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APA talks to Arvin Chen about his Silver Bear-award winning short film Mei.
The closing film of the "Love, Labors, & Other Complications" shorts program at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was a film set in Taipei that had recently won the prestigious Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Mei was director Arvin Chen's thesis film at USC film school. Previous to the Berlin awards, he won the Audience Award at the NYC Shorts Film Festival.
A Taiwanese American raised in Northern California, Chen shot the film in Taiwan in Mandarin, even though he couldn't read or write Chinese. The story takes place in the middle of a Taipei night market and revolves around a young man who works in a noodle stand and his co-worker Mei, who, unbeknownst to her, is the object of his affections. In May, Los Angeles residents will be able to check out the film at the VC Film Festival.
APA talks to Arvin about the inspiration for Mei, shooting in Taiwan as a Taiwanese American, and working with Edward Yang. --Ada Tseng
Interview with Arvin Chen
March 20, 2007
Interview by Ada Tseng
Video edit by Oliver Chien
Transcribed by Brian Hu
Asia Pacific Arts: Can you start by telling us about your background and how you got into film?
Arvin Chen: I grew in the Bay Area and I always wanted to make movies but I didn't really get into it until I was in college. I went to Berkeley but I was an architecture major. But when I was in Berkeley, I basically watched a ton of movies, and I had professors that actually made us watch Godard movies and French new wave films, so I got really into it then and decided that I wanted to go to grad school for film. I applied to a bunch of grad schools and got into a few.
At that time I met a director named Edward Yang, a Taiwanese director who made Yi Yi. He's kind of a family friend, although I'd never met him before. So I asked him for some advice about whether to go to film school or not, and he said, "Absolutely not, don't go to film school. It will totally ruin you -- just come work for me for a couple years and you'll learn everything you need." It sounded pretty good at the time because he was still living in Taipei, and he said, "Just come back to Taipei and I'll give you a job and mentor you."
So I worked for him for about two years, but I still kind of felt like I hadn't really been on a film. So I re-applied to grad schools, and then went to USC. The short Mei is my thesis film for USC. Basically I was in Taiwan for two years, went back to school for three years, and went back to Taiwan again to shoot my thesis film.
APA: How was it working with Edward Yang?
AC: He had just made Yi Yi, and I came on after that, into his production company. We were developing a feature length animation and a couple other feature-length scripts. He was getting lots of materials at that time from studios. I was basically just an assistant going through all the projects, trying to get some other stuff off the ground. He had a multimedia online-content thing.
One of the reasons I went back to film school was that I never got a chance to make a film with him, which may have been a totally different experience. But I kind of got tired of waiting around so I decided I had to go back. It was cool because he was very methodical and precise. So I kind of had a chance to see what it's like to be someone like him -- to be precise, detail-oriented, uncompromising.
APA: Can you talk about the short, and what influenced the story?
AC: Two basic things: one is that I had a lot of friends when I was living in Taiwan who always wanted to go abroad. It's kind of a common thing about young Taiwanese kids; they all want to get out and go to the States or go to Europe. I just remember I had a lot of friends whose girlfriends left. It's a conflict that people have with wanting to leave.
[Second,] I never felt that I saw a film that captured the way night markets felt to me. I actually think night markets and back alleys are really romantic. So I took those two ideas -- the idea of someone having to leave, and then the idea of setting this really simple story in this world. Wong Kar-wai has shot in night markets before, but aside from that, you don't really see it much in Taiwan. So I just found it interesting to tell a romance in a night market -- a place where most Taiwanese people don't think is very romantic.
APA: How does a guy who grows up in America and doesn't speak, read or write Chinese go to Taiwan and make a film about Taiwan?
AC: Well, luckily I do speak Chinese. I wasn't very good until I moved to Taiwan, basically. I think it's kind of cool. I actually enjoy the process of writing in English and translating into Chinese, because it means that I get a bunch of my Taiwanese friends together and workshop the script. It's kind of like writing the script again. I like that process of having to go through every line of dialogue and asking people, "does this sound okay to you in Chinese? Does it sound weird?" It makes me have to think about every line of prose again.
What's really great is that when we rehearsed the scenes, it's kind of like re-writing again, because if it doesn't sound right to me, I'll ask "Why doesn't this sound right?" and they'd say, "Well, we wouldn't say it like this, we'd say it like this." So I actually think it's great, forcing me to have to think about every line one more time. I enjoy it, so for my next movie, which I'm writing right now in L.A. in English, I'd imagine it'll take me a good solid month in Taiwan to go through it again and methodically translate it. I think it's pretty cool -- the perspective I come from is different from Taiwanese filmmakers. I don't know if it's better or worse, but it's definitely different.
APA: Why did you want to make your film in Taiwan? Was it because you had a certain experience there?
AC: I had made kind of a thesis film in L.A., and it was made through school funds. Every year, they pick a couple of directors from USC and they give them school funding and a crew from the school. But when I made that movie I felt really restricted by L.A. It was basically kind of like making a studio picture where the professors every day watch your dailies and comment, and the class gives you feedback. My short, Mei, is kind of a reaction against that. I was just going to go to Taiwan with nothing and shoot this movie in the streets. It wasn't until shooting the movie and finishing it that I fell in love with the idea of making another movie in Taiwan, and I saw the potential for another story. So it's not that I necessarily prefer to go to Taiwan, I just felt that right now, for what I'm doing, it'd be really cool to make another movie in Taiwan. And again, I think my perspective is pretty different about what kind of movies I'm making. My next one's going to be different from this one, but I don't think it's something that someone from Taiwan would necessarily make. And it's definitely not a movie that someone in American would definitely make. It's kind of a hybrid of the two.
