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Filmmaker Yonfan talks freedom, Chop Suey and his award-winning ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’ in Venice

What is striking at once to the viewer of 'No. 7 Cherry Lane' by legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Yonfan is the beauty of his latest film. One could simply be lulled into a state of cinematic bliss by its animated perfection, haunting music and sensual images. Yet so much more lies at the heart of his story -- which of course won the Best Screenplay Award at this year's Venice Film Festival. Including the filmmaker's own powerful feel for freedom.

One could simply call Yonfan’s latest masterpiece “Hong Kong Decoded” as the film does take its audience on a journey through the heart and soul of the region, the city — however you wish to call the wonder that is Hong Kong.

But within ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’ there is also so much of the filmmaker’s own spirit and taste that trying to put it in a box, simplifying it to a cool-sounding catchphrase would not do it justice.

Personally, I really connected with the mother figure in the film, a woman who although older than her perky-breasted daughter, still doesn’t feel or look old. Because there is also a sensuous love triangle at the center of this story but again, calling the film a love story would not do it justice.

Yes, before I forget, central and perfectly current to our own headlines today, ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’ also benefits from the mirror image of the riots happening right now in Hong Kong — because it takes place during the city’s other famous riots in 1967. Yonfan had something to say about then and now, and his words have stayed with me ever since.

So read up on this elegant, wonderfully creative and iconic filmmaker in the interview below. And don’t miss ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, when it comes to a theater near you.

You took quite a long time between your last film and ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’. Was this film in the workings all this time?

Yonfan: I think when I write, when the inspiration comes to you, you just cannot stop. Writing is very good because you let your inspiration run wild. And then you collect them and put them together and later on, when you have time, refine them so they’ll make something that is coherent. 

I think that in this movie, I try to have so many ingredients so for the art, you have Oriental art, Western art, impressionistic art, like Henri Rousseau and pop art, like Roy Lichtenstein. And then you have the woodblock printing and it’s a colossal of mixtures of different arts. 

Most filmmakers would be happy with just one!

Yonfan: Also for the music, then you have many things like the classic, the orthodox street music, the Chinese opera and the Latin drums — all that mixed together. So this is a bit like Chinese cooking. In Chinese cooking we have to put all the ingredients and make a dish — which in a Western way is called Chop Suey. Chop Suey is like a fast food, you cook everything together and it fills you up. 

Filmmaker Yonfan, photo courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

But in the Chinese way if you put everything together and cook it, and it’s well cooked then you call it “Buddha jumping over the wall.” Because after you put all those things together and cook it so beautifully, there is a “creme de la creme”. Even the Buddha when he smells it has to jump over the wall to taste it. 

So I put everything together because I believe in me. I just cook, cook, cook, and let people decide if this is Chop Suey or the creme de la creme of Chinese cooking.

I think that’s perfect because we have become a Chop Suey world!

Yonfan: In my movie for instance you have a lot of things from the old films, French films, Hollywood movies and even things that some filmmakers thought of doing but didn’t do in their original movie. But I did it for them. My contribution to some the great filmmakers. If you get it great, if not, it’s OK too.

I think I didn’t get half of your references, which is OK because your film inspires people to watch it over and over again. What I found fascinating is that many live action filmmakers don’t have the character development that you have in this animated film. How did you write these well-rounded characters?

Yonfan: It’s very complimentary on your part but I think that I like to watch people. And I like to feel what people think. And I try to keep some humor in life, so it’s not very deadly. That is my mentality. 

What is your favorite way to people watch?

Yonfan: Sitting here and watching people, at a cafe or even at a fast food restaurant. Or on the public transportation, all that. 

There is this mirror image in your film of what is going on in Hong Kong right now. 

Yonfan: Yeah it becomes real in a parallel way. 

You couldn’t possibly have known that when you were writing ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’ so how does it feel to be so perfectly current with your passion project?

Yonfan: It is pure coincidence because this film was written seven years ago. Doing animation you have to plan everything long before, it’s not like a live action film.

What was the inspiration for the story?

Yonfan: I came back to Hong Kong in 1964 and I could smell the air of freedom. Even the sea has freedom. I love Hong Kong.

It shows in your film!

Yonfan: So in 1967 I was twenty years old, not a naive teenager and this riot happened. Because there was a force coming from the North, and they came to Hong Kong and you could see Chairman Mao photos at the rallies. It became a really radical thing — a continuation of the Cultural Revolution. And then six month later, it just disappeared. It was said and never proven that the British and China came to a deal that Hong Kong would stay free. So all of a sudden this power disappeared. I was 20 years old and educated under the British system. At the time I didn’t know about human rights and was never taught about democracy. All those things were totally new to us — we never heard of them. 

Ironically, 52 years later, in the name of human rights and democracy, there was another strong power from somewhere unknown which has come to Hong Kong, and started these riots. It has become so violent in all that was happening. We have lost the freedom to walk on the street and take public transport. When I was flying here on the flight, I looked at the NY Times and there was a full page article on the Hong Kong riot. And half a page taken up by a demonstration photo. The headline was “When united forces struggle for freedom!” Struggle for freedom? I was shocked because I thought, I never knew that in Hong Kong I had to struggle for freedom! 

But after two months of demonstrations, now we’ve lost the freedom to walk on the street. I was saddened and very shocked that Western people see us struggling for freedom. Freedom has been there all the time. That’s what I mean about unknown force, and this unknown force has opened a Pandora’s box. And all the evil came out and there was no law.

Before Hong Kong was famous for its freedom and law abidance. Now, you see what it is. 

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