by Ken Cheng
The film Au Revoir Taipei -- a romantic comedy that follows an ensemble cast of lovesick characters throughout a single night in Taipei -- has been generating both buzz and smiles in equal amounts since its well-timed international premiere on Valentine’s Day. Writer/director Arvin Chen’s debut feature, the film premiered to glowing reviews and the NETPAC award(1) during February’s prestigious Berlinale Film Festival. Getting to know Chen goes a long way towards explaining both.
Prompting Taiwan-based filmmaker Arvin Chen to dissect his artistic sensibilities may seem, at first, a task on par with asking a sphinx to deconstruct a knock knock joke. This is not to say that the Bay Area-bred Chen exhibits any overt surliness or other tell-tale traits of the unwilling interview subject; quite the contrary. With his lanky, hoodie-and-Chucks-clad frame draped in what must be the most comfortable coffee shop chair ever built, and a laugh that can be induced by the mere attempt to recall untranslated foreign film titles, Chen’s demeanor seems wholly untethered. One might even describe his mood as "chipper," a likely result of being back in the Southern California weather he’s missed the past few years. So when he dodges questions about his process, it feels less like purposeful obstruction than genuine disinterest in the notion of taking himself, or his success, too seriously. It’s a respectable characteristic from a filmmaker most of the time; downright admirable when considering his achievements over the last two months.
In fact, Chen -- in town to present his film to sold-out screenings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival - would, it seems, much rather deflect the considerable attention coming his way onto his collaborators (i.e. his producers, his cast, his director of photography, his cinematic heroes, his middle school art teacher and pretty much anybody else he can think of) than hoard it for himself. And while the film -- a charmingly exuberant romantic comedy that doubles as an unflinchingly romanticized ode to his adopted city - is undeniably the vision of a singular auteur, you will never hear Chen describe his baby as a work of sole possession. It is always "our film" when referred to in either conversation or interviews. Really, it's a habit that might come off as exceedingly maddening were it not so damn endearing.
This, more than anything, typifies Chen’s filmmaking gift: the ability to ingratiate his characters (and thus himself) with the audience by subtly articulating his inclusive and idealized philosophy. In Chen’s film world, falling in love is better expressed through tender mouthfuls of soup dumplings and a shared lindy hop in the middle of a bookstore than lovey-dovey histrionics. Indeed, every element of Au Revoir Taipei, from the main character Shiao Kai’s hoodie-and-Chucks-infused costumes to the film’s jaunty, swing jazz score, represents Chen’s cinema-inspired viewpoint. With hints to the films of the French New Wave, Woody Allen and Asian auteurs like Wong Kar Wai and the late Edward Yang, for whom he apprenticed in his early 20s, Chen displays his passion for movies as frequently in the frame as on the proverbial sleeves of his trademark hoodie.
"I’ve always enjoyed films about romance and falling in love," Chen states without a hint of embarrassment. “Probably because I think cinema, itself, is an inherently romantic medium.” Spend five minutes with him and it would be easy to imagine Chen ambling through the same Taipei night market stalls that he’s depicted so beautifully on film, searching for the same things as his fictional doppelganger: some good eats and a cute girl with a pixie hairdo.
Be it in Au Revoir Taipei or his award-winning short film Mei(2), Chen offers light, affection-laden, slices of modern life that feel just authentic and sincere enough that we can’t help but buy into his suspicion that whether we’re heartbroken food stall workers, real-estate crooks with a penchant for neon couture or bumbling policemen, perhaps the search for love truly is the only thing we all have in common. It’s a cinematic lesson expressed by many filmmakers past and present. But unlike other recent attempts to wrap the lessons of Alvy Singer into more modern and contrived packaging(3), Chen’s work would feel just as true to your auntie in Shanghai as your girlfriend in Santa Monica.
So far, it’s an approach that has set Chen apart from other filmmakers in the international festival scene, including the pioneering masters of his adopted Taiwanese film community such as Hou Hsiao Hsien and Tsai Ming Liang, whose films can often feel tediously contemplative and inaccessible (4), despite their grandeur and aesthetic beauty. “Ironically, Au Revoir Taipei is totally un-Taiwanese,” Chen opines. “I think Taiwanese audiences probably see the way I’ve portrayed Taipei as fairy tale-like. But that’s just my perspective as an American living there.” Indeed, Chen’s uniquely American voice seems like a bold and welcome take, not just in the otherwise tepid Asian-American filmmaking scene but also in the context of the seemingly global trend towards unrelentingly depressing cinema.
Which is not to suggest that Chen doesn’t dabble in cynicism as much as the next auteur. One might deduce from the Ginsu-sharp wit he wields like a spectacled, floppy-haired samurai that Chen probably also harbors more pessimistic ideas about life, love and the state of movie-making than the uber-sweet magical realism of his first feature might suggest. He concedes, for example, that despite the success of Au Revoir Taipei with critics and audiences worldwide, he may not get the opportunity to make a feature in the U.S. for a long time to come. "I’m probably going to stay out there (in Taiwan) for a while,” Chen states. "I have no idea when I’ll be coming back for good." He cites the overwhelming obstacles independent filmmakers looking to create smaller, more personal works like his face outside of the Hollywood studio system as reason enough to continue mastering his craft overseas. "I feel like I’d have to basically start over from scratch," he laments of a move back stateside. As such, Chen has already begun working on his next feature. "It’s a less cheerful romance set during Taiwan's economic boom of the early 80s."
Others may be more upbeat about the prospects of an American, English-language Arvin Chen feature coming in the near future than Chen himself(5). But that’s not really the point. Because whether his next film features characters speaking California slang or the old school Minanhua dialect of Taiwan, his audience can trust that they’ll be seeing a film that more clearly and delicately expresses its director’s point of view and love of cinema than any questions about stylistic influences could instigate. Whether or not hoodies, dumplings and swing dance are involved, however, remain to be seen.
1) The NETPAC Award is presented at international film festivals like Berlinale and Rotterdam to a distinguished film originating from a pan-Asian country. At least that’s what the organization’s website says.
2) Which he made during his final year at USC’s graduate film program and won the prestigious “Silver Bear” jury prize at Berlinale in 2007.
3) That’s right, I’m looking at you “(500) Days of Summer.”
4) See: “Flowers of Shanghai,” “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” and the middle section of “Three Times.”
5) This writer included.
Ken Cheng is a professional daydream transcriber and comicmelodramatist from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently residing in downtown Los Angeles. You can read more of Ken's work at his blog CanIHaveAWord.blogspot.com and his columns at Technorati (Clarifying the Guy's Code) and BlogCritics (What's Wrong With Being Judgmental?). You can also follow him on Twitter.