Optical illusion: Taiwan’s Arvin Chen focuses his lens on changing cultural norms in quirky ‘Will You Still Me Love Tomorrow?’
Taiwanese writer-director Arvin Chen follows his well-received Au Revoir Taipei with a blithe romantic comedy, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Debuting on Dec. 21 from Film Movement, it’s an unashamed audience pleaser, flavored with strong hints of romantic screwball comedies and candy-colored Hollywood Golden Age musicals, but informed with its own sexual precocity that is a definite step forward for traditionally somewhat repressed Taiwanese cinema.
Aurally fueled by that classic Shirelles song, the plot centers around optician Weichung (Richie Jen), who is comfortably married with child to Feng (Mavis Fan, very touching). Perhaps too comfortably, because when he meets a handsome flight attendant (Wong Ka Lock), certain bells go off and he finds himself fighting off some very real gay urges he has managed to suppress for years. Encouraged by the example of his flamboyant wedding photographer friend Stephen (Lawrence Ko), Weichung begins to lead a double life, juggling his wife and secret male lover. Meanwhile, his sexy wild card of a sister Mandy (Kimi Hsia) is finally getting married to nerdy San-San (Stone), but is getting cold feet.
The young and charmingly self-effacing Chen sat down with Film Journal International some months before the New York release of the movie and filled us in on the happy experience of making this very happy film.
Film Journal International: What gave you the idea for this film?
Arvin Chen: I heard a story from a friend of mine about sham marriages in Taiwan, and how men who know they are gay (and have actively lived a gay life) will suddenly decide to get married out of obligation. I had always wanted to make a movie about untraditional families and different kinds of love, so that seemed like something I could develop...
FJI: How did you cast Richie Jen? He is so good and empathetic.
AC: I'd love to take credit for this one, but it was actually my producer Lee Lieh that suggested him. He was a little skeptical at first, only because Richie usually plays gangsters and cops, but once I had dinner with him, I could see his inherent sweetness (which is the quality Lee Lieh must have seen as well).
FJI: What is it about pop singers like Jen that make so many of them such natural, good actors?
AC: They're natural performers, of course, so they won't be awkward in front of the camera. They also have big-screen star quality, but are often not as "trained" as a professional, which I actually prefer sometimes, only because they'll give you a little more naturalism if you dig for it.
FJI: Lawrence Ko is delightful, Where did you find him?
AC: He's been acting since he was a kid, and has worked with some pretty big directors in his career so far, like Edward Yang and Ang Lee. I met him through friends initially, and immediately cast him in my first movie, Au Revoir Taipei. We had a great working relationship on that one and so I actually wrote the part of Stephen with him in mind. He's the only actor I knew I would cast before I even had a script.
FJI: Was there much improvisation on the set—there is such a fun vitality—or did they pretty much stick to the script?
AC: There was quite a bit, especially in some of the comedic scenes with Lawrence. Also some of the heavier stuff (especially the confrontation between Mavis and Richie) was very loosely scripted so the actors could have maximum flexibility in the moment.
FJI: I loved the parents of Weichung. Are they veteran actors?
AC: The grandmother was—she is a veteran of traditional Taiwanese dramas, so we were lucky to get her. The grandfather is actually a retired airline pilot who just happens to act in commercials for fun.
FJI: Wong Ka Lok is also wonderful. How did you cast him?
AC: Well, we knew we wanted a handsome Hong Kong actor—and luckily one of our casting directors is a big fan of Hong Kong soap operas, so she knew his work and showed me some clips. I had a Skype meeting with him, and that was it.
FJI: Weichung's gay posse (from his "former" life) is hilarious.
AC: Most of them are comedic actors, so they were fun to work with. Only one of them is actually gay, and none of them play any badminton, so all of that took some work.
FJI: Mavis Fan brings real depth to the film—what made you cast her?
AC: You know, it's weird, she is nothing at all like Feng. She's very confident and assertive, not married, doesn't have kids, and has been a pop star or rock star most of her life. But really there was just a sadness in her eyes that I knew would be great to have in Feng. And once we talked together about Feng, I knew that Mavis could find that character.
FJI: Did many actors want these roles or did the subject matter scare them?
