Young director Arvin Chen is a regular in Berlinale: his short film MEI won the 2007 Silver Bear in Berlin’s International Short Film Competition and his first feature AU REVOIR TAIPEI triumphed with the Best Asian Film Award from NETPAC in 2010. At the 63rd Berlinale, Arvin Chen swept the audience with his second feature WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW. The film is about a middle-aged gay man’s second coming-out. His good wife and lovely son make all this a bit difficult, though he is exempt from the possible embarrassment of his parents, as they have long passed away. People burst out in laughter or/and tears during the screening, both moved and convinced by the hope and love the film delicately delivers.
In my opinion, director Arvin Chen, born in Boston and bred in California, has succeeded in three aspects: first as an outstanding student, absorbing intelligence from two grand masters, then as a social anthropologist in Taiwan where he learned local languages and wrote a convincing script, finally as a filmmaker mixing all the crafts with the observations he had gathered in the past few years into his own rainbow rhapsody. Arvin Chen says he belongs nowhere, but his film has reached beyond barriers of language and region.
You were born in Boston and raised in California. Could you, please, tell me more about your upbringing?
My upbringing is very boring. I grew up as an American kid. Most of my friends, when I was a kid, were not Asian. I knew my parents are from Taiwan and in the summers, I would go to visit my grandparents in Taiwan. But it was very boring, I grew up in the suburbs. Just very peaceful, very nice. Played baseball. Delivered newspapers. I think one of the reasons, maybe, I wanted to go back to Asia, is because my upbringing was so peaceful and boring. It was very nice, but there were not many stories when I was growing up. Everything was too nice. The only thing I did that was rebellious, maybe, was to play rock&roll, but that is about it. I had a band in high school and college, but even that was just for fun.
Could you describe your first cinematic memory?
The first time I could remember watching a film in the theater was STAR WARS. I think I saw that in 1983, when I was four or five. Probably a film that made me thinking it was more than just entertainment was EMPIRE OF THE SUN, a Steven Spielberg movie in 1987. Those two movies were the ones I can remember most watching in the theater, but for sure, EMPIRE OF THE SUN was the first time I thought that this could be more than just a movie.
Is there a film you keep re-watching? If there is one, what would be the reason?
There are a lot of movies that I watch a lot. The one I watch the most is probably MANHATTAN, the Woody Allen movie from 1979. That is probably the one that I watch at least twice a year. The simple answer is it is my favorite movie. Also, every time I watch that movie, it makes me want to still make movies.
You started with the highly-selective pre-med and then you changed into architecture?
It was all right. Pre-med is very general. I was not in medical school. It was just taking classes. I think a lot of Asian American kids do things their parents want them to. I mean it is not uncommon for them to start with pre-medicine or law, and suddenly they decide to do something else. It is very common in the US. In the US, most people, even if they graduate with a degree, they would usually do that. I think most people’s career is not what they did in college. Very often.
Right, and then you changed your path into film because of Edward Yang?
I studied architecture; I did not study film until master’s. Actually Edward did not want me to study film. He did not like film school. It was because I wanted to start my own films that I went to film school. It was not because of him. He preferred this “grab on your own” on how to make movies, not to have someone teaching.
So first of all, you went back to Taipei?
Right. I worked with Edward in between college and master’s, for about two years.
What are his biggest influences on you?
Mostly, the biggest thing is he is an artist. He was probably the first artist that I met in my life, with whom I worked closely. I learned from him by seeing how much he struggled and how demanding he was, and also, by seeing how clearly and precisely you have to think everything through. Even in a movie like YI YI, even though it looks simple, elegant, and light, it took a lot of planning. Maybe to make something that simple and pure, it takes even more thinking and design. He thinks everything through, even the very, very minor details.
Another big thing, I think I got from him, is that he is, kind of, still like a child. He does not pretend to be an adult. He is very much like he is young. I think that is something that is really admirable. In making movies, he has to deal a lot of stuff with adults, but he never loses the sight of young people, and he still has a youthful passion. He still believes in innocent beings, pure things. That is something very interesting about him.
In some TV interviews, you speak Chinese rather fluently. When did you start to learn Chinese?
Well, I grew up speaking a little bit Mandarin, but it got better once I worked in Taiwan in my twenties. I spoke Chinese, but not as well. So once I worked there, I had to work in Chinese. When I went back to film school, there were, maybe, four or five years through which I was not speaking Chinese again.
Maybe that explains why the script is so natural. Did you write it in Chinese?
I wrote it firstly in English, and then I translated it, with some people, to Chinese. And after translating it, I did most of the rewritings in Chinese myself.
Interesting. That way of working sounds like James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.
How did you dive into the local setting? Your language is so precise.
It is not that hard, if you work and live there. Like I said, maybe it is easy for me to pick it up, because I am not from there. So, when I feel something interesting, it is easy for me to remember it. It is easy for me to spot, like, oh, it is funny that someone says that.
There is some Taiwanese in the film. You know, Taiwanese is more colorful. It is like Cantonese. It has got more color to it. So, sometimes, just contrasting Taiwanese with Mandarin is also funny. Like it is cute to have certain characters speaking Taiwanese, like Mavis Fan’s mother speaks mostly in Taiwanese. But she is a more colorful character. She is more expressive.
