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US-based director Chen Po-yu visualizes Taiwan’s diaspora

Chen an emerging director and graduate of Columbia University’s film program

Taiwanese director Chen Po-yu. (Chen Po-yu photo)

Taiwanese director Chen Po-yu. (Chen Po-yu photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — During the 3rd Taiwan Biennial Film Festival in Los Angeles, emerging Taiwanese director Chen Po-yu (陳柏宇) screened his short film “Paint Again,” bringing the diaspora back home to study themes of isolation and familial relationships.

Chen said “Paint Again” was inspired by his own parents and his concern for them after leaving home. After he moved to the U.S. to attend Columbia University’s film school, his brother would sometimes share with him the issues his parents were struggling with at home, and he found himself encouraging them to get out of the house more rather than be confined all day.

“This film is my way to tell them to go out more because I realized that just talking about it with them had little effect,” he said. “They’re doing better now, though. My parents even made cameo appearances in the film — they were really happy to do it!”

The characterization of the middle-aged couple in “Paint Again” also stems from his own observation of how Taiwanese culture affects men and women differently. “I noticed from my own parents’ lives that men tend to suppress their emotions a lot, while women are much more comfortable and adaptable,” he said.

US-based director Chen Po-yu visualizes Taiwan’s diaspora
A father struggles to cope with his son's absence in Chen Po-yu's "Paint Again." (Chen Po-yu photo)

Chen’s other works also examine these themes. He navigates busy cities in search of lost souls struggling to make connections with others or themselves.

In “Happy Birthday to Me,” a young Taiwanese woman in New York who is reeling from a break-up re-anchors herself when she meets a new neighbor who teaches her to go at her own pace. Chen said he started with illustrating the experience of living in a strange, ultra-urbanized land, and combined sights and stories he heard to craft the story.

“I wanted to infuse the film with the atmosphere that is unique to the city of New York and highlight problems that young people living alone in a foreign place would encounter,” Chen told Taiwan News.

US-based director Chen Po-yu visualizes Taiwan’s diaspora
Chen is interested in exploring characters who deal with isolation despite living in busy cities. (Chen Po-yu photo).

However, while Chen gets his inspiration from his own experiences and stories that happen around him, he has proven that the themes he studies are universal. His film “Something in the Water” is set in St. Louis and follows an African-American teenager named Leah as she does all she can to find the source of her brother’s lead poisoning, despite her mother’s and teacher’s disapproval.

Chen said that a screenwriter approached him to direct “Something in the Water” after he mentioned to her the story of how, after a fight, he and his brother once refused to talk to each other for a year despite sleeping in the same bed. “I did not talk to him, but I did not stop caring about him. I still cared, just in a different way, and ‘Something in the Water’ is a story about an older sister caring for her young brother in her own way.”

US-based director Chen Po-yu visualizes Taiwan’s diaspora
A teenager tries to find the source of her brother's lead poisoning in "Something in the Water." (Chen Po-yu photo)

When asked about his future plans, Chen said he is currently working on the story of a Taiwanese-Chinese couple living in the U.S. The Taiwanese wife, who is unhappy in the U.S., wants to return home to Taiwan, while the Chinese husband wishes to stay in the U.S. for the opportunities it offers.

“I want to ask the question ‘Where is home?’ with this film,” Chen said. “I believe as long as one approves of and loves a place, one can call that place home, no matter one’s race or religion. As long as there is respect and acceptance, it is home.”

Ultimately, Chen plans to move back and make films in Taiwan and use whatever power he has to change the local film industry for the better.

He said one of the biggest advantages Taiwan offers is creators are free to discuss any issue they like. “That’s how society advances. We can talk about transitional justice, for example, which is a way of reflecting on history to better the present, and same-sex marriage, which is evidence of Taiwan’s progress.”

However, in terms of the craft of filmmaking, Chen also sees room for improvement. He believes some Taiwanese works busy themselves with “attractions” but overlook the most basic things, such as characterization, character behavior, dialogue, and cinematography.

“I definitely hope to find people who share my views and approve of my methods when I return,” said Chen. “Hopefully we can be the catalyst that makes the industry even better.”

US-based director Chen Po-yu visualizes Taiwan’s diaspora
Chen Po-yu working on the set of "Happy Birthday to Me." (Chen Po-yu photo)