written by Simon Yang, translated by Helen Stenbeck
As we log on and enter the video chat room on time, the first thing came into view are the signature guitars representing different eras of pop music. From cherry red semi-hollow-body Gibson ES-335 to the firm and solid Les Paul Supreme, the slim and bright Fender Telecaster. Chen Yu-Hsun, like a victorious man, enumerates his range of guitars and equipment as he showcases his trophy room with pride and tenderness.
For real? This guy is a Golden Horse Awards-winning filmmaker?
For many people, their lifelong dream is photography or participate in a film. However, those who weren’t satisfied after making films, have other unresolved dreams in mind. Like Scorsese partied with rocking-roll musicians on tour, and Woody Allen went to bars with his harp. Chen’s passion and style in filmmaking has differentiate himself from other filmmakers. His movies are articulated with fast-paced punchlines, combined with Taiwanese famous rock singer Wu Bai’s songs, to express the passion for music, creativity and storytelling.
If Chen had chosen the path to pursue his music dream instead, perhaps the history would be rewritten. Maybe the music in Love Go Go would have been composed and performed by Chen instead of Wu Bai’s Lingering (which means Love Go Go would not have existed). And maybe, the guitar showroom in Chen’s house will most likely be more astonishing and extravagant.
Thankfully the director Chen Yu-Hsun we know today seems to be on the right path and enjoys making people laugh. “Regret? No, not at all, I've had a good time back then,” Chen said. When his second movie Love Go Go didn’t do too well commercially which resulted in him entering the television commercial arena. Chen Yu-Hsun has since then become a commercial comedian of the generation after his well-known advertising characters such as Little Sister Zhang Junya and Lady Meng Jiang.
There is another story when we speak about Chen Yu-Hsun as a person and not merely a film director. Some people may remember the Taiwan’s popular 90s sitcom Jia Jia Foo, a touchstone given by Chen Yu-Hsun’s mentor Shau-Di Wang. The sitcom was an opportunity with actor aunty Wen Ying, who played one of the main characters Mother Jiang, and coherently led to her playing the memorable role of Ah Yi in Chen’s film Tropical Fish.
As an amateur new to the industry in his earlier years of television, Chen Yu-Hsun learned as he went. It was during this time that he sharpened his sensitivity towards comedy acts. “Practicing how to pace the punchlines, how to emphasize the actors' comical talents, and when to wrap it up… all of these took me years to master.” He specified none of those skills can be learned overnight. And apart from continuous practice, he is a firm believer in natural talents. “How can you make comedy when you do not have a sense of humor yourself?”
Chen was well-known for his TV shows and tremendously appreciated for his films. His first feature-length film Tropical Fish has achieved many unordinary effects in performance, editing, structural creation, and exploring subject matters. The film was widely considered as the perfect depiction to represent Taiwan in the 90s. The film had opened the conversations on Taiwan's social issues on cultures of college exam, urban-rural disparity, and labor relocation urbanization. With a fascinating plot and great directing and editing, Tropical Fish naturally became a cult classic of the generation.
The classic final scene with VFX giant tropical fish wandering through Taipei had costed almost at $1500 AUD per second. The scene took efforts of special effect professionals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. Chen encountered many difficulties as a rookie for filmmaking. “It was hard to transition from television back to filmmaking. Films were more time-consuming and required constant change of the film rolls. Ten thousand feet of film roll was not even enough for ten minutes, and all the shots can’t be too long. The work pace is truly different. With television you can just yell cut and start moving to another shot, everything worked at your own pace. But with film rolls, there were many interferences; you need to change rolls, batteries, ensure the lighting is strong enough, but the light sensitivity can only reach 500 degrees. And there were the logistics of the lighting equipment and building platforms. It’s a lot more works for each shot.” Plus, film rolls were expensive, he added. If the actors personally request to do the fourth take, they’ll have to pay for the extra rolls themselves.
The most laborious process is editing. TV editing uses Betacam videotape that can be processed through the machine. Whereas the film's editing consisted of a huge conventional editing table call Steenbeck. “You put six heavy film rolls there to roll. Two rolls per track, two for video copies, and the other two are audio. I will tell them where to edit, and they’ll mark it with a red pen, pulled out the film and cut it on the guillotine, taped it up then put it back on rolling, and do it all over again for the audio rolls” said Chen Yu-Hsun. There were often missing frames or extra frames, which resulted in further cut and paste on the film rolls. By the end of the editing, the film rolls of Tropical Fish had full of tapes and was nearly falling apart. It would be hard for the audiences nowadays to imagine the difficulties of filmmaking of that period.
