"Prince of Tears" Recalls White Terror

Actress Xuan Zhu, director Yonfan and actress Terri Kwan pose at the photo call for the film ' Prince of Tears ' at the 66th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan) (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

Hong Kong-based director Yonfan's "Prince of Tears" premieres Thursday at the Venice Film Festival 20 years to the hour after Golden Lion-winner "City of Sadness," the last major film to confront a painful period of Taiwanese history known as the White Terror.

"That's naughty," Yonfan said, smiling, when asked about the timing of the premiere in an interview overlooking the Mediterranean.

"Prince of Tears," which is competing for the coveted Golden Lion, tells the story of the Sun family -- an air force pilot, his beautiful wife and two daughters, living in a military-dependent village in southern Taiwan, more privileged than the general population but not immune to the fear spreading through an anti-communist campaign on the island.

Slide Show: Inside the Venice Film Festival

The White Terror refers to the period after the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taiwan from China. It imposed martial law and strict one-party dictatorship in 1949, and in subsequent years imprisoned, tortured and killed political opponents.

During that period of "national hysteria," the movie states that 3,000 people were sentenced to death, 8,000 people were imprisoned and sentenced for a collective total of 10,000 years in prison.

For years, the subject of the White Terror was taboo, Yonfan said. The formal taboo was lifted when martial law ended in 1998, and Hou Hsiao Hsien's "City of Sadness," which tells the story of the brutal crackdown on dissidents in Feb. 28, 1957, appeared a year later.

But still, the Asian film industry has shied away from the subject, seeing it as too financially risky, Yonfan said.

"I think many producers, they would think it is not appropriate to do a commercial movie on the White Terror, and no one's interested in watching the movie because nobody wants to see it," Yonfan said. "But the movie is important to me. I grew up during the '50s in Taiwan. And it is the things that I see and I hear and I feel of that period. I would say this movie is an expression of my childhood."

Because the movie was so important to him, Yonfan financed it himself to retain his artistic freedom. But he said he still faced difficulties developing the film because of its subject, and that only acceptance to the Venice Film Festival helped secure its distribution so far in Taiwan, Hong Kong and France. Without that, the film "probably would have had a harder time," Yonfan said.

The core plot is based on the true story of what happened to the Sun family -- not the real family name -- when the parents came under suspicion of communist leanings, but Yonfan populates his first movie ever shot in Taiwan with characters and memories from his own childhood.

There's the young, beautiful and wealthy Shanghai-born wife of General Liu played by Terri Kwan, who conspicuously jangles her necklace of 266 pearls, and her loyal driver, played by Jack Kao, who also appeared in "City of Sadness."

Joseph Chang plays the air force pilot Sun Han-Sun, who is imprisoned because of a flight made years before to get his eldest daughter out of mainland China. For this, he is accused of being a communist spy and executed. His best friend could clear him, but he is in love with Sun's wife, played by Zhu Xuan making her big-screen debut.

While the movie is set as political terror begins to spread, Yonfan said "Prince of Tears" isn't a historical reckoning with the period but actually a film about betrayal.

He also did not strive for strict accuracy. Movie posters that appear on the walls might be from films that appeared after 1954, the year depicted in the film. A film clip shown in a school yard was from a film that came out in 1959.

"That is my childhood memory. Many of the things might not be true to the history of 1954. That doesn't matter to me. Sometimes your memory can be wrong. I use the word postmodern," Yonfan said.

To develop the core story, Yonfan said he spoke extensively with both of the now grown daughters of the air force pilot. The elder daughter took him to the field where her father had been buried, though she was unable to ever identify his remains.

"After making the movie, I felt I owed the father something," Yonfan said. He asked "City of Tears" director Hou Hsaio Hsien to join him.

"We went there with the elder sister, we went to the burial grounds and we burned incense and burned papers. We did the ceremony in the open air, because we don't know where he is," he said.
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