The big picture

MOVIE-MAKING and painting are pretty much the same where artist Chen Yifei is concerned. Chen, who has forged a highly lucrative career as a painter of Chinese scenes, recently applied his creative skills to the cinema, and the result is Evening Liaison.

An atmospheric mystery set in the Shanghai of the 1930s, it features Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Kar-fai and Beijing-based model Mabel Zhang, and is due for release in Hong Kong shortly.

Chen says of his venture into movies: 'Film and painting are very similar. The camera is my brush and the screen is the canvas. I treat the film like a moving painting.' He seems to have made a smooth transition from art to cinema: Evening Liaison impressed enough selectors to gain a showing at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

A graduate of the Shanghai Fine Art Academy, Chen has had considerable success in the West, and once set a record for fetching the highest price for a Chinese oil painting. Movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw, for example, picked up his Soiree for close to $2 million.

Critics may dismiss Chen's ultra-realist style as bland and derivative, but his paintings have been exhibited in New York and Tokyo, and been auctioned for high prices at both Christie's and Sotheby's.

The somewhat whimsical imagery of his paintings carried over into his first film, a short called Reveries Of Old Shanghai. The film is a picturesque, plot-less homage to the colourful Shanghai of the 30s and played alongside his paintings at exhibitions.

'I have been interested in film for a long time,' says Chen. 'When I applied to enter art school, I hoped to train in film after graduation. But the art school later stopped running the course in film, so I missed my chance.

'But I've always had lots of friends connected with the film industry in China, so I have been in touch with what's going on.' After he moved to New York in 1980, Chen maintained this interest and spent a lot of his spare time in cinemas. Tours to promote his work to Asia 10 years later gave him the opportunity to visit Hong Kong - and his hometown of Shanghai.

'I was inspired to do some paintings about the life of the old city: rich ladies playing mah-jong, Peking Opera singers visiting houses for private performances, that kind of thing,' he says. 'Reveries of Old Shanghai was originally planned as a way to promote my paintings.' It was only later, at friends' encouragement, that Chen turned it into an art film.

Reverie was spotted at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 1993 by Hong Kong producer Ng See-yuen, who suggested Chen make a full-length feature, and offered to produce it.

The result, Evening Liaison, is in some ways an extension of Reverie, with sparse dialogue giving way to lush images set to music.

Based on a 1937 novella by Xu Yu, Evening Liaison is a wistful, romantic fantasy. Tony Leung stars as a journalist who seeks to unravel the truth about a mysterious woman (Mabel Zhang) who claims she is a ghost. Although it is anchored to a romance, the director says the movie is a nostalgic look at Shanghai life when it was at its most vibrant and cosmopolitan.

Shanghai of the 1930s has recently become a popular subject for high-profile Chinese films. Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose meticulously recreated the period, while Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad focused on the city's opium-running gangsters.

But Chen's attraction to Shanghai is much more personal.

'Shanghai has a special meaning for me, as I was born and raised there,' says Chen. 'I heard a lot of old stories from my parents. I was also inspired by the architecture. Although some of the buildings were built a long time before I was born, I could feel that stories once happened in these places.' The city's return to prominence in the 90s also fired Chen's imagination. 'I could feel a sense of reincarnation, which I put in the film. I'm interested in depicting the ideas behind the changes in Shanghai,' he says.

As with his paintings, the fledgling director says he has sought to reproduce life as it is, to draw attention to the details, and perhaps reveal its beauty.

Classic neo-realist films such as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves concentrated on social issues, and used amateur actors and real locations to blur the distinction between real life and the screen.

But whereas such films have an almost documentary look, Chen's work is highly stylised and composed. He meticulously adjusts the elements of each shot until he finds the perfect arrangement to express his feelings. 'A film is a moving painting with conversation, accompanied by music,' says Chen.

'As I am an artist, I always apply my artistic talent to the film. I carefully depict the scene in chiaroscuro, like in a painting. Dialogue is not important, as the gestures of the actors and actresses, along with the composition, provide a visual language that is universal.' More Chinese film-makers should adopt this approach, he says. 'I think contemporary Chinese cinema is too influenced by the stage. Film-makers should pay more attention to the visual side,' he declares. Theory aside, Chen hopes that audiences will enjoy Evening Liaison as much as they enjoy his paintings. 'I hope it is easy to watch, and will entertain. ' In the meantime, Chen has returned to working with brush and canvas, having just signed a new contract with a London gallery. But a second movie is definitely on the cards.