Author: Hayley Scanlon
Hayley loves movies, especially movies from Japan and China. Everything from Godzilla to Gion Bayashi is her kind of thing but if you suggested she had a soft spot for sci-fi and a general bias against Rom-Coms she wouldn't argue with you.
Salute! Yee Chih-Yen - Page 1
With Director of Taiwanese classic coming of age tale Blue Gate Crossing Yee Chih-Yen in town for the Chinese Visual Festival where his latest film - Salute! Sun Yat-Sen - is screening as the closing night gala, we sat down with him to talk a little about the film and his career so far.
UK Anime: Welcome to London
Yee Chih-Yen: Thank you
UK Anime: Is it your first time here?
Yee Chih-Yen: Actually it’s my third time. I’ve been here shooting TV commercials in the past.
UK Anime: Do you like working here?
Yee Chih-Yen: Yes, I like the city actually. Every time I come here there’s something new. It’s so ever-changing, it’s so... It’s always changing, you’re always bumping into new things - it’s full of surprises. I like the place.
UK Anime: You chose to go abroad to study film rather than staying in Taiwan, was there a specific reason you chose to do that?
Yee Chih-Yen: Yeah - when I was in college, at that time, there weren’t that good film schools in Taiwan at the time and so I applied for the schools in the States, and somehow I got into UCLA - that’s one of the top schools to study films so I just went there. Only because there were no very good film schools in Taiwan, no film school compared to UCLA.
UK Anime: But then you chose to go back to Taiwan to make your first feature Lonely Hearts Club, was that something you always intended to do or did you consider staying in Hollywood?
Yee Chih-Yen: After I graduated I stayed for one year, I even got an agent - a literary agent because I won some writing awards when I was at school and some competitions. I didn’t really “win” anything but I was one of the five finalists in the States so I got an agent through that and I spent a year writing scripts on spec, and the agent was showing the scripts around to the producers but after a year I found something rather important to my writing because around that time there was a presidential election in the states - a competition between Ronald Reagan (I think) and Clinton or Bush? I got confused but there was a presidential election in the states between the Republicans and Democrats - all my American friends were very excited and they spent a lot of time talking about the election and I found out I didn’t really care. I didn’t really care if it was Republicans or Democrats to win the election.
Then I talked to myself - it was something wrong with me, there was something wrong with me being in the States if I don’t care about these kinds of things. I didn’t really care about the city, the place, the society - if I want to be a good writer and a good filmmaker, probably it’s better for me to be in someplace I really care about. That’s how I can write something truly heartfelt. That’s the point I decided to go back to Taiwan. I think that although I spent seven years in the US I still didn’t really care about that place that much. So I just decided to go back to Taiwan, to the place I really cared about, if I wanted to be a genuine filmmaker. That’s how I got back to Taiwan.
UK Anime: But then it was another seven years before you made Blue Gate Crossing, what were you doing in the meantime? What took you so long?
Yee Chih-Yen: It’s always difficult to get into the film business, I think it’s the same thing in the UK. It’s the same thing in Hollywood, in the States. It took me seven years - I got back to Taiwan and I knew nobody there and all my film friends were in LA. I was sort of alone in Taipei and I knew nothing about the film business, I had no connections and I didn’t even have an agent in Taiwan so I started out from scratch. From zero. I started writing film critiques in the newspapers and magazines. I started writing scripts - TV drama scripts, for other established directors. I started as one of the writers for TV stuff and that’s how I started.
I spent almost seven years doing these kinds of things and then one day, most of the production companies sort of liked my writing and my scripts, so one day I just told them I didn’t want to write scripts for the other directors. If you like my scripts, I’ll start directing. Then you can hire me not only as a writer but as a first time director. That’s how I got my first thing done.
UK Anime: Blue Gate Crossing is probably the film that put you on the map as a director, how did you feel about the international response to the film - is that something you were very surprised by?
Yee Chih-Yen: Yeah - I was very surprised because from the early ‘90s to 2000 Taiwanese cinema was almost dead, because every year we got like five or ten pictures made for the whole island; for the whole country only ten or seven films got made. Nobody went to see Taiwanese films anymore so it’s really dead and by the time I made Blue Gate Crossing in 2001, shown in 2002, the whole industry was sort of dead and the production was sort of like anarchy because nobody knew what to do and nobody knew how to cope with the situation.
In a way you can do whatever you like because whatever you do is dead anyway so as long as you don’t spend a lot of money they don’t really have high expectations - I mean the investors and the production companies, don’t really have any high expectations of anything so they sort of let you do anything you want as long as you can convince them. So when we did Blue Gate Crossing nobody really expected anythin,g and the budget of Blue Gate Crossing was very very small - part of it was from France and part of it was from the government subsidy. So the so-called investors in Taiwan didn’t even put in any money towards the film so they just let it go and grow. Yeah, so nobody really expected anything out of it, it was just another film from a very dead film industry in very hard times.
UK Anime: Blue Gate Crossing obviously deals with some quite controversial subjects to some people - what made you want to deal with the theme of LGBT youth?
Yee Chih-Yen: I’ve been doing a lot of teenager stuff - I write about them, I shoot about them and I think it’s not particularly about gay and lesbians, I would say it’s about teenagers and the society they are in. I always write about minorities, and how they are going to face the problems they’re going to have now or in the future. So I would say I didn’t start out to write a script about gays and lesbians. I started writing about minority teenagers and that time happened to be gay and lesbians, like the TV series - I did a 30 episode TV series in 2005 - that’s about some deviant, rebel students in high schools - they have different belief in education than the authorities.
This time with Sun Yat-Sen, I did poor kids of a relatively low social class so I always try to write some minorities - in terms of ideology, in terms of social class or in terms of sexuality, So I don’t know, to think back when I wrote Blue Gate Crossing I really didn’t start out to write gays and lesbians, that only happened during the writing process.
UK Anime: One of the things I most like about Blue Gate Crossing is that it’s not particularly angst-ridden - it’s mostly about young people finding themselves...
Yee Chih-Yen: Yes!
UK Anime: ...and in this film too you get the sort of positive message that everything’s going to be OK whatever happens - I wondered if that’s something you were very keen to convey?
Yee Chih-Yen: Yes, I think everything’s going to be alright. To think back I had so many problems as I grew up. I wasn’t a model student at all - I had so many problems but throughout the process most of the things turned out OK. I always like to... it’s probably my personality or something, but I like to give some kind of encouragement in my films. I hope the audience after watching my film walks out of the theatre truly feeling charged and pumped up; they think they can do something about the society and about themselves. To me that’s part of the catharsis - you feel different. I like the audience to have this kind of feeling after watching the film.
UK Anime: Most of your work so far - this film and Blue Gate Crossing and even your TV series Dangerous Mind focused on young people, is that something you intend to keep doing in your career or something that particularly interests you?
Yee Chih-Yen: Yes, it is - I’m writing something else right now about people in their 30s but the funny thing is that as I said I started as a writer, I wrote all kinds of subject matters, all sorts of characters, however all those scripts about teenagers left a more profound impact on the producers and investors so gradually they commissioned me to write more about teenagers. So I didn’t plan to write only about teenagers, however this kind of situation just happened and I spent more and more time writing about teenagers, researching about teenagers, spending time with them and it turned out all my three films and the TV series were about teenagers. Now I’m writing something else but of course I will keep on writing about teenagers if I find a subject that’s worth writing. But, I’m also writing something else about grown-ups.