Yee-Yin: First of all, I just want to say ‘congratulations’! This film was such an unexpected gem!
Arvin Chen: Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.
YY: I did! So, has this film been released in Taiwan yet?
AC: Yes, it was released in the Spring (of 2013); the film had a commercial release because of the stars involved in the movie and that’s nice because the subject matter isn’t particularly commercial, so it’s good to have that balance.
YY: How has the reception been, since the film is about a still very taboo subject in many parts of Asia?
AC: It has actually been pretty good. There were people who probably stayed away because of the subject matter but the people who saw it, whether they were supportive of the issue or not, seemed to like it. For me, that’s great because it isn’t the kind of film that not many people make now in Taiwan, and for people to be able to see it at a Cineplex instead of just festival settings means the film is more accessible. And I think that’s why we were very lucky to have the stars acting in the film, because the film attracted more audience than it would otherwise. And in addition to their star power, they were such nice people to work with too. I mean, sometimes people will avoid using stars in films because it distracts from the movie’s message but for me, if it helps promote the film and they were good to work with, I really don’t see any drawbacks.
YY: And they were really very good in the film, I have to say. Solid performances.
AC: Yeah, you know they really surprised me, because they are sort of pretty big rock stars in Taiwan, and I was worried it could be a challenge for them to play everyday characters. Like when we were shooting the subway scenes with Richie Jen, he told me he has never ridden in a subway before so how do you play a character who rides the subway to work everyday? So, that was interesting.
YY: I have to admit, I shed a couple of tears towards the end of the movie, and that’s what I love about the film — you go in without any expectations, thinking it was just another rom-com or relationship drama and at first you get hit with all the humour and you are having a good time, then all of a sudden you are caught completely unawares by these very serious issues and it really hits home. What made you choose this subject matter, and what made you incorporate all the musical sequences into the movie?
AC: Well, the idea was actually very simple. A friend of mine who is gay told me that this happens still in Taiwan, so I thought it would be an interesting way of telling the story from a family’s perspective. Even though it’s about a serious subject, I also didn’t want to make a film that is too political or too preachy so this was a subtle way of approaching the subject. And basing it in everyday world, in a middle-class family in Taiwan, makes it more relatable to people.
But then I started to look for things to make the film unordinary, which is the fantasy element in the film. On the surface, the characters are just normal characters — but maybe they also have these crazy fantasies, like about soap opera stars coming alive from the TV screen and talking to them, and then it’s just finding the balance between the fantasy, comedy and drama around this sad subject. It’s modulating around it — I had to do it a little bit in the writing process, and then we obviously had to do it in the shooting of the movie and then we really had to do it in the editing process.
We didn’t want to sustain a sad scene for too long without the feeling of the comedy but we also didn’t want to have too much comedy without a scene that meant a bit more dramatically so it was just always a bit of a back and forth, to find that balance.
YY: Is there a particular aim with this film that you hope to achieve — like was it a passion project or something else?
AC: Well, it’s really great that there’s this gay marriage debate in Taiwan now, and I hope the film would make gay issues more open to people, whether they are for or against it. Like in the movie, the characters of the mom and the dad, you feel for the character of the dad who’s gay, but you also feel for the mom because she’s being lied to by her gay husband, you know. So, I guess my message is that it doesn’t just affect one person but their families as well. And this is just one version of it in the movie, but it happens everyday all over Taiwan, and all over Asia probably. So the one thing for me is if people become more accepting of being gay because without that pressure, they wouldn’t be put in these difficult situations. That’s just very broad but hopefully if you feel for the characters of this movie, it’ll also make you feel more sensitive about similar real-life stories.
YY: That’s what I really like about the film too, that it makes it about people the audience can relate to and to show them how tough it can be, when a gay character who could be their family or friend has to choose between upholding societal norms and being true to themselves, and seeing this internal conflict unfold. Like the character of the dad, he wants to be the family provider and he loves his kid but he couldn’t stop himself from following his instincts. Everyone probably has a gay family member, but most of the time, no one wants to talk about it because homosexuality is still seen as something abnormal.
AC: Right, and that’s why in this film, there’s no reason why the gay husband can’t be a good father, in fact that’s the one thing he can do well. I mean, he’s not a very good husband because he doesn’t love his wife romantically, but the love he has for his son is pure. It was interesting that at one of the screenings we had in Taiwan, a guy asked me in the Q&A why the ending was so sad, because he thought they were going to end up being one big happy family again, and he didn’t get it that the ‘happy ending’ would have been what’s sad, because that means the gay husband character would have been forced to live a lie.
