrontation system. The Director was looking for an isolated visual style for the protagonist. The background setting is a recording studio so I felt that using the stage lighting with emphasis on the characters and allowing the surrounding environment to be darker would be an expressive and creative approach.” More than most films, the lighting design of The Cellist is profound and inseparable from the way the story is told and experienced. It’s as if the characters and the audience take their emotional cues from the lighting cues which occur throughout the film. As with so many successful endeavors, the genius of Mufeng’s lighting design is in his conception and implementation rather than a unheard of innovation. His artistic instincts hit on target continually throughout The Cellist as the visuals careen into every emotional peak and valley of the film’s central character.

When at their best, films do far more than entertain, they illuminate the experiences of others whose journeys might never be familiar to us. The Cellist has achieved this in a relatable manner that is equally intriguing. Technology continues to change all of our lives at a blinding rate; the lives of professional musicians even more so. We all have our own version of how modern life challenges through its “benevolent” evolution, The Cellist cultivates a commonality in this even though it highlights this particular musician’s experience. The story is poignant, the look of this film is enveloping, the wisdom gained is most certainly applicable to all.

Writer: Coleman Haan