Taiwanese-American director Arvin Chen had quite a start to his filmmaking journey, training under acclaimed Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang (Yi Yi, A Brighter Summer Day). From the start of his career, Chen’s work has garnered attention at international festivals — particularly in Berlin. In 2007, his first short Mei (2006) won the 2007 Silver Bear for Best Short Film at Berlin International Film Festival. Three years later Chen’s debut feature film, the Wim Wenders-produced Au Revoir Taipei (2010), would also find acclaim at Berlinale, clinching the NETPAC Best Asian Film Award. His second feature Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (2013), an offbeat LGBTQ+ romantic comedy starring actor-singer Richie Jen, also earned award nominations at film festivals across the globe.
In all of his works, Arvin Chen adds a dash of whimsy to already unconventional stories, using retro-inspired music and dream sequences to give his films a unique, disarming charm. His latest feature film Mama Boy (2022) is no different, once again starring major names in the Taiwanese industry, including superstar Vivian Hsu and acclaimed actor-director Kai Ko. Playing against type, Kai Ko is Xiao Hong, an incredibly awkward young man in his late 20s who has yet to have a serious romantic relationship. Instead, his whole life revolves around his mother Mei Ling (Sara Yu) and her smothering presence. When he is taken to a sex hotel, Xiao Hong meets and begins to fall for the beautiful Le Le (Vivian Hsu). Meanwhile, Le Le also has her own troubled relationship with her son (Fandy Fan), who happens to be the same age as Xiao Hong.
As the Filmmaker in Focus for this year’s Taiwan Film Festival in Australia, the festival is showcasing Chen’s first two feature films and his latest, Mama Boy. During a press Q&A session ahead of the festival, Chen discussed the complicated maternal relationships in his new film, the filmmakers who inspire him, and the state of arthouse cinema in Taiwan today.
The below transcript from the Q&A session has been edited for clarity and length.
On Mama Boy
How did you come to write the story of Mama Boy? Why did you want to depict age difference romances and difficult mother-son relationships?
The idea was always to talk about a stunted adolescent, because it’s pretty common in Asia to have overbearing mothers. It’s not just overbearing mothers, but I think I’ve noticed a lot of people around me, like younger people, there’s a lot of instances of sheltered young men. This is an extreme example maybe, but it was always just an idea, a thought that if you had someone with an overbearing mother, maybe the only kind of woman that he could find any kind of comfort with would be like another mother, like another older woman. But then we wanted it to feel like that woman would also be so different from his own mother. So that was the idea of it, it was very tied together with the idea of an overbearing mother, and then a romance between a younger man and an older woman.
Was there a metaphor that you wanted to raise with those two relationships: of the overbearing mother and overprotected son, and the younger man-older woman relationship—perhaps something you are aware of in Taiwanese society?
Mama Boy is a more extreme version of [the idea] that if you bombard your son with too much love, that would stunt his growth, but if you don’t give him enough love, that would also stunt his growth and development. So you have two extreme mothers [in this film]: one that gives too much love, so much that it kind of derails his development; and then on the other [end of the] spectrum you have another mother who’s not well-equipped to be a mother, so that ends up with her son that has developmental problems.
I found it quite realistic. I know of some very overprotective mothers of sons in Asian society, and so even though there’s a bit of a whimsical quality in your film, as all your films do, there’s also a layer of darkness. Do you think it’s a serious issue in Taiwan or even Asia?
We have a fantasy version of it, a lighter version of it, but the idea is that there are some overbearing mothers with toxic issues with their sons. That definitely is a problem in Asia [laughs], the overbearing mother thing. And it’s not that uncommon also, because I didn’t grow up in Asia, but I heard many stories of people around me who did lose their virginities in sex hotels or these kinds of places. So I was interested in the idea where they go to these older women to arrange to lose their virginities. There’s something maternal about that too. So, coming of age, losing virginity, and then the mother’s relationship, the mother’s role and all that.
It was executed very nicely. I think in all your films, you tend to be very nonjudgmental of your characters. You don’t criticise what the characters may do, that the general public may find distasteful, for example, how losing your virginity in a sex hotel can be seen as being really bad to most people. How did you approach writing such subjects?
To me, it’s always to look at [how these subjects] can be an interesting place for things to happen. The idea is not that he can’t lose his virginity at a sex hotel, but that he falls in love with an older woman. I think that’s much more interesting than a story about someone losing their virginity at a sex hotel. The idea is to find romance in a place like that, and how it would look like. How to make the night time world — which would seem kind of seedy or ‘dirty’ because it’s sex work — and trying to subvert that, and make it seem like it could be a romantic place for him to fall in love with a woman.
There is a lot more of a female perspective in this film. Was this a result of your writing partnership with your wife [Sunny Yu] on this film?
She [Sunny Yu] definitely had more input in the character of Le Le for sure, so that was very helpful, obviously, to have this perspective and just to make it not too male-centred. Most of my films tend to have a male protagonist, although in my second movie it’s like half/half — there’s a male and female protagonist.
How did you approach writing Mei Ling and Le Le, the two very different mothers, and their relationship with Xiao Hong?
