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Yonfan Shares His Enduring Love for Tumultuous Hong Kong

Yonfan, one of Asia’s most celebrated auteurs, returns to filmmaking — and Venice competition — with “No. 7 Cherry Lane,” a sexy, three-way love story, told through animation. He talks to Variety about the process behind the feature.

What explains your absence from filmmaking for nearly 10 years?

I was quite hurt by the reception of “Prince of Tears.” I’d spent seven years making it. Building sets, casting and waiting for leading men to be free. It went to several festivals, but it was a big mistake to do something about the “White Terror” period in Taiwan. Looking back, no picture about that period has done well. I stopped. And tried to redefine myself, especially through writing, for which I’ve always been criticized. After restoring my 1988 film “Last Romance,” I wrote an article about it for the Apple Daily newspaper. Overnight I became a weekly columnist, writing 4,000 words per time. There was so much to come out that I was likened to a pregnant woman. I also wrote two books and got another column in The One magazine.

How do you make a late career switch from live action to animation?

I’m not a regular viewer of animation, not even Pixar or Miyazaki. But I love painting and have been steeped in it since childhood. I can tell you straight away if a picture is real or fake. Indeed, people have sometimes joked that I don’t need to get outside finance for my movies, suggesting that all I need to do is sell one piece of my collection instead. But a painting that moves, and can move the viewer, combined with music which I love, well that is art. I had no animation skills, but when I set out as a filmmaker, I did not know how to do that either.

How did the process go?

I joked that this was God’s punishment. I always admired Hitchcock and Miyazaki and said that I wanted to do storyboards like them. But animation required me to do a rough storyboard, then a moving storyboard, then to refine it. We spent a year doing the linear storyboard. But each animation artist interprets it differently in terms of looks and of movement. So I went to Beijing to see an animation master. He said he’d make a 3D animation, first, get the movements of their bodies and eyes right first. Then we’d make a 2D version by hand.

The film is set in 1967, a time of great political trouble in Hong Kong. What does the film have to say about Hong Kong’s present-day political upheavals?

As far as I’m concerned, Hong Kong has never changed. Of course, the buildings have. I love the place, and, despite all the many exoduses, in 1989 and 1997, I’ve stayed. The purpose of my movie is so that that everyone living in Hong Kong can find a little bit of the happy Hong Kong somewhere within it.

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