APA: So when you made Mei, did you conceptualize it here, and then go over there to shoot it?
AC: I developed it all here and brought it over there. Obviously there's a lot of translation stuff. And some locations that I'd imagined simply didn't exist. Basically the overall story and the overall tone that I wanted is based on memories I had when I was working there. It was kind of cool to be writing here, removed from Taiwan. You have to think of things and then go over there to find out it doesn't exist or that you have to shoot it differently. But it was mostly conceived in America.
APA: What was like to shoot in Taiwan? Were there permits?
AC: There was very little permitting. The great thing about Taiwan is that there's no such thing as a big-budget movie. Very rarely is there ever a big-budget movie. So everything is done like a student film, which I love because the crew is very small and you don't have much equipment and all the locations are relatively uncontrolled. I think it's great. I mean, obviously your movie has to be in that kind of style to be able to work like that. It's very liberating; the people are very nice there so it's really cool.
APA: Did you work with local crew?
AC: Mei was about 95% Taiwanese. The only people who weren't Taiwanese were the director of photography (who's from USC) and the person who edited Mei. Everyone else pretty much was Taiwanese. In terms of the production crew, the entire art department, the producers, the assistant director, the camera/lighting guys were all from Taiwan.
APA: Did you qualify for Taiwanese financing?
AC: Before I was definitely not eligible because I'm not a Taiwanese citizen. I think I might be eligible now because of the award, but I don't know. It's another reason I want to go back: to start figuring all of that stuff out. The problem with all of those grants is that they have a lot of parameters on everything; you have to show receipts and there's a certain timetable. It's great because most countries don't have that. America certainly doesn't have that.
APA: Can you say something about your influences?
AC: There're a lot of contemporary Asian directors that I really like. Shunji Iwai in Japan is really awesome. Wong Kar-wai I clearly rip off. Ang Lee a lot less for style, but the kind of emotion he gets out of his movies. And Edward Yang obviously. But I'm a really big fan of late 1970s American cinema, which I think is the golden age of cinema of all time. Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, early Woody Allen stuff. Those are my two favorite eras: the contemporary Asian filmmaking and late 70s American filmmaking.
APA: How familiar are you with new Taiwanese filmmakers?
AC: Pretty familiar. I try to see the new movies like Do Over which are coming out. There's a recent trend -- and Do Over is an example -- to make something like an American indie: very hip and kinetic. That's sort of cool; it's a different style. The traditional Taiwanese movie is very detached and intellectual -- very 60s or 70s European style. So I think the new filmmakers I see are very much into taking a more aggressive approach.
APA: Have you seen Formula 17?
AC: That one I have not seen. I haven't seen that one or Catch, which are the two big ones. I don't think those are necessarily the kind of movies I'm into, but it's interesting that there's that style of filmmaking. A movie that I liked recently is called Blue Gate Crossing. It's really excellent. It's not really like the old Taiwanese style. It's a simple story about high school kids. Awesome.
APA: Can you say something about your experiences in Berlin?
AC: Berlin was cool -- a little overwhelming. It's a bigger festival than I thought it'd be. I heard it was very big, but it was very, very big and very formal. I was pretty stressed out the whole time because I was worried if we'd win anything. At first I thought that we had no chance, but then we saw some of the other movies and thought that maybe we do have a chance. I was very nervous about whether we were going to get anything. The Taiwanese government paid for me to go, so they had a lot of events that they had scheduled, like meeting with the ambassador from Taiwan and Germany. There were also a lot of interviews and press things, and formal things the Taiwanese government had set up.
APA: Has the award opened up other opportunities?
AC: Not really. There are a lot of people who are more interested in talking to us now. So in L.A., we can meet up with a lot of agencies, managers, and production companies. It's hard to turn that into anything, but it's more people to meet and hopefully one of them will be interested in the movie. Which is our main goal: just to make another movie.
APA: Can you say something about what your next feature is about?
AC: It's very similar in tone to Mei; it's more on the comedic side, but it's also sad and bittersweet. It takes place all in one night and it's about a young writer who's obsessed with Hemingway. He also wants to leave Taipei. He doesn't like himself or the city very much. He thinks that his only solution is to get out and experience the world. Then over the course of a night, he falls in love with this girl, and for the first time he sees that Taipei actually has a lot of inspiration and a lot of romance to it. Unfortunately, she actually has to leave, so he blows up at her and falls apart, and in the end has to either be able to give her up, or fall in love with the city finally and realize that he's never going to leave the city, but he has something to write about now. It's very similar in tone to Mei: people leaving, and the influence of the West on Taipei. What we really want to do is make modern day Taipei look like 1950s Paris. It's modern Taipei, but in his mind it becomes a romanticized Paris. I'm writing it in English right now. We're looking for financing. Hopefully by the summer I'll go back and start casting and looking for locations and polishing the script.
Date Posted: 3/30/2007