Prince of Tears: Yonfan’s Memories of Taiwan’s “White Terror”

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(Article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer)

TAIPEI – At the age of 62, film director Yonfan believes the time is finally right to tell childhood memories that are painful not just for himself, but for much of Taiwan.

The Hong Kong-based movie maker’s new release, “Prince of Tears”, deals with the period of Taiwan’s “White Terror”, when the Nationalists, recently arrived from China, ruled the island as a right-wing autocracy.

“It’s a real story that happened during the early 1950s. They were catching Communist spies, imprisoning them or shooting them,” Yonfan told Agence France-Presse in an interview in Taipei.

The Nationalists, who had lost a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, were touting their ambition of taking back the mainland but in fact they were seized by mortal fears of being invaded themselves.

This created an atmosphere of dread and persecution which for some people ended only in 1987, when Taiwan lifted martial law after 38 years and embarked on its road towards democratization.

The nearly four decades of authoritarian rule marked every Taiwanese who experienced that period, but so far it has been an underexposed theme in the island’s cinema.

One movie, “City of Sadness”, described a particularly brutal massacre carried out by the Nationalists, but it was shown as early as 1989, and since then Taiwan’s movie industry has mostly kept quiet about modern history.

“Producers didn’t want to touch anything that dealt too directly with the political background,” said Yonfan.

“They liked to make movies about martial arts or comedies, because it’s comfortable for them to make commercial movies like that.”

“Prince of Tears” tells the story of a small family that gets torn apart when the father, an air force pilot, is wrongly accused of being a spy and is executed.

It is based on the biography of Taiwanese actress Chiao Chiao, whose family was struck by a similar tragedy.

“I combined her story with people that I know and the life experience of my childhood and made it into this movie,” said Yonfan.

Yonfan himself spent the 1950s in the central Taiwan city of Taichung, living with his parents in a university campus filled with Chinese intellectuals who had fled from the mainland in 1949.

“Of course, they talked. And sometimes they talked a little too much and disappeared. Sometimes they were taken away for questioning and sometimes they came back,” said Yonfan.

While shooting the movie took just two months, pre-production lasted eight, because every detail had to be correct – not historically correct in a strict sense, but true to Yonfan’s own memories.

“I didn’t have to really research, because I lived through that period. But we spent a lot of effort to do the things according to my memory,” he said.

Despite the topic, Yonfan denies that the movie is targeted at the Kuomintang, or KMT, the party of the Nationalists who arrived from China in 1949.

“If it was an anti-KMT movie, I would have shot it in 2006,” said Yonfan, suggesting it could have premiered before the 2008 presidential election that brought the KMT back to power after eight years in opposition.

“I decided I wanted to postpone the shooting, because I didn’t want my movie to become a political vehicle for any party.”

The movie opens in Taiwanese movie theatres this week, and Yonfan does not yet know what the public reaction will be on the island.

But one person at least approves of his work – Chiao Chiao, the Taiwanese actress whose life story forms the backbone of the plot, he said.

“Ever since her father was killed, shot, during her teenage years whenever people knew her background, they disappeared from her. So she always had this shadow following her,” said Yonfan.

“After this movie was made it relieved her from her nightmare.”

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