Written by Mary Choy
Translated by Derek Leung
Photos by United Leslie, Hui’s Film Production, Mary Choy
Interview arranged by MOViE MOViE (nowTV ch116)
Movie fans from after 1970-80s should not find those hand-painted posters high up outside theatres strange. Those posters, including Michael and Sam Hui's "The Last Message" and "Private Eyes", "Lucky Star" series and "Project A" series of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, together with the international versions of movies featuring superstar Bruce Lee, where the characters are illustrated to resemble the real actors and actresses with the cartoonish unproportionally big heads and slim bodies, are all the masterpieces of 76-year-old posterist Tai-Yung Yuen.
From Factory Worker to Art Director
Fleeing to Hong Kong from Zhejiang, China at the age of sixteen, Yuen first worked in a textile factory with nothing to be associated with drawing. After some time, he became an illustrator of a textbook publisher and his foreign boss later recommended him to work in an advertising firm. That was the year of 1966. "I first joined as an apprentice but finally I became Art Director." In 1960s, a local young man without university graduation from overseas, proficiency in English and a bright work history, was still able to find a pleasant job in a famous advertising company once he had craftsmanship and dedication. When he left the advertising company, he was already Art Director.
Nowadays, many parents expect all-round children and therefore send them to drawing classes at their early age. Yuen noted and commented on this: "A lot more teenagers draw way better than I did when I was at their age. Today, parents mean to nurture their kids so they send them to study drawing." Yuen likes drawing, but he draws from the bottom of his heart. Without "helicopter parents" aside, he did not practise drawing very hard though, "but I never hate drawing. If you're forced to draw, you'll probably hate it even though you're very talented," claimed Yuen.
The Posterist During Golden Age of Hong Kong Film Industry
One of Yuen's renowned works is the poster of Hui Brothers' "The Last Message" released in 1975 featuring leading actor Sam Hui with a goggle and diving slippers holding a spittoon and a water pipe. At that time, Yuen was still working in the advertising company. In the following year when Hui Brothers' new film "Private Eyes" was screened, he was brought by his friend to the studio of Golden Harvest and recommended himself to draw the movie poster. Sam Hui recognized him and agreed to let him do so. Later, "Private Eyes" broke the local record with the ever highest box office sales of HK$8 million. Since then, he was flooded with the calls for movie poster drawing.
In the post-screening talk of the film The Posterist, independent animator Tsz-Ying Lo doubted the number of Yuen's poster works may even exceed that of renowned American poster designer Drew Struzan, thus a possible new recognition in the Guinness World Book of Records.
Yuen's surprise was the big crowd of youngsters amid the audience when The Posterist was shown at PMQ.
From 1970s to 1990s, the posters for the films produced by Golden Harvest, Cinema City and Golden Princess featuring Hui Brothers, Karl Mak, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and even Stephen Chow are all drawn by Yuen. However, most of these poster manuscripts have not been saved. "Only a few were left behind. Worse is Golden Princess colleagues did not keep those posters for me. It’s a bit pity but it’s true there isn’t much space to keep so many of them." There was no computer at the time he drew, so all of the hand-painted posters were genuine manuscripts.
"I'm opposed to drawing with tools, even a sheet of checkered graph paper, because your progress will then be limited. You can't draw once you rely on it," explained Yuen.
Go Back to HK, Draw with All Heart
Yuen has not drawn for about a decade since his retirement and migration to New Zealand. He picked up his drawing pen again in 2007 and drawing has since then been a vital part of his life. Drawing posters was for living but is now for his liking without the need to consider the market and clients. Now, he just merely draws following his mind.
“I draw every day now. I do a few strokes when I’m free. I’m really happy about this,” said Yuen. The reason is he paints whatever he chooses to. Yuen has experienced a brilliant era of superstars. His “Bruce Lee” made all Lee’s fans to regard him as Lee’s "official" spokesman, hence even serving as the consultant for the making of Lee’s bronze statue. He has also been named as the very painter for Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Momoe Yamaguchi, Hui Brothers, Stephen Chow and to name but a few. “I love drawing showbiz idols,” claimed Yuen. After 2007 when he restarted drawing, it took him some time to resume his previous high standard. "Now I do more realistic paintings, and I think I even draw better than before retirement. However, I find my cartoonist paintings not that funny anymore,” stated Yuen, showing apparently his style varying in different stages of his life.
“Today, many from the new generation create their own styles on purpose, which I don’t really agree with. Where is the style from? I think it depends on what you see and get every day and it naturally comes out,” commented Yuen. He often stressed that he draws from his heart. You may think that he just keeps his secrets but indeed he is simply teaching from the bottom of “his heart”.
"All in all, it’s talent and practice. Just keep drawing," concluded Yuen. There is no shortcut to success. "People are always lazy. If I had been a teen and I’d worked with a computer, I shouldn’t have bothered anymore and pushed myself more if the paintings’ effect had looked ok," stressed Yuen. Luckily, he insisted on drawing to let those who like him to have a chance to see. Craftsmanship is probably subject to be discovered by those who care.
The prince-like "Leslie Cheung" under Yuen’s pen will be exhibited in "The Way We Were – the 60th Anniversary of Leslie Cheung" in PMQ from 8th to 18th September, 2016.