First Taiwan-based movie by Chinese vet Yonfan is more a lush meller.

Anyone expecting a drama centered on Taiwan’s “white terror” of the ’50s will feel let down by “Prince of Tears.” First Taiwan-based movie by Chinese vet Yonfan is more a lush meller set during the commie witch-hunt period than a real exploration of the island’s darkest political scar. Dripping with Yonfan trademarks — color-saturated lensing, pin-up male leads, doll-like women and a simmering air of pansexuality — “Prince” will win more hearts among gay males than regular patrons, even though it’s the writer-director’s most substantial pic in a long time in regards to subject matter.

Born in mainland China in 1947, Yonfan (aka Yang Fan) grew up in Taiwan during the period (1950-54) when the witch hunt was at its most brutal; the movie, though apparently based on a true story, partly uses his own childhood memories. Until the end of martial law in 1987, the era was a totally verboten topic in Taiwan, and only directly referenced for the first time in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “City of Sadness” (1989).

A real movie about the white terror, which led to thousands executed and many more jailed, has still to be made, though Wan Jen’s 1995 “Super Citizen Ko,” which flashes back to the period, remains the most powerful so far. Two other pics that partly refer to it — Hou’s “Good Men, Good Women” and Hsu Hsiao-ming’s “Heartbreak Island” — also appeared the same year. “Prince” is the first production in more than a decade to revisit the era.

The opening — which resurrects a copy of the patriotic short that, at the time, was played before all films during the national anthem — succinctly sketches the period’s flavor, as the island was flooded with refugees who had fled the communists’ victory over the right-wing Kuomintang in China. It’s almost a pity when the movie proper, which also starts in black-and-white, becomes suffused with color. Yonfan himself provides the nostalgic, ironic voiceover, paralleling the characters in an (invented) children’s storybook, “Prince of Tears,” with the pic’s central family.

Though the parents, air-force pilot Sun Han-sheng (Joseph Chang) and wife Ping (Beijing-born beauty queen Zhu Xuan), are shown from the get-go, the movie’s early viewpoint is that of their young daughters, Li and Zhou. In an episode forecasting the drama to come, tiny tot Zhou falls hard for her handsome art teacher, Qiu (Lin Yo-wei), before he’s carted off by the military one day for painting in a “forbidden zone.”

The focus shifts more to the adults as the scarred Ding Ke-qiang (Fan Chih-wei), a family friend, is introduced at dinner. Quiet and brooding, and an employee of the KMT’s bureau of political security, he warns Han-sheng to go easy on playing East European folk melodies on his accordion. Easygoing Han-sheng shrugs him off, but a reel later, he and Ping are both arrested as “communist spies.”

The official reason is that, while still in China, Han-sheng went back into a communist-occupied zone to rescue his eldest daughter, Li. But the movie then gradually unfolds the tangled backstory of the protags’ lives, including that of glamourpuss Ouyang Qianjun (Terri Kwan), a onetime friend who’s recently turned up married to a KMT general (Kenneth Tsang).

Beyond one scene showing executions, the full horror of the white terror is never shown; it seems more of a dramatic device to remove and insert characters at will into a story that’s basically about emotional betrayal. The final reel is borderline over-the-top, though very typical of Yonfan’s filmic universe. However, it does beg the question of how much is invented and how much true in an account whose real-life characters are meticulously catalogued in the end titles.

Though dramatically the movie is heir to all of Yonfan’s usual shortcomings (patchy character development, meller flourishes), visually it’s still a treat; the leads might have been cut out of a ’50s Taiwanese movie magazine, especially Taiwanese stalwart Kwan, vamping like crazy. Zhu is simply too expressionless for the pivotal role of Ping, while Chang (“Everlasting Summer”) and Fan (“Miao Miao”) are equally mannequin-like.

Production design, by Yonfan himself, also seems to mimic offshore Chinese movies of the ’50.

Prince of Tears

Hong Kong-Taiwan

Production

A Far-Sun Film Co. (Hong Kong)/Peony5 Film Co. (Taiwan) production. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Fruit Chan. Directed, written by Yonfan.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Chin Ting-chang; editor, Kong Chi-leung, Derek Hui; music, Yu Yat-yiu; theme song, George Lam; production designer, Yonfan; sound (Dolby Digital), Tu Duu-chih. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Fan Chih-wei, Terri Kwan, Joseph Chang, Zhu Xuan, Kenneth Tsang, Chiao Chiao, Jack Kao, Lin Yo-wei, Yan Xin-rou, Cai Pei-han, Lee Bo-shiuan, Li Lieh. Narrator: Yonfan. (Mandarin dialogue)
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more