There is something yesteryear about the labyrinth of ancient alleyways and smoke-filled temple entrances that crisscross Greater Tainan’s city center amid the chaos of jumbled colonial-era architecture. As if to complete the time-traveling illusion, giant hand-painted billboards depicting the silver screen’s latest offerings dominate the entrance outside the city’s immaculately maintained Chuan Mei (全美) cinema.
Nestled on a corner of the bustling Yongfu Road (永福路) — just a stone’s throw from the Official God of War Temple (祀典武廟) and close to the crumbling fort of Chihkan (赤崁樓) — the cinematic venue has been in operation for nearly 65 years. A traditional popcorn dispenser and a clunky ticketing machine lend additional authenticity to the cinema’s cozy art-deco entrance.
With a nearby sidewalk operating as his studio, Tainan native and sign-maker Yan Jhen-fa (顏振發) daubs thick globules of oil paint onto a meter-square panel. The 61-year-old’s paint-encrusted hands guide the brush as he finishes off a section of the canvas for a re-run of Life of Pi.
“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years,” Yan says without lifting his eyes from the giant canvas.
“When I was a little boy I used to see adverts for films in the newspaper and I instinctively began copying them. Back then sign-painters did everything … at that time we did all the advertisements.”
After pleading with an aunt to introduce him to a sign-painter, Wu left his rural village and made his way to the bright lights of Tainan.
“It took me ten years until I could paint a complete sign,” says Yan who spent much of his youth as an apprentice in the trade.
As pedestrians sidestep Yan’s paint-splattered blanket and pots, he continues working yellows and reds into the section of the poster. It’s a laborious and detailed task.
“Nowadays young people don’t want to do this kind of work,” explains Yan who teaches art and painting skills. “I teach students to draw but not like this — not so big. The problem is that you need a big space and you need lots of training and skill. Also, you are standing all day and it can be dangerous — you need to climb on the roof to mount the boards.”
Listening nearby, the cinema’s youthful general manager — and the facility’s third-generation owner — Wu Yu-tien (吳堉田) nods his head in agreement.
“This is our problem,” laments Wu, who says that when Yan decides to throw in the towel there is unlikely to be anyone to replace him.
Wu says that while there are commercial pressures to divide the cinema into smaller multiplex-style viewing units, his grandfather’s dream helps the family maintain focus.
“My grandfather had a dream and he insisted the movie theater has a big screen … this gives the audience a good view and it’s nicer when so many people laugh together.”
Wu is adamant that the cinema stays on track and says it is an important part of Tainan’s local community. “We want to show that we are local … we can help to keep this culture, this style alive … We just want to maintain our traditions.”
There are some tricks, concedes Wu, and that includes showing re-runs of popular films once the cost of the distributor’s film reels have dropped in price. The old-school establishment is also canny at attracting students and children, and during the summer break cartoons are shown throughout the day at discount prices.