“It’s like walking on thin ice,” Ahi always says when he talks about the process of poster design. Ahi is widely agreed to be the most celebrated huaren film poster designer in China. His design firm, Zhuye, is also a leader in the field, the first choice studio for posters for Chinese-speaking movies from directors like Wang Kar-wai, Ann Hui, Hark Tsui, Stephen Chow, and Johnnie To. In a list of the top ten film poster designs of 2016, as selected by Chinese media, over half were by Zhuye.
“The Chinese have a saying that when it comes to intellect one can never be the best; when it comes to war one can never afford to not be the best,” Ahi notes. When talking of his accomplishments in poster design, Huang makes it clear that he thinks he still has room for improvement. “Every time I see what a director has entrusted to me, I feel nervous and excited at the same time. I feel like I need to live up to their trust. It’s like walking on thin ice—you can’t make a false move.”
Ahi is quite humble about the accolades he has won. “What other people say about Zhuye and my own personal work, whether or not I’m the best in the business, that’s not really something that matters to me. What I care about is that Zhuye’s work endures in people’s minds, and whether there’s anything else we can try or anything we can improve on,” he explains. That is why, when designing the poster for the showing of Recounting of the Immortals at the Cannes Film Festival, Ahi collaborated with Liu Dongzi, the artist behind the graphic novel the film is based on.
He also collaborated with the popular illustrator Zaodao for the international poster for Monkey King: The Hero Is Back. Other notable illustrator collaborations include with Sheep, to create Eastern legends for the teaser poster of Big Fish and Begonia; Huang Jiawei, to capture the disciplined and dashing figure of the swordsman on the poster for Brotherhood of Blades 2; and Cai Xuan, to create the fantastical underground worlds of Mojin: The Lost Legend. “Each attempt is one small step further on my path as a creator,” the designer says.
Ahi first came to public prominence for his pen-and-ink motifs in his posters for The Golden Era, but in fact he was already well-known in the business for his earlier work on The Sun Also Rises and Forever Enthralled. The maturity and ease with which he employs Eastern aesthetics has made the designer and his work the standard that other artists aspire to.
“Everything is in the past. I make new posters every day, and every day I want to be better than the previous day,” he explains. “Every new poster is a challenge, and I will forever need to keep that sense of nervousness and excitement.” This is why Ahi not only collaborates with other artists, but is also keen to try all kinds of different visual art, including album covers for Cui Jian and posters for film festivals.
Huang believes that huaren designers, or designers working for or within huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities, are more comfortable with employing Chinese visual elements and philosophies, which is why he also designed posters for Chinese releases of foreign films such as Doraemon: Stand by Me from Japan, The Little Prince from the UK, and The Walk and Chappie from Hollywood.
“The most important thing about a movie poster is that it needs to express the essence of a movie in the most sublime form, and that it needs to be different for each film. Imagination is the key. A good poster transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. I’ve only just begun my work with movie posters. I really need to work harder. I am still young, and so is Zhuye. There’s still a lot [of time and work] ahead,” he concludes.
About Ahi (Huang Hai)
Ahi, also known by his Chinese name, Huang Hai, is a poster designer and visual artist from China. Born in 1976 in Fujian Province, Ahi graduated from Xiamen University in 1999 and founded Zhuye Cultural Workshop in 2011. He has designed posters for Chinese films including The Sun Also Rises, Let the Bullets Fly, The Grandmaster, and The Golden Era. In its five-year history, Zhuye has become one of China’s top poster design companies, with a reputation for professionalism in the business and for magnifying the influence of its clients’ films.