YY: I think the ending was the best possible outcome: I mean, in the end, it’s really about doing what’s best for the people you love.
AC: Yeah… I have heard so many stories of families being destroyed in this situation, or the husband is constantly cheating on the wife with their boyfriends on the side. And we know that is probably closer to reality than what was in the film, but we intentionally wanted to present the character of this guy who tries to be the best he could be, and tries to suppress all his natural urges to be true to himself because he feels bad about putting his family in that situation, but in the end, he can’t. But like you said, it’s still the best possible outcome because doing what is right for yourself doesn’t mean that they can’t still care for each other and be a family.
YY: Do you think there will be a sequel? I mean, the ‘coming out’ is probably the easy part, and I’d be very interested in seeing what happens next, to the character development of the husband, the changes to the family dynamics.
AC: Ah, no, I don’t think I’ll be able to write a sequel to this. I mean, the ending is sort of like a cop-out (laughs) so I don’t have to answer all the difficult questions! People have asked us, like, the movie doesn’t really end… and it’s not that it doesn’t end, but this is as far as we could tell it. I mean, if you try to think of the characters, then there is no ending, so many things can happen to them down the line, good or bad, so this is just a chapter in the big story. Maybe it’s a little too neatly packaged, but it’s a chapter that starts with an engagement and ends with a wedding, and that’s the only chapter I am able to tell right now.
YY: Well, you could make it into a soap opera… since the film has been received well, and it would also continue the exposure of the topic.
AC: Well, I did fall in love with some of the characters in the film…
YY: I loved them! I could really relate to them, just like the many things in the film, I guess Asian audiences would be able to as well. Like the eyeglasses store that you find exactly in every street corner in an Asian city, the badminton, the karaoke… and the homework! (laughs) I can’t imagine you wouldn’t do well if you turn it into a TV series, at least in the Asian circuit.
AC: Yeah, I think when we have screened this film outside of Taiwan, people seem to be able to still identify with a lot of the things. So far, the movie has only been screened in Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It couldn’t get into Mainland China because of the censorship of the issue. It’ll be released in the U.S. soon and also sold to a bunch of TV stations around the world. I think just like Ilo Ilo, there are social contexts and family relationship issues that are specifically Asian that makes it relatable even if you are from a different Asian country.
YY: I noticed that the film have Classic Hollywood influences, from the title of the movie to the music and some of the scenes. It really gives the film a very charming quality. Is there a reason behind this?
AC: Well, I definitely love classic Hollywood movies, like the melodramas and musicals. But I don’t know at what point I decided to start putting them (Hollywood references) in the film. The composer of the film’s musical score (Wen Hsu) and I are very good friends, and he did the score for my first film too. I remember when I was writing this film, I would just send over these songs, like Singing in the Rain to him for ideas of what I want for this film.
Even though the film is based in modern middle-class Taipei, for some reason, I just really wanted to put in lush melodrama musical scores. I just wanted to have the feeling of it (classic Hollywood) in the film. Sometimes, it just feels like, if I just appropriate a little bit of this style and incorporate it where it doesn’t really fit necessarily, it can become something interesting, and it actually became the way we shot scenes — to look at them not as generic scenes.
Like the first time the flight attendant comes into the eyeglasses store, I wanted it to look like a 1940s Paris musical scene, you know, the whole “looking at each other through the window” shot and it becomes this scene that is neither Taiwanese or American. Just like with the eye exam scene, what if it became more like a musical sequence with lots of close-ups, so there’s more of an elegant, 50s style to the shot? Like the Badminton playing scene being set to slow motion and a musical score — it just becomes a different way of looking at the world and it’s something I enjoy to do. I guess some people might think it’s too stylized or hyper-real, but it’s hard for me to look at a story and not want to tell it in a different way, you know?
YY: I’ve certainly enjoyed it and I hope we get to see more of your film-making style in the future. Do you have any upcoming projects where you’ll continue to use comedy with which to tell stories?
Yeah, one movie that I’m writing right now is a comedy set in America about immigration. It sounds pretentious, but it’ll be a funny way of looking at what’s left of the American dream from a modern immigrant standpoint. And the other one is a road movie, a Chinese-Taiwanese co-production. They won’t be very different from my first two movies, but it’ll involve things I haven’t done before.
Thanks to Arvin Chen for his time (and for his film!)