Film poster artist helps to remind us of Taiwan's movie-going traditions
In these modern times, when going to the cinema often involves massive multiplexes, huge crowds and 3D projection, the Chuan Mei movie theater in the southern city of Tainan is a reminder of the way movie-going used to be in Taiwan. Instead of computer-generated tickets, patrons are given hand-stamped pieces of paper indicating the time of the movie screening. And instead of plush-sofa-like seats, moviegoers sit on simple metal chairs.
But the theater's most eye-catching pieces of nostalgia hang above the entrance: Hand-painted movie posters, each one 3 meters square, illustrate the films showing that day. The oil paintings are the life's work of 61-year-old Yan Jhen-fa, the last practitioner of this once-popular art form in Taiwan.
On a recent weekday morning, Yan was sitting in his makeshift studio on the sidewalk in front of the theater, working on an action-packed poster advertising the zombie blockbuster "World War Z." "The key is that you have to recognize the special features of the person you are painting," he explained, as he took a break from his painstaking rendering of global superstar Brad Pitt, the film's leading man. "We have to enlarge the painting from a smaller original, so you have to know how to correctly scale the picture first."
Chuan Mei theater owner Wu Jun-cheng acknowledged that by using Yan to make the posters, he is bucking modern movie trends. Today, the overwhelming majority of movie posters and other advertisements are carefully designed by film studios' marketing departments. But Wu said it's well worth it for him to pay Yan NT$20,000 a month to produce two or three posters per week. "We think the oil paintings give our theater a certain atmosphere," he said. "And because Mr. Yan can paint so well, we don't want to give that up."
To the cinema's patrons, the posters and the theater's overall simplicity are welcome throwbacks to an era they remember happily. "I take my children here so they can experience the old movie theater atmosphere," said Carey Chen. "Of course, there are other movie theaters with better interior designs, but the tickets are more expensive and you don't get any sentimental feelings when you visit them."
In recent months, Yan and his posters have begun to attract considerable interest throughout Tainan, Taiwan's oldest city. He now holds weekend painting classes, which are attended by as many as 40 students. But while reflecting on a career that spans around 40 years, he said that he doubts any of them will follow in his footsteps and become full-time painters of movie poster art. "It's hard work and requires lots of patience," he explained. "Still, I am happy to spread my love of painting to more and more people."