Director of Taiwan’s hit film ‘I WeirDo’ sits down to chat

Liao Ming-yi's debut, shot on iPhone, entertains with eye-catching visuals

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Liao Ming-yi (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)

Liao Ming-yi (Taiwan News, Tim Rinaldi photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Director Liao Ming-yi (廖明毅) stares across the table, hands clasped and ready to go while his interlocutors rummage with papers and whisper about how best to record him.

At the time of the interview, the theatrical release of Liao's film "I WeirDo" loomed just ahead — in the weeks since it has fared well at the box office and with critics — and as the conversation begins, Liao's intense eye contact implies confidence but also curiosity.

Noteworthy for having been the first Taiwanese feature to be filmed entirely on an iPhone — a 32-day shoot on the iPhone XS Max with a budget of NT$20 million (US$679,428) — "I WeirDo" is the story of two people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who find relief in love. The movie is winning prizes at festivals, such as the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, and is slated to be included in more.

Nikki Hsieh (謝欣穎) stars opposite Austin Lin (林柏宏) in this tightly wound and meticulously composed 100-minute movie, which might have been unrecognizable as an iPhone production if not for the lack of depth-of-focus effects. The charisma of the two leads carries what might have been a claustrophobic viewing experience given the subject matter and small cast.

"I wanted to solve the problem for myself of what a movie really is," Liao says, "and so I used this unusual method to get some perspective on what filmmaking is all about."

He notes that at first, the actors felt disoriented by the skeleton crew enabled by the tiny cameras, but soon they became accustomed to it. Having the option to plant the devices in small spaces like closets and refrigerators also came in handy; one downside, however, was that when filming outside, the rumble of trains and traffic could cause them to vibrate.

Well-seasoned for his big moment, Liao has in the past worked as a so-called ghost director on romantic comedies helmed by novelists overseeing their works' transition to the screen. He performed this function for Giddens Ko (柯景騰) in "You are the Apple of My Eye" and again for Neal Wu (吳子雲) for "At Café 6."

He compares the difference between those experiences and directing his first feature to the gap between babysitting and giving birth. The three major tasks involved in creating "I WeirDo" — writing, directing, and editing — were all the work of Liao.

"Usually when someone does it all alone," he says, "you end up with an art film, and while 'I WeirDo' has elements of that, I think I've made something that everybody can accept."

The statement checks out: "I WeirDo" is indeed on track to make a profit, and despite its surface layer of rom-com accessibility, Liao's debut is also something of an art film. The attention to detail reflects an almost painterly eye.

Settings and wardrobes tend to contrast warm and cool hues, with a special emphasis on the visual dynamic between Lin and Hsieh. As the film progresses, advances in the plot are marked with variations on these motifs.

The same can be said for the OCD symmetry found in the composition, which is tightened by static camerawork that sparingly tilts, pans, and dollies — with the odd zoom to heighten a poignant moment.

Fun with the aspect ratio is also on the menu, and Liao uses the iPhone's vertical format to convey the hemmed-in nature of the characters' neuroses, pivoting to horizontal in the second act when events begin to accelerate. In a clever stroke, the movie starts with a cold open in a wide shot that sets up the transition to vertical.

Liao is quick to cite the works of David Fincher, Michel Gondry, and Wong Kar-wai (王家衛) as leading influences. When the conversation turns to filmmakers closer to home, he falls back on Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), specifically his film "Rebels of the Neon God."

At a mention of the 2015 film "Tangerine" — directed by Sean Baker and also shot on the iPhone — Liao is respectful in his appraisal, then rattles off some technical differences between iPhones of the present and those of five years ago. One gets the sense that Liao is engaged in a kind of lab work, and it is exciting to imagine what his experiments will yield on a bigger canvas.

Very near the end of "I WeirDo," the film makes a narrative lurch and bends its anxious energy inward, resulting in a finale that may surprise some moviegoers. The director grounds the decision with an eloquent explanation.

"There's a kind of candy," he says, "that when you first bite, you taste chocolate. When you reach the middle, you hit the whiskey, which is a little bitter, a little astringent. What I'm keen to do is to pull you into a romantic comedy — then slowly reveal the dark side of love."