IT TOOK a Chinese-American film director to make the city romantic - practically Parisian
Chinese-American movie director Arvin Chen's feelings about his adopted city are written all over his first feature film, "Au Revoir Taipei", a picture described by many viewers as funny, goofy and romantic.
Chen, now 32, grew up in California but moved to Taipei in his early 20s to work with renowned director Edward Yang.
"I never thought I'd work in Taiwan," Chen said on Sunday just before "Au Revoir" screened at the World Film Festival of Bangkok.
He was drawn there by Yang's movie "Yiyi" and also admires director Hou Hsiao Hsien, but he doesn't want to make films like them.
Before he made "Au Revoir Taipei", Chen did a 10-minute short called "Mei", also about a guy whose love interest is leaving Taipei, though that time it was for America.
The concept, he said, was to "make Taipei look different from the usual movies", not such a "heavy" place. "The idea was to make it romantic and cute, so we thought about how French movies make Paris look so romantic and sweet and exciting."
Kai is the character left lovesick by the departure of his girlfriend for Paris, she broke up with him over the phone. Determined to follow her, he frequents a bookstore to browse French-language books.
Kai practises his French while store clerk Susie files books, and the relationship they build culminates one night when they're chased around the city by a cop and several gangsters.
Chen set out to tell two stories; one about love and one about crime, but in the end, "The gangsters want to fall in love too and the kids were just as silly as the gangsters ... Everyone wants to find love."
A scene at the night market is a highlight, showcasing an important aspect of Taiwanese life as people crowd in to eat. Local delicacies are featured as jazz plays on the soundtrack.
Chen shot the US$1-million film in 34 days, working after midnight when the streets were quiet. It felt, he said, as if the city belonged to the cast and crew.
Stage actor Jack Yao has the lead opposite pop singer Amber Kuo as Susie, a recent Golden Bell nominee for her television work. "We weren't really looking for a pop star," Chen said. "She just happened to be the most like the character."
Lawrence Ko, who appeared in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution", plays property agent and aspiring gangster Hong, while Frankie Gao, another star of TV and pop, plays Brother Bao, a retiring gang member with a romantic streak.
Chen is now writing both a gay-love script and "Nanjing East Road", another romantic comedy set in booming Taiwan of the 1980s. Clearly he wants to keep making films that show a different Taiwan.
"Au Revoir Taipei" has been seen at more than 40 film festivals, and a French distribution deal is being negotiated, but Chen is somewhat frustrated that it hasn't yet screened in China. Only Chinese who buy the bootleg DVD have seen his "romantic and sweet" vision of Taipei.
"The city is romantic," he insists. "It's the way I feel about Taipei, but it's also a very stylised version, not very realistic, just a feeling."
The surprised star
Jack Yao, 26, the star of "Au Revoir Taipei", was born in the city, and never once saw it the same way it's presented in the movie.
"What I saw in the film was something totally different," said Yao, also in Bangkok for Sunday's screening.
"Taipei may just be a bit dirty!" he said. "The train station is very crowded and dirty, but in the film it's very beautiful and romantic."
Making his own first feature film, Yao revisited the same sort of role he'd played in Arvin Chen's like-minded short "Mei". Chen picked him because he's so much like Kai, the central character.
Made up like a "neighbourhood boy" in the movie, Yao looks more like a budding pop star in person. He thinks his personality is like Kai's but swears he's not as romantic.
"He's the one who's romantic!" Yao says of Chen. "I'm more practical."
Yao will be back onstage in Taipei next month with the play "Walking Towards One Afternoon in Spring". He's still waiting for other movie and television offers to come pouring in.
He'd be happy to do the "idol dramas" for which Taiwan is famous, even if compromises in integrity might have to be made. A fan of the late Heath Ledger's acting, Tao said he wouldn't want to be saddled with an "idol" image, and would strive instead to diversify.
Making the rounds of film festivals with "Au Revoir Taipei" has given Yao a broader international outlook, but it's also made him appreciate his hometown, even the most mundane things he used to take for granted.
"Like the night market," he said. "We go there just to eat, but in the movie the feeling of it is very different.
"Many things are different from the city I knew when I was growing up."