Culture

In Taiwan, the last movie poster painter continues a dying craft

Aug 27, 2019

Once upon a time, most movie theaters used hand-painted posters to advertise their films.

These massive billboards graced the walls of theaters around the world. Today, very few are commissioned, and the artists who create them are a dying breed.

Yan Jhen-fa is one of them.

A poster for “Pirates of the Caribbean” by Yan Jhen-fa.
A poster for “Pirates of the Caribbean” by Yan Jhen-fa. / Photo: Chuan Mei Theater

The 67-year-old is the last professional movie poster painter in Taiwan. He’s been doing it for nearly 50 years and works for Chuan Mei, a discount theater with film relics that should belong in a museum—except they’re still being used today.

There’s an old projector that still broadcasts messages on the side of the screen. (Think notifications for, say, when your car is about to get towed or a mother is looking for her child.)

A poster for “Black Panther” by Yan Jhen-fa.
A poster for “Black Panther” by Yan Jhen-fa. / Photo: Chuan Mei Theater

Tickets here are still stamped by hand, and because the theater shows films on their second run (after they’ve played at the big multiplexes), watching a movie here is cheap, just under $5.

Theaters like this used to be all over Taiwan, but they’ve become relics, along with the artists who painted their posters.

Yan Jhen-fa works on a poster.
Yan Jhen-fa works on a poster. / Photo: Chuan Mei Theater

Yan started learning how to paint movie posters at age 16 as an apprentice.

In his prime, during the 1970s, Yan was able to complete over 100 posters a month. It usually took him one to two days to paint each one.

“From early morning, I’d rush through it and not sleep the entire day,” he says. “I’d paint from morning to night to morning again.”

A poster for “Brokeback Mountain.”
A poster for “Brokeback Mountain.” / Photo: Chuan Mei Theater

The years of work have taken their toll. Along with having never married—he remains committed to his work—Yan has also become partially blind in one eye.

But he says he’ll continue and has begun teaching others the trade. By his count, Yan has over 500 students who have learned how to paint movie posters.

Students learn how to paint Brad Pitt’s face on a grid.
Students learn how to paint Brad Pitt’s face on a grid. / Photo: Chuan Mei Theater

“We can’t compete with the big multiplexes,” says Wu Jun-cheng, manager of the Chuan Mei Theater. “We can only adhere to our own traditions. Our dream is to resurrect these old theaters, not just in Taiwan, but to have them recognized all over the world.”

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Credit

Producer and Host: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Emma Arkell

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche