Hello From Taiwan is a movie that focuses on a family that is reuniting in the United States, and especially on the experience of the youngest daughter Christy adjusting to life in California. Her older sisters and father were living in Taiwan for a year before this reunion. Why did you decide to center the film on Christy’s perspective?
I wanted the story to have a perspective that specifically stemmed from innocence. Those little moments in your earliest years really affect who you become and manifest in ways you don’t really think about until you drive down that memory lane. I thought having Christy be the focal point would give the audience an entry point into the story. It’s like coming into that feeling of everything around you being so impressionistic, yet not fully understanding exactly what is going on.
In the story, not only are the parents separated but the children are too. Your director’s statement talks about how this was written based on your experience with your parents’ divorce. What was it like to recreate this experience?
It’s really bizarre to recreate a memory, because then that memory gets replaced by your recreation—at least in my personal experience of making this film. In a way that is sort of cool, it’s reflective of how our memories are always new. Life is constantly changing, and our memories change with it because of how we process our experiences.
My father passed away three years ago, which has been the impetus for writing stories based on my upbringing. Before then, I took for granted the life I’ve been given. I was about 5 years old when my mom and dad ended up getting back together for my sisters and me. Because I grew up with a ‘whole’ family, I honestly hadn’t given my family’s separation that much thought. So I ended up growing up with my family intact, and the separation became a distant memory. I was lucky that I was able to grow up with a ‘whole’ family and had that upbringing. Now as an adult, I am truly amazed at their ability to overcome their differences for the sake of family. I definitely think being Taiwanese had a lot to do with it. Family community is emphasized in Taiwanese culture; if they were American and cared more about individualism, it’s likely they would have remained divorced. But because there’s such a strong value on what family means, my parents overcame their differences.Writing and making this film was a way of exploring the uniqueness of their cultural and generational choices.
The opening scene is an earthquake that literally breaks the foundation of the home that Christy and her mother are living in. There are elements throughout the film that make it feel like an earthquake is taking place such as cracking glass and a shaking frame. Why did you decide to use this imagery in the film?
When I was writing the script, I realized I needed a way to show Christy and her mom going through something together, just them two, before they reconnected with the rest of the family. I was reminded of my own experience of my mom and I going through the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. The memory itself is so visceral and visual, I started making connections to how Christy processes trauma.
I really wanted Christy to be full of imagination, almost like how an only child can be, because for a year that’s what she was. The earthquake imagery was a symbolic way to explore a child’s thoughts and how her family has been stirred and shaken.
Right off the bat, we see that there is strife between Christy’s parents — the reason they were living apart was because of a trial separation, and now Christy’s mom wants to follow through with a divorce. What approaches did you use to capture the turmoil of the family with such grace?
Benji Dell, the Director of Photography, and I talked for a long time on how to approach this. Because the POV is primarily a young child’s, things sort of happen in bits and pieces and also should feel somewhat confusing. We actually wanted the details of a parents’ divorce to feel nearly abstract. I didn’t want to spell it out, but in postproduction, we did end up imparting the bare minimum of information through dialogue in order for a viewer to not watch the rest of the film in a complete state of darkness.
The film takes place in the late ’80s. How did you decide what time period to set the film in? How did working on a period piece and focusing on that particular era influence the ways you could tell the story?
I love period pieces and vintage imagery, and this story was so personal and ingrained in my mind as the 80s, which also influences the way characters interact. Nostalgia played a large part of the visuals, for sure. You should see my lookbook — it’s full of magazine ads for kids clothes, vintage cars, furniture and props from the late 80s — any visual cues that made it into my film. It was seriously so fun to make that.
To be totally candid, I also wanted to make a film for my generation of Asian Americans who never got to see themselves on screen represented as multi-dimensional characters. It’s why I referenced 90210 (well, I did watch it also at a very young age) — the women I was exposed to from the media were beautiful and white — impossible for me to live up to. I didn’t see myself represented on screen ever as an Asian American. And at the same time, those moments of pop culture are so ingrained in my generation. So I used that reference and 80s music as a way to contrast the amount of representation I absorbed in American culture growing up.
In the film, Christy is the only one who speaks entirely in English. She understands Mandarin that her family speaks, but she never replies to them in Mandarin. Why did you decide to use language in this way?
For me, language is such a strong indication of character, culture, and relationships. It was a choice I made to separate Christy’s language of speech from the rest of her family to make her even further isolated. It’s something my sisters and I had to go through when we reconnected. Mandarin had become their first language after they lived in Taiwan and English was mine from being in the States.
Her parents are speaking Taiwanese between the two of them, and then they use Mandarin when speaking with their children. I modeled the language in the film as a way that my family does. I grew up hearing my parents speak Taiwanese and then they’d more or less consciously speak Mandarin and English with us.
I am really sensitive to the cultural nuances that come with being Taiwanese American. Even contemporary Taiwanese drama shows mainly speak only Mandarin. But Taiwanese is so culturally important to my parents’ generation, so I cast the parents based on a criteria of speaking that language. Luckily I collaborated a lot with my mom to try to get the language right.
What did you learn from creating Hello From Taiwan?
I learned not to be so ambitious on a low budget! A period piece, lead cast with three young children, picture cars, a car sequence, multiple locations, and also reconstructing an airport scene—what was I thinking when I thought I could pull this off?
But seriously, we prepped for my short, Hello From Taiwan, as if preparing for a feature with an indie budget but with the rules of a studio. Preparation was the key element that paid off in a large way, while also teaching me the biggest lessons. I’m a perfectionist, so I spent a long time workshopping the script, having multiple concept meetings, fine-tuning the creative direction and shot list with the DP, location scouting, holding several production meetings with department heads, rehearsals with actors, etc. Looking back, that was the only way we could have made our storytelling happen in the way I imagined. There were numerous setbacks and problems that arose during production; but because we had a very specific plan, everyone was well-prepared to handle and solve anything that came up.
Highly detailed prep also ensured we were able to make our days. Not only did we have an extremely tight schedule with multiple locations, we also had very specific time restrictions with our lead actress, who was seven and was in every scene.
Most importantly, I learned that the story comes first, always. Every single step, from pre-production through post-production, was an aid to tell a story that meant so much to me, in the best way possible.
What plans do you have for the film now and are there any other projects that you’re working on that we should look for?
I plan to pitch Hello From Taiwan as a television series. I’m working on the pilot script and series bible and can’t wait to see where this goes. The time for Asian American stories is definitely now. I’m also developing a separate feature film with themes of contemporary feminism that I’m incredibly excited about.
Find out more about Hello from Taiwan on the website. You can keep up with it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well. Learn more about Tiffany on her website. Read more about Sophie on her profile.