Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with Arvin Chen, Director of "Au Revoir Taipei"

Below is an interview I conducted by email with Arvin Chen, the writer/director of Au Revoir Taipei, which was published in CineVue, the annual magazine of the Asian American International Film Festival. It accompanied my article on the Taiwanese films that screened at this year's festival.

CineVue: Could you briefly describe your background, and how you came to Taiwan to make films?

Arvin Chen: Though my parents are from Taiwan, I was born and raised in the USA, never really thinking that I might one day end up living and working in Asia. Like a lot of American kids, I grew up loving action films, fantasy films, blockbuster stuff. But in my late teens, I began to watch a lot of foreign films, independent films, arthouse films, and though I didn't study film in college (I was an architecture major), by the time I graduated I had gotten really into contemporary Asian cinema: Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Edward Yang, whose film Yi Yi I saw shortly after finishing with school. Yi Yi was an especially inspiring film to me – it was so (deceptively) simple in terms of storytelling, yet was quite profound and moving and universal. Though I had never met him, I knew Edward Yang through a family friend, and flew to LA to meet with him just to get some advice. I was about to start film school at the time, but Edward immediately dissuaded me (he's not a big fan of film schools), and offered me a job working for him in Taipei. I took the offer and within a few weeks was living in Taipei. I didn't realize it at the time, but I guess Taipei had quite an effect on me – not only was it the first time I lived in another country, but it was also when I first started to think about making films. I eventually still went back to film school some years later, but my time in Taiwan continued to be something that stuck with me.

CV: You've said Au Revoir Taipei is a loose expansion of your earlier short, Mei. Could you describe that film and how you transitioned from that to your feature?

AC: Mei was my final thesis film for graduate school at USC, though it was shot entirely in Taipei. At the time, I had just gotten kind of sick of shooting in LA, and wanted to try something different, yet simple, in a new environment. Mei is really just a very small little love story that takes place in the nightmarkets - a slightly romanticized vision of nightmarkets. I made Mei really thinking of it only as a short, so I was actually surprised, when I began showing it in film festivals, that there were people interested in seeing it expanded as a feature. I had never completed a feature-length script before, so it also seemed natural to take Mei as a starting point (the idea of a romanticized Taipei and young people wanting to leave the city). Unfortunately, I quickly realized that something like Mei really existed best in a 10 minute short – there really wasn't enough story or theme or conflict to be able to last in a 90 minute film. So, the script slowly mutated from a straightforward romance into something a bit more comedic and absurd. I guess you can think of Au Revoir Taipei as Mei, but with gangsters and dancing.

CV: Au Revoir Taipei has been compared by many critics to Woody Allen, especially Manhattan. There are also affinities to the multi-character films of Edward Yang. Are there other less obvious influences or inspirations for your film, for example other Taiwanese/Asian or European films?

AC: As a first time feature filmmaker, it was actually tough not to just want to pay homage to/rip off all my favorite films and directors, so definitely there are many influences from all over the place (early Woody Allen being an especially big influence). French New Wave films were something that I always thought of when writing the film, but I think people may be more surprised to find that Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, or something like [Jacques Demy’s] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or even a more recent Korean New Wave film like [Bong Joon-ho’s] Memories of Murder, were all films that I watched and found inspiring elements I wanted to bring into this film and play with.

CV: What were your experiences apprenticing for Edward Yang? Was there any specific advice he gave you that was helpful to your own filmmaking?

AC: It was just amazing to be around someone who I consider to be – for lack of a better word – a genius, but it was also quite inspiring just to witness firsthand the dedication and hard work it takes to be Edward Yang and to make the quality films that he did. In terms of an experience, it was actually quite difficult since Edward demanded a lot of those around him, and definitely had what you would call an artistic temperament. Edward was a great teacher of everything, but I think that one thing that sticks with me is something he told me the first time we met, which is that "when you know what you want to say, how you say it is not that difficult.” 

CV: Did you face any challenges making films in Taiwan?

AC: The filmmaking itself I would say was no more difficult, or less difficult than filmmaking any where else in the world. It's always tough for similar reasons. The biggest challenge overall was probably trying to convince investors that we could make a film that could play not only to Taiwanese audiences, but also internationally (and vice versa).
CV: Do you consider yourself a Taiwanese filmmaker, or an American filmmaker who happens to make films in Taiwan? Or do you not think in those terms?

I've been trying less and less to think in those terms, only because I've realized it makes me over-analyze myself and the kind of films I want to make, and also creates preconceived notions of what Taiwanese cinema and American cinema are. It sounds simple, and perhaps a bit naive, but lately I've been thinking the most productive way to think of my filmmaking in general is just to this the kind of movie I'd like to see?

CV: What has been the reception to the film in Taiwan, and how different are audiences' reactions to the film in Taiwan as opposed to outside Taiwan, if they differ at all?

AC: One of the most encouraging things that have come out of the process of making Au Revoir Taipei is discovering that people all over the world pretty much see our film in the same way, and that what's considered amusing or romantic is the same for everyone. Of course people will always identify with certain characters or moments more, but just having been able to sit in different theatres with different audiences (Taiwanese or non-Taiwanese), I find that the reactions are almost identical. What's more interesting, though, is that in Taiwan Au Revoir Taipei is considered a commercial film, and in the rest of the world and at festivals, it's considered an arthouse film. That may be just how Asian films are viewed outside of Asia (perhaps with the exception of genre and martial arts films).

CV: What are your next projects? Do you envision returning to the US to make films, or do you plan to remain in Taiwan for the foreseeable future?

AC: I had never planned to make another film in Taiwan, but as I was editing Au Revoir Taipei, I kind of stumbled across another idea for a film that I started to really get into – which I basically describe as an homage to Billy Wilder's The Apartment, but set during the Asian economic boom of the 1980s. So, as long as I can find the money to make it, I think that will be my next project. I'd very much like to shoot in the States eventually, but it also seems like right now, there's a lot of exciting things happening in Asia, and it's not a bad place to be for someone just starting to make films.

Arvin Chen's short film Mei:

Clips from an interview with Arvin Chen for Taiwanese television:

1 comment:

HansWebFilmIntro. said...

hi Christopher,

thank you for your kind assistance and cooperation.
below is my intro article of the film with your credit at the bottom.