Sometimes, Mandarin is a little bit flat and more structured, whereas Taiwanese is more colorful and it is humorous, so it is nice to have the choice, to choose between different dialects. It is very popular in Taiwan now. Like Mavis Fan’s coworker, she uses English a lot, because it is something very Taiwanese. “Wonderful!” or “I don’t know!” A lot of people in Taiwan, especially office girls: they would like to show off their English. This is also very Taiwanese and funny.
Could you talk about your amazing casting in the film?
Well, the thing with casting is that we have never wanted the easy answer; we have never wanted to go for the obvious choice. Originally, our idea was to cast the entire movie with rock stars or pop stars. There were a lot of possibilities, and we started to think about Richie Jen, Stone (Shih Chin Hang), Mavis Fan, and a couple of people like that.
One of the things is: you are shooting a film about everyday people, so you have to make them very every day, very normal, a little dull, but then the characters themselves need to have characters, even if they are just playing everyday people. This is why we though, well, forget those big personalities: we can make them plain and dull, yet still having a life. So, I think that was the biggest thing with casting. For example, Stone – he is a very mild guy, but something about him is very interesting. That was to find interesting things about pop stars, who have a lot of inner life, but then, to make them normal and see what happens.
What is your opinion on the recent resurrection of Taiwanese cinema?
It is just that Taiwanese cinema has been very art house, very small, for a few years. I think it is because Taiwanese audience really loves movies. So, I think it is just a matter of time there are more and more films being made. The good thing about Taiwan is that people watch a lot of movies. They still mostly watch westerns or many international titles, but Taiwan has lots of movies. I think it will sustain, because people keep making movies in Taiwan, and the audience really likes to watch movies.
Now there are lots of young directors making different types of movies: I think it will last for a while. It is very healthy, because in Taiwan, there is not just one type of films; there are all different types – some actions, like bigger movies, also, there are some very local comedies, and then there are still lots of art house movies, and some mainstream or romantic movies. There are still not so many films per year, but it is getting better and better.
The short film collection 10 + 10 is a very good example that experienced filmmakers in Taiwan are willing to share their experience or even be mentors to the younger generation.
Right! Especially director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He is a really sweet, Godfather-like person. He is very supportive and he goes to see all the new Taiwanese films, trace the new Taiwanese filmmakers. He is a very, very great guy! He actually produces a lot of projects, too. To have someone like him, is really a big deal. It is the same with director Sylvia Chang. So sweet and nice!
I think that sometimes you would have some older directors feeling threatened by younger directors, but not there. They are successful directors themselves, yet all they want to see is that Taiwanese cinema continues. Hou is also the head of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, and he does the Campus, too. I taught in his Golden Horse Film Academy. He is such a great guy that every day he gets many directors. I have done it. Director Yang Ya-Che has done it. We went there just because we like him so much. If he asks, we go.
You seem like a chameleon. How did you ease the culture shock and adapted from America to Asia?
It was tough. It is very strange to say, but I have never felt I belong anywhere. Because when I grew up in America, even though I am American, I am still Asian. Sometimes, you just feel you are not 100% American. And in Taiwan, I also feel that, too, that I am not 100% Chinese or 100% Taiwanese, so it was hard, when I first got back there. Sometimes it is good, because I do not have a lot of baggage. This is why I do not think a Taiwanese director could make this movie.
That is not good or bad. It is just that I do not think they could do it. Just because I do not think they would see the things I see. But it is the same that I cannot make many of the Taiwanese movies. There is movie that came out last year, called GIRLFRIEND, BOYFRIEND: I love that movie, but I could never make that movie, because it just has too much history and culture that I do not understand or that I did not experience.
So, I think, like I said, it is not good or bad, but I am definitely not a “pure” Taiwanese filmmaker, and I do not think I ever will feel I am a “pure” Taiwanese filmmaker. I always feel slightly like an outsider. I am lucky to work with Taiwanese actors, Taiwanese crew, and Taiwanese producers, and I feel lucky they accept me, but it took a lot of time. After I made my short film, I started to meet more people. And with my first feature, my second feature, I also meet more people. It does take time to let people know you are not just some dumb American and just come back to Taiwan to shoot. That happens a lot in Taiwan, usually with Taiwanese Americans or Chinese Americans, just because they want to shoot in Taiwan, they do not really spend time to understand. I do spend a lot of time in language and characters, etc.
I cannot help making a comparison between Ang Lee’s THE WEDDING BANQUET and this film of yours, WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW, as they were both shown in Berlinale. Could you, please, comments on this?
I did not think of THE WEDDING BANQUET that much, but I am sure THE WEDDING BANQUET has an influence because I have seen it many times. I think that THE WEDDING BANQUET was probably a way more ground-breaking because at the time, no one had done that kind of movie. And this was like some twenty years ago. So I think that this movie was much more ground-breaking in what it tried to do about gay marriage or gay issues in a traditional family structure.
At the same time, I think that WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW is a little bit different. It is not about parents’ accepting a gay son or a gay relationship; it is rather about a second coming out. And in THE WEDDING BANQUET the family is more traditional, with the mother, the father, and the son, while in my movie, the personage already has a family, it is not so much about his mother or father, but about his own, new family. I think this is more modern, in a sense. Now, when he has a family, is he going to keep his family together or find a compromise or something?
This interview is originally done for Festivalists.com.