Cinema Asia American: Arvin Chen, Director of ‘Au Revoir Taipei,’ in Conversation

by | January 10, 2011 at 12:45 PM | Cinema Asian America, Xfinity On Demand

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Arvin Chen’s whimsical romantic-gangster-one-night in Taipei-caper-comedy comes to Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand this month! After making its world premiere at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival (and winning a top prize there), the film has continued to win accolades from San Francisco to Barcelona and now is available in the U.S. exclusively through XFINITY On Demand. A delightful comedy of errors and the heart, and executive produced by the great German director Wim Wenders, “Au Revoir” showcases an exciting new cinematic talent, and the vibrant, bustling, madcap nightlife of Taipei.

Au Revoir Taipei” melds together a number of film genres to tell the story of a young couple’s adventures over the course of one night, as they find themselves evading bumbling gangsters, tracking down a mysterious package and eventually falling for each other. From the way that you play with the romantic comedy, the gangster film, the city symphony and the musical, it’s clear you really love film! Tell us a bit more about how you came up with the idea for this film. That’s definitely true – I often say that “Au Revoir” is really a film made by someone who’s watched way too many movies (for good or for bad). We were definitely conscious of playing with the conventions of the gangster film, the romantic comedy, screwball comedy, musicals, etc…but the idea of the film itself was quiet simple – we thought it would be fun to make a Taiwanese movie about a kid trying to get out of Taipei to Paris, only to find a version of Paris in Taipei. This of course gave us the structure to start playing around a lot with movie language.

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The city of Taipei is one of the main characters in the film. When watching “Au Revoir Taipei,” one can’t help but tell that you have such a love and fascination with its bustling streets, oddball characters and night markets. What enchants you the most about it? What I really love about Taipei is its nightlife, and how the city really becomes a different, almost magical place at night (Taipei during the day is another city entirely). It’s a city where you can also feel very safe walking around, even in the middle of the night, as it always feels like there’s life on the streets.

You were born and raised in the Bay Area, graduated from film school at USC, and then moved to Taiwan to make films, where you produced “Au Revoir Taipei.” Why this trajectory? Is it important for aspiring filmmakers to go to film school? And why Taiwan? It was completely unplanned in that I never thought I’d be making movies in Taiwan when I first started out…I pretty much just went where the opportunities were. When I got out of college, I only knew that I wanted to make movies, but had absolutely no idea how, which is what I think sucks about being an aspiring filmmaker – it’s really hard to get a start, or even know what path to start on.
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As I was applying for film school, I had a chance to meet the great Taiwanese director Edward Yang to ask him for some advice, and he basically offered me a job as his assistant in Taipei – he hates film school, by the way. I was 22 at the time, and I felt like film school could wait, at least for now. So I worked for Edward for about a year and a half, which was a tough but it was also the first time I had ever lived overseas…there was a lot about Taiwan and Asia that really stuck with me, I think.

I eventually decided to go back to film school after working with Edward, because I had still never made a single movie…and what I loved about film school is that that’s all you’re there to do. Make movies (most of which are terrible), fail, make more movies, and then eventually start to make better movies. But when it came time to think of a world that I really wanted to capture on film, the first thing I thought of was going back and shooting in Taipei.

Before making “Au Revoir Taipei,” you made a 10-minute film called “Mei,” which provided the kernel of “Au Revoir’s” story. Is this a common practice for filmmakers, to first make a short film and then adapt it to a feature? I think it’s definitely one way to do it and it has worked for a lot of young filmmakers. It’s difficult when you’re trying to get a first feature together – convincing people to put money into it, or trying to get actors and crew to work on it – and you don’t have a lot of credit to back you up. Having a short film that at least that resembles what the feature might look like helps tremendously. At the same time, I really struggled with adapting a 10-minute short into something that had to last 90 minutes (it mutated a lot in the process), so even this approach has its own challenges.

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The film is executive produced by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who many know from films such as “Paris, Texas,” etc. How did he become involved in the film? We were very lucky – I’m a big fan of Wim’s films (especially “Paris, Texas” and the “American Friend”), but it would have never occurred to me to try to get him involved, especially in “Au Revoir Taipei,” which is not exactly the type of movie I would have associated with Wim. What happened was that my producer, In-Ah, has actually been working with Wim on several of his projects, and suggested that he might want to help out. So he watched my short, read the script, we had breakfast burritos together, and agreed to sign on as an executive producer. More than anything, he was like a mentor and teacher to entire cast and crew – and gave me lots of creative guidance. To my surprise, after hanging out with Wim, I’d say “Au Revoir Taipei” is actually a lot like him, especially the goofy comedy.

What are some of your favorite Taiwanese films? And other films which influenced “Au Revoir Taipei”? My favorite Taiwanese films are Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day” and “Yiyi,” and Ang Lee‘s “Eat Drink Man Woman.” More recently, I really loved Hou Hsiao Hsien‘s “Red Balloon,” which was actually shot in Paris. Even more recently, there’s an awesome film that came out this year called “The Fourth Portrait.”

The films that influenced “Au Revoir Taipei” are probably way too many to mention, but for sure the ones that we really were conscious of when making the film (or maybe I should say ripped off) were “Manhattan,” “Bottle Rocket,” “Band of Outsiders,” “Breathless,” “Shoot the Piano Player,” “Chungking Express,” and oddly enough, a Stanley Donen musical called “Funny Face.”