With too many anecdotes to tell, Chen returns to the essence of comedy, as he compares Tropical Fish and Love Go Go which were produced before his years in commercial advertising industry, with two of his recent works Zone Pro Site and The Village of No Return. Despite all films are comedies, there are two vastly different styles which each has its advocates. “Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to do is this kind of fantasy style that I’ve been creating recently.”
“The script of Tropical Fish is quite fantastical at the beginning of the production. But It was filmed in a realistic style due to the lack of budgets and technologies. We couldn’t pull off the makeup or the Superman effect that I originally planned to have. There were so much you wanted to do but had very little ability to execute it. We switched to make it realistic after realizing we weren’t capable of doing the special effects we wanted.”
It was through the performances of the actors with amusing dialogues in creating punchlines, that resulted in the humorous foundation in Tropical Fish. On the other hand, it’s rather difficult for the same fans to accept the overly dramatic lighting, hair and makeup, the unique scene-setting, and the heightened creativity of Zone Pro Site.
“Growing up in the era of Taiwanese New Wave, at the beginning I always wanted to follow their footsteps because of the influences I had from Directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang and others; but with my natural humorous personality, they also recommended me to seek my own path.” Eventually, Chen decided not to recreate the phantom that was once the glorious ark, which serves nothing but haunted nowadays. “Since people don’t value comedy, then I’ll do it. As long as I enjoyed it.”
Chen Yu-Hsun’s thirteen years of experience in making commercials should not simply be excluded nor forgotten when he returns to his feature film career. The importance of television commercials was paramount to him as the importance of making television shows. If it wasn’t for the person that made the television commercials, there would not be the filmmaker he is today. “I went fully crazy on comedy in my years making advertisements. I enjoyed that decade where many of my ideas couldn’t be used in my films. The downside of making feature films is that you can’t produce a film that’s combined with multiple short comedy bits.”
Many scenes, pace, and punchlines in Zone Pro Site were the extension of the styles he utilized in his days with the TV commercials. Chen said that was when he abandons the baggage and unleashed the truthfulness in creating the movie. He planned at the beginning that the film would be ludicrous. It was the same for The Village of No Return, with Lin Mei Hsiu as a character leading the stylized unknown roles which can be seen as the legacy of Chen’s commercial work.
When faced with unappreciative from his old fans, the critiques of The Village of No Return, and polarized feedbacks, without losing his comedian attitude, Chen laughs as he commented: “Maybe it’s because I’m too old to catch up with the audiences. As filmmakers, we should never try to presume what to make for the audiences. They won’t respond to that. No one producer or director in the world is capable of predicting what the audiences would like. Otherwise, there won’t be histories of setbacks in the box office”. Chen continues, “The audiences follow the creators. As long as you focus on your art and make it great, there will be audiences that like you inevitably. We can never catch up with the young people because they’re always faster, what we should do is to continue with our creation and let them follow us.”
Did My Missing Valentine present the credits Chen Yu-Hsun deserved? Five belated Golden Horse Awards exceedingly answer that question. My missing Valentine and Love Go Go had similar destiny with Fallen Angels and Chungking Express by Wong Kar-Wai, both were stories with similar settings, but with fates that had set them miles apart.
In My Missing Valentine, the scene Yang Hsiao-Chi eating noodles while watching TV as the power went out and the weird things begin to happen. It is similar to Wu Lily’s scene in Love Go Go. This type of self-quoting and repetition has long become a tradition of Chen’s movies’ Easter egg, to serve the expectations of those who already knew the creators by their previous works. Such as My Missing Valentine revisit one of the filming locations of Tropical Fish, Dongshi of Chiayi County in Taiwan. “When we revisited Dongshi, everything feels perfect. The place felt like the starting point, an origin.”
These self-repetitions aren’t aimed to bring something back to life or resurrections from failures. They are forms of expression in demonstrating the creators’ persistency and consistency in their arts. “Power outages were mysterious back when we’re little. Unlike having phones nowadays, in the old days, we lighted candles. I’m obsessed with the sense of single light shines when the rest of the world is in darkness. It creates many feelings and I often repeat the things I am obsessed with. Someone said that every director spent their lifetime making one single movie. It’s the same with Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa. Every director has something they fondly attracted to, and so have I.”
Looking back at Chen’s previous works, it might be too soon to determine Chen Yu-Hsun’s career for the future. Perhaps it would be difficult to see the transcendence of pureness and simplicity from the traditional film rolls such as Tropical Fish again. However, it does not mean that he has lost the innocence and the power of storytelling, as we see it reappears in all his works. While Chen confesses Zone Pro Site was deeply influenced by Japanese anime, Chen Yu-Hsun furthered resemblance himself as a character from comic books, tolerating being mocked, and persists in self-belief. This urchin has not given up. He continues to study the craftsmanship of comedy and is on a steady path towards becoming the king of comedy.