I met Bay Area born and raised filmmaker Arvin Chen at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival a couple of years ago, where he was presenting his short film MEI, which he shot entirely in Taipei. The film had won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlinale a few months prior. MEI Synopsis: The story of a shy young man who has fallen in love with the daughter of a noodle stand owner in the night markets of the Taiwan’s capital city. Firstly, a quick history on Arvin: He graduated from UC Berkeley and became enamored in film, with a desire to enter film school after graduation. But through a family friend, he met famed Taiwanese director Edward Yang (YiYi, A Bright Summer Day, The Terrorizers), who invited Arvin to be his assistant in Taipei. After a number of years working for Yang, Arvin got accepted into USC Film School receiving his MA. Jaded by the graduate thesis film process at USC, where he felt restricted by the process and ultimately disappointed in the final product, he decided to write and direct MEI and move to Taipei to shoot it. Essentially, Arvin’s never left and is gearing up for the release of his first theatrical feature, AU REVOIR TAIPEI, which is inspired by MEI.
I sat down with Arvin in a coffee shop in Taipei and talked about being an Asian American filmmaker working in Asia and how the new world order of independent cinema, in the U.S. is forcing indie filmmakers to explore other opportunities around the world, especially children of immigrants who have a grasp of their mother tongue and move to the home country to work in film and entertainment.
Q: Can you talk about your experience being an Asian American filmmaker working in Asia? Why are you in Taiwan and not working in the U.S.?
Arvin: I never really identified with an Asian American film. I love Asian film and other American genres, but never really got into the Asian American film genre. I think it really boiled down to content. To be honest, there weren’t many conflicts that I experienced. I lived in the suburbs in Northern California, so I felt I never really found my life was so interesting. I never planned to make movies in Asia either. I liked this one film by Edward Yang (YiYi), which I saw in a theater in San Francisco and through a family friend, I met him… At the time, I just wanted to ask for his advice about film school and he said, “hey, forget film school and come work for me for a couple of years and that’ll be your education.” So, I took his offer and moved to Taipei.
(Tom Lin, another Taiwanese director, who was hanging out with us interjects): BUT, YOU DID GO TO FILM SCHOOL.
Arvin: (laughs) Yeah, that’s the second part of the story. At the time, he (Edward Yang) had numerous projects in place. He was starting up an animation company.. At the time, he was going to shoot a version of LUST, CAUTION…that was one of my first jobs with him. I was translating the script, which at the time was called THE ASSASSINATION based on the exact same novel. So, he had all these projects lined up and I was there for two years. Nothing really got off the ground and then I decided to move back to the States and go to film school.
Q: So, you graduated from USC Film School and did your master’s thesis in LA but you were not satisfied.
Arvin: Yeah, it was uninspiring to me, creatively. USC offered lots of resources but I was not really excited about the thesis film. I always had a desire to shoot in Taipei’s night markets and on a whim, so I just decided to do the opposite… shoot a movie in Taipei with no crew and didn’t really have much of a script. Very simply, with little lighting. And the film became MEI.
Q: So you consider MEI a “do-over” thesis film?
Arvin: Yeah….(chuckles embarrassingly)… it’s as if that film I shot in LA never existed. Actually, in making MEI, I don’t consider it authentically Taiwanese at all. It’s shot from a foreigner’s point of view. It’s a very romanticized view of Taipei. At least when I came to Taipei to shoot, I was inspired and found lots of things interesting… visually or story-wise.. Maybe because I’m not from Taiwan, what regular people find mundane, I found inspiring. When I shot the feature (AU REVOIR TAIPEI), it was very practical to shoot it here.
Q: So, it wasn’t your master plan to be based in Taipei?
Arvin: No. Producers who saw my short film, I guess they really liked it and wanted to expand it into a feature and they would help find financing. So, basically, that’s why I shot my first feature here. But through casting, producing and working with the crews and actors in Asia, I realized that I actually love working here (in Taipei). I love the freedom of being a director in Asia. All the problems you might have in the States… I find the system here more collaborative, the people more close-knit, and it’s not so hierarchical.
Q: So is it easier to make a film in Taipei?
Arvin: I think so. Independent cinema is really hard in the U.S. I mean, it’s hard everywhere, but I find that in Taipei, the rate of success in financing is better. The government is a big part of it. 70% of the films here are partly government funded (Government Information Office or GIO provides funds to Taiwanese films, upwards of 50% of the budget). That’s huge, because they absorb a bunch of the risk. In a weird way, it gives you more freedom as a director because you’re not chasing money all the time. Well, it’s easier to find the other portions of funding.
Q: So, unscientifically, what is the ratio of success in securing funding in Taiwan vs. the States?
Arvin: I dunno… I guess 1/500 in the U.S. and 1/30 in Taiwan.
Arvin: Yeah, the GIO helps a lot. It’s a lot of writing of proposals and paper work, but if your project passes muster, then it’s a lot easier to secure the final funding. Keep in mind, the budgets are much smaller and the market is small. Many films don’t make their money back. If we didn’t have the GIO, there would be no Taiwanese cinema.
Q: So what are some of the challenges?
Arvin: Well, as an American, I am considered an outsider, but I also feel it’s an advantage. There’s something novel about you. There’s backlash, sure. Some people say that my film (MEI) was not Taiwanese at all. And AU REVOIR TAIPEI is definitely not Taiwanese in feel either.
Q: So do you feel, as a foreigner, you can get away with some of the things because of cultural differences? That the Taiwanese crews will just “let it go?” Or are they offended?
Arvin: Sure, but I think I kind of figure it out. Plus, I do speak the language, so it makes it easier. My DP is American and he was shooting here and I know he was making a lot of demands that may have startled the Taiwanese crew. I mean, he wasn’t trying to be an asshole, he was just trying to get the best shots for the movie. But I do feel that the Taiwanese crews are very malleable and they are very adaptable. And in general, people are generally friendly and are used to working with foreigners.
Q: Can we talk about AU REVOIR TAIPEI not being necessarily “Taiwanese?”
Arvin: Yeah, for MEI, I think some people thought it was a bullshit movie. Originally, when I was shopping the script around, some local producers were saying “this is not a Taiwanese film” or “that it’s very Westernized.” But, through test screenings, I think the locals realized that this is an absurdist, romanticized and comedic vision of Taiwan. If I was set to do a film in the style of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I’d be an asshole. I think the strength of this film is that people see it as a very stylized, magical realist view of Taiwan.
Q: So I guess you come from a more “hybrid” voice? An in-between of Asian and Asian American perhaps?
Arvin: It’s funny, I actually think AU REVOIR TAIPEI is an Asian American film.
Arvin: Yeah, because the perspective is clearly American but it takes place in Asia. It doesn’t have any Asian American characters in it, but it is a cross-pollination, in that I am an Asian American filmmaker, living in a foreign land, and trying to fit in, creatively. There’s a pop cultural context in that I hope mainstream audiences in Taiwan will connect with it.
Q: I can see that. More and more of my Asian American filmmaker friends are moving to Asia to work. They’re all 1.5 generation and can speak their native tongue.
Arvin: Yeah, it’s a globalized world and we’re just seeking opportunities elsewhere. I’m not turning my back on working in the States but for now, I’m comfortable working in Taipei. I want to tell stories here.
I’m really looking forward to watching AU REVOIR TAIPEI. It’s generating good buzz and is guaranteed a world premiere at a major film festival (insider tip). The film is set for release locally in April.
Check out this clip for Arvin’s award-winning short, MEI:
I hope to showcase the full version in a future Short Film Spotlight!