AC: Surprisingly, no one was at all put off by the subject matter—which is still a bit taboo in Asia. Richie (who has never played a gay role) was especially open to the idea. He told me that he has many gay friends he made as an entertainer, so he was totally comfortable doing a role like that.
FJI: You are straight…what do you think you bring to a film with a gay central character? Did your heterosexuality pose any particular problems in making the film?
AC: The way I approached it was just to think of it as a story about love and family, and think of the characters (whether gay or straight) as in need of love. I guess what I could bring to it was to try to make it as universal as possible, trying to empathize with all the characters. Because I don't have a more unique gay perspective, and certainly haven't been through what Weichung has been through. I think being straight did make me overly sensitive about being offensive, or not offensive enough when it came to some of the gay comedic characters. I'm not sure I ever found the right balance!
FJI: Can you tell me about the gay scene in Taiwan right now? Is there more acceptance?
AC: My gay friends tell me that Taiwan is one of the most liberal places in Asia when it comes to gay culture, and I get a sense of that too living here—especially among youth. In Taipei, I see young men and men and women and women being affectionate in public all the time. That being said, I think the older generation is not that well-educated about it still, and because Taiwanese culture is still very traditional when it comes to family, it makes it difficult for younger people to come out to their parents.
FJI: How long was the shoot? Did it go smoothly or did you run into any particular problems?
AC: We shot for about 50 days, and besides a few typhoon days where we couldn't shoot (which is common in Taiwan during the summer), it was pretty smooth. I loved working with these actors, and as cheesy at it sounds, it made the experience a joy.
FJI: What was your budget? The film looked really amazing, glossy and very attractive.
AC: Thanks! The movie cost a little over one million U.S. dollars, which is a decent budget for a Taiwanese movie. I was really lucky in that my producer supported my decision to shoot on film stock, which I think really helped with the warm look of the film.
FJI: Which brings up your cinematographer—did you confer seriously with him about the look of the film?
AC: We talked a lot about the world we created (based on a combination of ’50s musicals and melodramas), and luckily he and I and our production designer had a lot of time to figure out the tone we wanted in preproduction.
FJI: Talk about the use of music and pop songs in the film, which is very effective. Is music used like this somewhat typical of Taiwanese films?
AC: No, definitely not. I think that's a very Western approach with the retro pop and lush orchestral score. I think most Taiwanese would say I shouldn't have used music this way!
FJI: Is it difficult to find funding for your films?
AC: My first one was very difficult. I think they always are. It was funded with a combination of government subsidies, family loans, bank loans...and we still barely made it through production. This one was much easier. My producer put the financing together in a matter of weeks. Luckily, Taiwanese films don't cost too much relative to the U.S.
FJI: Au Revoir Taipei was your first feature film. I really enjoyed that one, too. This was your breakthrough. Was your second film easier to do?
AC: It was definitely a movie made by a younger filmmaker. Even though it's only been three or four years since I shot it, I feel like it's pretty far from who I am now. But at the time, I really wanted to make a French New Wave movie (with jazz, silly gangsters, dancing and young love) on the streets of Taipei, and that really was what Au Revoir Taipei turned out to be, for better or worse. With this one, it was easier to get together, but took a lot more out of me personally to be able to write it and creatively put it together for some reason.
FJI: What do you make of the filmmaking industry in Taiwan?
AC: It's great—there's a real sense of community and everyone who works in movies is very passionate and often very young. The only drawback is that it is a little insular, so I try to keep one foot in and one foot out.
FJI: Where did you study film? Did you always want to direct?
AC: I was lucky to apprentice under Edward Yang [the late Taiwanese filmmaker] when I was in my early 20s, and then later study film production at USC as a grad student. I always wanted to direct, but to be honest, I didn't know what directing really was until I started doing it.
FJI: Who are your favorite filmmakers, influences?
AC: Woody Allen is probably my favorite filmmaker—Manhattan is my all-time favorite movie—but I think I'm definitely a weird byproduct of growing up on Hollywood blockbusters and then watching way too many foreign art-house movies (especially Asian) in a pretentious college phase. My own movies probably fall somewhere between the two.
FJI: What is your next project? I hope you are going to make many more movies.
AC: I hope so too! I'm working on a movie set in the USA which deals with modern immigration, but is also kind of a cross-cultural comedy. And also a road-trip movie set in China about Taiwanese housewives.