Yonfan, the former model, actor and photographer-turned-filmmaker, has had a distinguished career as a director of artistic and challenging films.
He has made detailed and often sexually daring pictures, including “Bugis Street,” “Bishonen” and “Color Blossoms,” and given career fillips to many of today’s top Asian stars, from Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung, to Shu Qi and Daniel Wu.
While Yonfan has earned recognition and admiration, with films in Venice and Moscow, he has not gained the cult status or adulation of his decade younger contemporary Wong Kar-wai, with whom paths have criss-crossed many times. But that doesn’t seem to rankle.
From now on Yonfan won’t be getting stressed, having retired from filmmaking after 2009’s “Prince of Tears.” Instead, these days, he has taken up writing as a nearly full time occupation.
Another sideline has been to become a film investor. He was one of the first to back “Concrete Clouds,” the directorial debut of Thai film editor Lee Chatametikool that last month swept the Subhanahongsa (Thai Film) Awards.
Yonfan dislikes the term investment and says he was “lending support.” And he disguised his involvement in the film for over a year by hiding behind a company name (Far Sun Film) on the list of executive producers.
Yonfan was introduced to Chatametikool and the project by publicist Norman Wang. He discovered that several key players in the Thai indie scene were involved, including producer Anocha Suwichakornpong, and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in 2010.
“I knew everything about the project when I met [Chatametikool], and I also knew how difficult it is to make a first film,” says Yonfan. “Besides I’m a huge Thai film fan. I watch everything from the corniest commercial movies to the indie films.”
“I never made movies for commercial reasons. Only when I had something to say, whether romantic or about sexual themes. That’s why I feel so close to the Thai independents. They are so relaxed.”
Like a smart investor, Yonfan brought in an experienced producer to help the debutant director. He approached multihyphenate Sylvia Chang, one of the most respected movie talents in Asia, and director of “Murmur of the Hearts,” the opening-night film of this week’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. Chang, who, like Yonfan, has Taiwan roots but is Hong Kong-based, was also involved with the editing.
“I was very happy with the end result. It was far beyond my expectations,” says Yonfan. So too was the awards haul. “We nearly didn’t make it to Bangkok because of Chinese New Year, and we had absolutely no idea of any prizes beforehand. The awards ceremony was the first time I publicly acknowledged my role in the film.”
Yonfan says he won’t be coming out of moviemaking retirement. “I’m tired of filmmaking. I’m not so young and energetic any more,” he says. But he remains highly active on the fringes.
It is not just the process of filming that is tiring. Yonfan find the internecine Asian film politics frustrating.
He is still infuriated by Taiwan’s reaction to his 2009 film “Prince of Tears,” which recounted the director’s own childhood in Taiwan (he was born in Wuhan, China, in 1947, and his parents moved to Taiwan in 1951) as well as the period of oppressive anti-Communist repression known as the “White Terror.” When “Tears” was proposed by Hong Kong as its foreign-language Oscar contender, Taiwan stripped the film of $310,000 in subsidies it had previously been awarded. “I won’t go to Taiwanese movies any more. The authorities are so unfair,” he says.
He has mixed views about the current state of the film industry in mainland China too. “I first went to China in 1984, but now I feel it has lost its essence. Everything now is so much bigger,” Yonfan says. “Film should be about culture, not just merchandise.”
“China is so vast. There are so many intelligent, artistic people in China. There must be a hundred Yonfans in China. Sooner or later audiences will want these (cultural) things. And eventually they will want to see them in cinemas, not just on the Internet or on TV.”
Yonfan has retrieved the rights to all but one of his movies and has recently financed their restoration. Two festivals, Moscow and Busan, have held Yonfan retrospectives. “People may expect to see them on DVD, but I haven’t released them. One day I will decide, when I find the proper way, or the people who are really interested,” he said.
Meanwhile, he has been writing furiously and has two books of memoirs coming up this year. The first, 12 essays on Wong Kar-wai, with John Powers is set to be published next month by Rizzoli. The second, on the movies of Hong Kong from the 1960s, is due out in July and published by Oxford University Press.
“Why do I admire Wong Kar-wai so much? We are working in the same genre. But we work so differently. He trusts everything to his cameraman, his editor and so on. I’m very hands on, very controlling.”