China-born Hong Kong film writer-director Yonfan is a man not known for being bashful, sparse or modest in his movies.
In showpiece works like 2001’s Peony Pavilion and 2004’s controversial Colour Blossoms, his is a flamboyant, exuberant style where you remember the luscious women, costumes and even the lampshade and seat cushion.
Fifteen years ago, he also directed Bugis Street to a colourful, glam-lit haze in Singapore. Yonfan, 62, lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan as a child, studied film in the United States, before returning to Hong Kong to work as a photographer famous for celebrity portraits.
His current film, Prince Of Tears, is set in Taiwan in the 1950s when a cruel campaign called White Terror was conducted to exterminate so-called sympathisers of Mao’s communists from the mainland.
In town recently to promote the film, part of the Hong Kong Film Festival and currently playing at The Picturehouse, Yonfan spoke to inSing.com about the film and his career.
How personal is this story?
It’s based on the family of a good friend of mine who worked with me on the script of Peony Pavilion. The main characters – the pilot, his wife, their two daughters and the friend, Uncle Ding, who betrayed them – are real people. But I created the story out of my own childhood during the White Terror period in Taiwan.
My family were not victims. My father was never involved in politics. But other people, like my classmate’s father, were taken away. Some came back, others didn’t.
There’s a sadness to the film. Is sadness important to you?
I don’t think it is sadness. I think there’s melancholy in all my movies. There’s always unfulfilled love. On the outside, I’m a very fulfilled person, very happy, but probably inside me there is longing. This sense of longing goes into my films. My heroines in Peony Pavilion, Colour Blossoms and Prince Of Tears are challenged by fate but they would not be defeated in their lives. They fight back. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.
Prince Of Tears is quite sparse in the decorative sense. It doesn’t look like a Yonfan film.
No, it’s very Yonfan. It’s ultimate Yonfan. It’s not so decorated because of the setting. I create a look which I think is right for its time. Peony Pavilion was very decadent and lush. So was Colour Blossoms. But with Prince Of Tears, there’s an elegance of simplicity in a 1950s world that’s not so materialistic. Even a bottle of Coca Cola meant something really special. Many people think I’m a decorative director. I never set out to do that.
So critics are wrong in describing you as having style over substance?
It’s about seriousness and devotion to craft. If I want to make a movie about a courthouse or noble house, it has to go its unique way. Every stitch needs to be finely embroidered. When I set Colour Blossoms in the decadence of a haunted apartment in Hong Kong, it had to go its own way. In Prince Of Tears, the uniforms of soldiers and police, the clothes of the civilians, they were the way I remembered them. People mistake my devotion for indulgence. That’s their problem. I know what I’m doing.
Teresa Cheung memorably wore a cheongsam in Colour Blossoms. So do the women in Prince Of Tears. What’s your fascination with the cheongsam and the female form?
Actually before Peony Pavilion, I never featured a cheongsam in my movies. But because of the period in the film, we made really beautiful cheongsams. In Colour Blossoms, I wanted originally for only Keiko Matsuzaka and Harisu to wear cheongsams because it’s so beautiful when foreigners wear them as they move their bodies differently from Chinese women. But I decided to be fair and let Teresa wear it too. She was alluring.
In Prince Of Tears, it’s simply because women wore them during that period. Everybody wore the cheongsam. My mother did. In one scene, when the pilots returned home, their wives came out dressed in them. It was like a beauty contest.
In this aspect, you have been compared to Wong Kar Wai. How do you feel about this?
I’m very flattered when people compare me with Wong Kar Wai. He’s a very, very good director. It’s funny because in Hong Kong, people say the two of us are quite alike. They say we’re both ahead of our time but he’s recognised all over the world while I’m not, and I must be jealous. Why should I feel jealous?
You made Bugis Street in Singapore in 1995. Give us your impressions of Singapore now.
I haven’t had enough time to really get into Singapore. I made Bugis Street 15 years ago. So I really cannot say anything. You cannot say Singapore is wonderful after you just had two very good Indian meals. Just like you cannot say Singapore has changed for the worse because the old buildings are gone and it’s too clean.
But I think that we should go ahead with our lives and move on. We don’t look back to regret what we’ve done. In my film, I said let bygones by bygones. There’s a past you remember but don’t hang on to it.
Who is Yonfan right now? A filmmaker, photographer, decorator, traveller or a searcher of ideas and emotions?
From your choices, I choose searcher. Instead of being put into a certain profession, I prefer to be more open. I like that word because I’m looking for things, looking for inspiration, looking to be moved by this fascinating world we live in.