Pass by the Chuan-Mei Theater in Tainan, southern Taiwan, and you can’t miss the work of Yan Zhen-fa. Four massive, hand-painted posters greet film-lovers here each day, as they have, in various forms, since the theatre opened back in 1950.
Generations of cinema-lovers have been inspired by the artwork and by what’s on show here, among them the Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who is said to have first fallen in love with film while hankered down inside.
But these works of art are part of a tradition that has almost faded from view across Taiwan and Asia, and Yan is among the last of his kind. For 40 years he has been painting these posters, using oil paints to present his own unique and often quite spectacular take on the cinematic attractions that are on show inside the theatre.
“At first, I considered painting as just a job and as a way to make a living,” said Yan. “But I found I had talent and a passion for these posters.”
Yan is also doing his utmost to ensure his craft does survive. While the onset of multiplexes has meant places like the Chuan-Mei Theater are now a rarity, Yan has since 2013 been holding art classes as he tries to preserve the traditions he holds dear.
“I saw that traditional industries were slipping away,” said Yan. “But if we attract the younger generations we can keep them alive.”
From the 1940s to the 1960s, billboard painters were in demand. Besides movie posters, they could find work painting shop’s signboards, placards and murals throughout the city.
But movies were always Yan’s favorite subject – the domestic film industry started to flourish in the 1960s, while popular cinematic offerings from Hong Kong and Hollywood started to find their way into local cinemas.
During this “golden era,” Yan estimates that at one stage he was painting between 100 to 200 posters per month, and he always uses oil paints. “The color is brighter and can be preserved for a long time,” he said.
Before he touches the canvas, Yan researches the movie, looking for stills he might combine into his project. But these paintings are not replicas – the end result is all his own idea, and that’s what makes these paintings so unique and distinctive.
From the 1970s, however, more and more film companies started providing mass-produced playbills of their own. The number of traditional painters gradually dwindled, until there were only a few left.
But Yan said he had never thought about stopping or even changing his profession. The manager of Chuan-Mei Theater, Wu Jun-cheng, has been there to help, even assisting Yan to advertise for students online.
An old house across from the theater has become Yan’s classroom. Every weekend you can see students stand under the overhangs there, learning from the master.
But it wasn’t going as well as they thought at first. “Students had to spend a lot of time learning and practising. Not everyone can make it through,” Yan said. “The first step is always the hardest. We tried many ways – hosting a painting competition and an exhibition – to encourage people to join us.”
During this time, Yan also studied oil painting and held several of his own art exhibitions, which raised his prestige. These days, he teaches 10 to 20 students every week.
Another major boost came from Taiwan’s Cultural Affairs Bureau.
The Chuan-Mei Theater was in 2015 chosen as part of a major revival plan for Tainan’s old stores. In 2016, the theater started a crowd-funding scheme to help Taiwan’s new directors have a place at which to show their films. This project created a buzz locally and also led to packed houses for screenings.
Wu is part of the second generation of his family in charge of the theater and said he was devoted to its preservation.
“I grew up in the Chuan-Mei Theater, have spent my whole life here and have seen the evolution of this industry,” he said. “My father might be a conservative man, but thanks to him, some irreplaceable memories were saved successfully.”
That’s why you can still see the theatre’s antique ticket booth next to entry gate. Inside the theatre, there’s an old-style candy shop and the original stage has been preserved. But Wu says what makes him proudest is that his theater is now living museum – with Yan at its heart.