“I have romantic ideas, but [when I make films] I am not really a romantic person,” Chen Yu-hsun admits with a chuckle. The Taiwanese filmmaker came to fame in 1994 with his debut feature, Tropical Fish, a razor-sharp comedy-drama, for which he was awarded the Golden Horse Award for best original screenplay as well as the Blue Leopard Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Although Chen doesn’t have many films under his belt he is still regarded as one of the most renowned Taiwanse filmmakers, and he has a unique sense of humour.
In 2020, Chen released My Mission Valentine, a charming story about “searching for one’s self”. To the surprise of many, it took the director over twenty years for the film to see the light of day: “At the time I wrote my first draft of the script, I had already released two films. [However], the box office wasn’t good, I was disappointed about it. I was thinking about what I am going to do next,” Chen pauses for a minute and then he continues: “I started to watch a lot of baseball and basketball [matches] and [that] made me realise that sometimes there is a time lapse in people’s actions.”
“Different people have different rhythms and then it made me think about what happens to people who have a different rhythm and spend time together. That’s how I got my idea for the film.”
Image from My Missing Valentine © Courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival
Although bringing the film to the big screen took a long time, casting itself posed more challenges than anything else. Prior to filming My Missing Valentine, Patty Lee, who portrays the protagonist Hsiao-chi, didn’t have much experience as an actress. Nevertheless, Chen took on the risk of casting her, and knew she was the right choice: “During the preparation of the script, casting the main [female] role was a real challenge as it had to fit the right kind of age-range, she had to be an average girl and she had to be a very good actress. At that time, it was very difficult to find the right match,” Chen admits with a smile. “Then I saw a TV series where Lee had a supporting role. In the show she was natural, she didn’t look like she had a lot of experience, but she surely looked natural. I decided to chat to her and see what would come out of the conversation.”
“She was actually different from what I was imagining, she is pretty and she studied in Australia, and Patty didn’t give off the vibe of a typical down-to-earth Taiwanese girl. But I decided to risk it and cast her in the role of Yang Hsiao-chi.”
Chen doesn’t shy away from being honest about the worries he had during the film’s production. After he decided to cast Lee, he was still in the process of changing the script. And the more he was developing it, the more doubts he had about the actress. “[We decided] to go through a lot of training with [Lee] and at that time we were also very strict with her,” he explains. “After a few weeks, she was getting better and better, then I thought, my choice was right and the risk was worth taking.”
My Missing Valentine beautifully shows the transition from being humorous to being melancholic, both balance very well. According to the filmmaker, age has become the factor when it comes to more melancholic ideas for his films, and combining the two to become one. But what is the essence of the great love story?
“The essence is the characters’ personalities, people with different personalities will have different love stories. In order to explore the love story, I would start with the character of a person and the personality of that character,” he reflects.
Image © Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival
In terms of filming, Chen made sure everyone felt comfortable on set: “Because my actors were young and didn’t have much experience in front of the camera I did encourage them to be more relaxed. I do appreciate improvisation when I am shooting.”
“Everytime when I was on set I thought about ways we could improvise or shoot something differently. But yes, I always encouraged them to be relaxed and feel comfortable within the environment they were in, because if they are relaxed I can take the best acting potential out of them.”
Prior to filming My Missing Valentine, Lee and Liu Kuan-ting didn’t work together, and they didn’t have many scenes shot together which put the director under pressure to create the visible chemistry between the actors: “I had to have a lot of ideas of how to work this out. And my way of doing it was thinking of many possibilities of what would happen if they meet in different circumstances and I usually choose the best idea to go with and with the editing process in hand, you see what works and what doesn’t.” Chen admits with a chuckle.
Although it was late night for Chen [the filmmaker was in Taiwan at that time] when we were interviewing him via Zoom, he was still cheerful and happy to talk about how his life would look like if he was to choose specific film genres: “For me if I have to describe my life I would go for an absurd comedy with a little bit of melancholia. I think life is a bit absurd with everything that’s happening [around me],” Chen laughs.
Image from My Missing Valentine © Courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival
Whenever I watch films I always pay attention to the technical side of the production, and as films evolve through the creative and tough process of editing, it takes many months for some films to be completed. And it wasn’t any different for Chen when he was working on My Missing Valentine: “The whole editing process took me around 5-6 months. I was working with Lai Hsiu-hsiung on editing. We did have some differences when it came to the storyline. My editor was good at things that were more sentimental, I was good at comedy and having a faster pace. It took us a while to get to a good collaboration and a good rhythm, and how we wanted to work out in editing. For me, the rhythm of the film was very important.” Chen says.
Ever since Tropical Fish became a success, Chen’s fans have always waited for the director’s new projects. Although the latest work took over 20 years ago to make, it was worth the wait: “The script was written 20 years ago and at that time the story of the film was very simple. Also there were difficulties with funding the film and difficulties with the technical perspectives, I didn’t really know how I could shoot it in the way that I would be satisfied, so I left the script for a long time.
“And 3 years ago my friend was telling me that this is a very good story and that I should make the film. At that time, I wasn’t convinced about it as so much time had passed. When I was rewriting the script I changed quite a few bits, and I added some other things. But, the most important thing that I added into the script were emotions, a gecko, the father of the protagonist – more sentimental things,” the filmmaker confesses.
Rarely can a filmmaker switch between commercials and comedy films, but Chen does both equally well. In 2020 the director changed gears and concentrated more on making films rather than commercials, which is exciting. Getting up close with the award-winning filmmaker even via Zoom gave me a small taste of the full and conscious life Chen has lived.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Roxy Simons
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.