harisu at the berlin film festival

The Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival came and went last month and I didn’t even notice. oops. But over the other side of the world at the Berlin Film Festival, Hong Kong filmmaker Yonfan is about to see Cherry Blossoms premiere in the Panorama section. Korean transsexual Harisu is playing Madame Umeki. If Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore ever gets made into a film maybe she will play Oshima, the librarian’s impressively literate, transsexual assistant.

Last month the Hong Kong Film Critics Society named “Colour Blossoms” one of nine “recommended films” of 2004 – others were Wong Kar-Wai’s moody drama “2046” and Stephen Chow’s comedy “Kungfu Hustle” – and Berlin is an affirmation for the complex filmmaker and for the kind of original storytelling that he has devoted his life to.

When “Colour Blossoms” opened in Hong Kong in the autumn, it had very modest box office results, making nothing like the $2 million (of his own money) that it had cost.

The less-than-warm reception was in no small part because Hong Kong’s powerful tabloid media laid on the negative publicity in the months leading up to its premiereThe papers criticized the film for its supposed pornography, and slammed its star, a once-much-loved socialite now fallen from grace named Teresa Cheung.

— International Herald Tribune

A filmmaker bucks Hong Kong trends

By Alexandra ASeno International Herald Tribune
Monday, February 7, 2005

HONG KONG It’s the middle of the afternoon, and the controversial filmmaker Yonfan is holding court in the AM/PM Caféhe operates under his office in the heart of the city’s antiques district.

Pondering the state of movies in his hometown and why he makes films, he says, “Art is very important to open up people’s eyes and make people think. Many Hong Kong films make people’s brains lazy.”

In a town where pop culture rules and show business is serious business, such bluntness coated with romantic idealism about the movie industry partly explains the tempestuous love-hate relationship the cinema-going public and the mainstream entertainment sector have for Yonfan’s work.

Yonfan’s latest film, “Colour Blossoms,” will be shown this week in the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Panorama section. Yonfan, whose last name is Manshih but who is known by his given name, will be in Germany for the 55th festival accompanied his “three divas,” his movie’s female leads.

Last month the Hong Kong Film Critics Society named “Colour Blossoms” one of nine “recommended films” of 2004 – others were Wong Kar-Wai’s moody drama “2046” and Stephen Chow’s comedy “Kungfu Hustle” – and Berlin is an affirmation for the complex filmmaker and for the kind of original storytelling that he has devoted his life to.

When “Colour Blossoms” opened in Hong Kong in the autumn, it had very modest box office results, making nothing like the $2 million (of his own money) that it had cost.

The less-than-warm reception was in no small part because Hong Kong’s powerful tabloid media laid on the negative publicity in the months leading up to its premiere. The papers criticized the film for its supposed pornography, and slammed its star, a once-much-loved socialite now fallen from grace named Teresa Cheung.

Yonfan directed “Colour Blossoms,” wrote it and produced it. Asked to describe the movie, he said: “It is very me. Very worldly.” It has a taste of Paris to it, he added, “and Gloria Swanson.”

He views the film, the third of a trilogy of complicated love stories, as an homage to the golden era of cinema. Like “Peony Pavilion” from 2001 and “Breaking the Willow” from 2003, his film is a sumptuously shot tale of romance, lust and passion.

It is set mainly in an apartment in contemporary Hong Kong and the story, which spans three decades, starts off with an encounter between Meili, a property agent, and the mysterious Madame Umeki, a rich Japanese woman “of a certain age.” Cheung plays Meili, and the movie stars several other important Asian actors.

The Japanese dramatic diva Matsuzaka Keiko plays Madame Umeki. Harisu, a Korean transsexual-turned-celebrity, is cast as the young Madame Umeki, and Meili and Madame Umeki’s love interest is the Japanese model Sho.

Having Cheung as a heroine in “Colour Blossoms” has been both a blessing and a source of infinite problems for the film. Formerly married to the popular singer and actor Kenny Bee, she has been both the object of public fascination and of scorn.

The choice of Cheung – and the decision to stick with her – is consistent with Yonfan’s philosophy about filmmaking. “I want every movie to be different,” he said. “I am always changing because I am always searchingI need to try new things.”

With Cheung, he got publicity he never imagined getting. Much of the credit for Cheung’s performance (she had never appeared in a movie) has gone to Yonfan. But the Hong Kong Film Critics Society nominated her for a best actress award (The scuttlebutt behind the awards said that she was tied with the Chinese star Zhang Ziyi until Zhang finally won for “House of Flying Daggers” after five rounds of voting.)

‘I want every movie to be different. I am always changing because I am always searching.’

Yonfan was born in 1947 in Hunan Province, where his father was a banker. In 1949, when Mao came to power, the family moved first to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan. While his father taught accounting at a university in the small city of Taichung, Yonfan spent some of his childhood writing his own scripts.

After they relocated to Hong Kong so his father could take up another teaching post, Yonfan jumped into the Cantonese film industry of the 1960s, where he explored his love of taking pictures and became well-known as a teenage photographer on movie sets. Then he went to the United States for further schooling. In 1968, he enrolled in the mathematics program of the Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee. But, he said, he realized a formal education was not for him. After spending some time in Los Angeles, where he scored a bit part in Robert Altman’s movie “M*A*S*H,” he left America to live in France and England for several years.

Yonfan’s passion for cinema was undiminished. While in Europe, he still vividly remembers going to see “M*A*S*H.” He recalled: “All of a sudden, I saw me riding a bicycle in front of Donald Sutherland! Back then it was a big screen, you know.”

When he returned to Hong Kong, he continued with his photography until plunging into filmmaking in the 1980s.

He made a string of hits during some of the best years of Hong Kong moviesHe directed Choy Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung in “Lost Romance” (1985) and Winston Chao and Sylvia Chang in “Conjugal Affair” (1994).

After years of chart-topping blockbusters for the masses, however, he decided to make the small art film “Bugis Street,” about transvestites in SingaporeIt received critical acclaim but was one of the lowest grossing pictures of 1995 in Hong Kong.

But he loved it. Since then, he has made nothing but independent films that break the mould. His movies are studied at local and foreign universitiesThe Musée Guimet, the French national museum for Asian arts in Paris, honored Yonfan with a small film festival of his works in the autumn of 2003.

Like many other film industries in Asia, the Hong Kong movie community is facing unprecedented challenges. Piracy and the domination of Hollywood have shrunk the number of local films from the hundreds that Hong Kong was making two decades ago to the 50 or so that will be made this year.

Commercial pressure has never been more serious, while big investors and distributors seek only safe bets. Despite the constraints on content due to censorship, the conventional wisdom is that Hong Kong film’s future is in making movies for China.

Yonfan wants no part of this, and he doesn’t see an important role in Hong Kong for people, like him, who see movies as a form of high art. Despite the cheers that “Colour Blossoms” has received from film connoisseurs, after all the heartbreak that the movie caused him, Yonfan swears that he is through with the Hong Kong film industry. He is open to doing movies elsewhere but no longer primarily at home.

“Hong Kong doesn’t want movies anymore,” he said, “people want DVDs. I belong to the big screen.” He paused, leaned back into a silk-covered cushion and put on his best Gloria Swanson gaze: “It is the movies that got smaller.”