Yonfan, the LGBT pioneer of Hong Kong art cinema (“Peony Pavilion,””Bishonen”), embraces animation for the first time with “No. 7 Cherry Lane” (currently streaming on MOMA’s Virtual Cinema through February 4). It’s a love letter to a bygone Hong Kong from 1967, when he was a 20-year-old photographer and aspiring director caught up in the political turbulence and cinematic excitement of the era.
“‘No. 7 Cherry Lane’ is very different from all the other animations that I know of,” said Yonfan, who is not a fan of animation but was intrigued with the imaginative possibilities of the medium for his adult drama. The film represents his remembrance of the Hong Kong riots against the background of the Cultural Revolution in China.
“This is when people started denouncing the Vietnam War and there were many movies like ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ that came out and they were very revolutionary. It seems timely with the [recent] protests in Hong Kong, but the demonstrations and even the yellow scarf in the film [symbolic of pro-democracy] were planned seven years ago.”
“No. 7 Cherry Lane” (situated in the North Point harbor district) concerns a romantic triangle between Ziming, a charming English lit student at a Hong Kong University; Mrs. Yu, a middle-aged entrepreneur, who fled Taiwan in the ’50s as a political dissident; and her 18-year-old daughter, Meiling. It’s a stylish and provocative collision of past, present, and future — Wong Kar-wai meets “Remembrance of Things Past.” Ziming takes each woman to different movies starring Simone Signoret (“Room at the Top,” “Casque D’Or,” and “Ship of Fools”), which unleashes forbidden passions coinciding with the rioting in the streets.
When it came to the animation, Yonfan had ambitious plans, relying on his expertise in art and photography to guide him. He wanted a sharp contrast between characters and backgrounds in recreating memories of Hong Kong. First, he arranged for all of the background drawings to be done in Taiwan under the leadership of animator Hsieh Wen-ming.
“We decided the background was going to be very different, so we did these drawings with pencil and charcoal on rice paper because it gives a very unusual texture,” he said. “But also I wanted no straight lines. All the pictures I wanted either to be lopsided or not straight [in keeping with the layout of the buildings] because then you have more imagination and a little distance from reality.”
But reality was also important, so Yonfan took the team of artists to Hong Kong so they could explore the sites in person. This helped enormously in capturing the distinctive architecture, the seductive banyan trees, the pretty cotton blossoms, and the iconic Victoria Harbor.
“It’s different from the old days, but they needed to feel those things, and, after I gave them lots of references, they added modern ideas in their drawings. But the drawings contradict the look of the characters, which are flat line drawings,” he added.
Then they spent five years assembling the animatic storyboard. Yonfan found the process more leisurely than live action and also very meditative. But he wasn’t satisfied. The character movements were too stiff. The director went to Beijing to consult with animator Zhang Gang, who evaluated the animatic and recommended doing the characters in 3D space to correct the movements and then completing the animation in 2D. This would retain the director’s imaginative look.
“Then you can control how you stretch the face, control the movement when the tear drop falls, and you have those blinking eyes,” said Yonfan.
The result is visually striking with the characters often floating instead of walking. It opens with a plane flying over the harbor, bigger than life (an ode to “Love Is a Many Splendid Thing”). Then we snake through vegetation like a Rousseau-painted jungle and focus on Ziming and a fellow student pretending to play tennis without a ball (a nod to “Blow-Up”). We follow the imaginary ball up in the sky for a panoramic view of Hong Kong, then down and a real ball comes out of the water.
The depiction of the Signoret scenes is imaginative as well. Rather than copying moments from the three films, Yonfan captures their essence through his memories of glamour and doomed romance. The moviegoing reaches a visual outburst during a screening of “Ship of Fools,” where Meiling is shocked to find her boyfriend and mother sitting together in the theater. Meiling rushes out into the bright sunlight, where she encounters the rioters (done in woodblock prints) and contemplates memories of happier times with Ziming. The three-minute sequence is underscored by the song “Southern Cross,” which mixes a romantic tune by Yonfan (sung by Chyi Yu), and segues into a street rap by BoYoung (performed by BoYoung and Zoe Yu).
Yonfan, who reached a peak with live action, found a new creative outlet in animation for his most personal film. And while he doesn’t watch much animation, his favorite is Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises,” the fictional biopic about aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who mourns the destruction of his idealistic dreams. “I think we have shared the same strong political background in a soft whispering way: Love among the ruins,” said Yonfan. “That is the greatness of doing animation.”