It was easier to write Mei Ling, because I think everyone knows about these types of mothers, and just trying to make a more extreme version of it: that they’re so controlling that they give the son an insecurity complex. So how to write someone that was emotionally manipulative, and guilt trips and [gives] overbearing affection, and how she uses it to control her son. And with Le Le, I was trying to think of someone who had a son too young, and should never have been a mother, and writing a sad character that has a longing for her past youth and doesn’t know how to give affection to her son at all. So it was about the contrast of those two characters, and also always thinking about how even if [Le Le] wasn’t a good mother, there is a certain warmth to her that Xiao Hong would find attractive or drawn to.
On his body of work and upcoming projects
Can you tell us a bit more about how you conceptualise the music for your films? Because each of your films have such distinctive sounds, all are very lovely and whimsical in feeling.
For my first three films [Au Revoir Taipei (2010), Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (2013), Mama Boy], I’ve always worked with the same composer [Wen Hsu]. He doesn’t write the music necessarily before the movie, but what I do is while I’m writing the script for the movie, I kind of decide already how I want the music to feel. So for my previous film Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? I was listening to a lot of 50s musicals while I was writing it, and for this one [Mama Boy] I was listening to a lot of waltzes. The idea was kind of like simple waltzes, silly-sounding waltzes, were what Xiao Hong’s world sounded like. So pretty early on, we had a good idea of what the music would feel like, because it does inform how we shoot. He did write the first waltz melody before we shot, and we did use the waltz melody a bit while we were shooting. The style of the music is definitely decided before we start shooting, and it’s part of the writing process.
But then the movie I directed after Mama Boy, it’s a YA [Young Adult] movie [Love in Taipei ], so it’s all set to pop music. There’s no score, which is something I had never done before too, it’s non-stop pop songs.
Your films tend to have a lightness in them, despite many of the serious themes and complex relationships depicted. Have you ever thought of making something much more serious or darker in tone?
Maybe — well I’ve been working on a show that has a totally different tone than my movies, [Apple TV’s] Pachinko. It’s a historical melodrama with a lot of dark themes. I’m not a writer on it at all, I’m only the director [on the second season], but it’s interesting. I’ve been directing scenes and stories that are totally different in tone [from my previous work], so maybe having done that, after spending half a year on that show, maybe I have more comfort with that kind of storytelling. Maybe that is something I can now incorporate into my writing because now I’ve touched that kind of subject and material. The shooting of that show is also a completely different style — no magical realism, none of that stuff, so it’s a very different type of filmmaking that I’m learning.
You’re so good at magical realism, so I wouldn’t want you to move away from it, but creatively, is this style something you would like to explore?
Yeah, or perhaps just incorporating some of those elements maybe. Try doing my types of movies, but now having done different genres, incorporating different aspects of that genre [into my work]. With the tv show that I did [Pachinko], everything about it was something I’d never done before. Historical period, melodrama, there’s sex scenes, war scenes, the language itself is mostly Korean and Japanese, working in different languages. So hopefully that’s stuff I can incorporate into my own movies down the line.
On Taiwanese cinema
What do you think about the Taiwanese arthouse scene today? Who are the Taiwanese filmmakers today that inspire you?
There are very, very few arthouse directors left. Just because it’s tough to make a living as a pure arthouse director. As Taiwanese films keep growing, there’s more and more commercial work. The kind of international arthouse [cinema] that was around in the eighties and nineties is tougher [to make]. I don’t think Taiwanese films go to Cannes much anymore. There are less directors that are pure arthouse now. I think that’s the biggest change in the industry. I work in a very small world, making these kinds of movies. I don’t think I have much effect on the Taiwanese film industry, I’m just one little piece of it. But the good part is I think it is veering towards more and more commercial, which means hopefully bigger and bigger local audiences.
For Taiwanese filmmakers [I am inspired by], I think Chung Mong-Hong. I think he’s great. He’s the one that’s making these films now that I think are on that level internationally—technically, story-wise. Every movie that he makes, I want to watch.
Do you think there can be something like another Taiwan New Wave?
I don’t know. I think you would have to have people as talented as Edward [Yang] or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. They were like lightning in a bottle. And also they were working at a time where Taiwan was having a huge economic, societal, political shift. Putting their talent aside, that was also a time in Taiwanese history that was ripe for their storytelling. The time that they were working, where they made their best work, there was a huge cultural shift that was reflected in their work, and that’s something that’s really hard to duplicate or recreate.
I understand that you were developing projects in China and America, have there been any new developments with that?
Two or three Chinese ones did fall apart, but that’s very common in Mainland China. Projects come and go really fast. There was one movie that I was trying to do for Disney in China, a big budget road movie that would have big Chinese actors attached to it. It would have been like thirty times the budget of any movie I had ever done before, but then that just kind of fell apart.
I think my own projects will always be kind of in the middle, a mix of commercial and arthouse, but lately the stuff I’ve been doing has been more commercial and more mainstream. I’ve been working with studios like Apple, and I don’t mind that. I don’t think I can keep making this type of film forever, it is kind of unsustainable, but it would be nice to do them once in a while. I’ve been trying to do an American version of this, in the same style, a bit arty-commercially-in-between movie. That would be my next goal, to do my own type of movie, but with a bigger audience because of the English language.
The Taiwan Film Festival in Australia is currently touring across Australia until August 20 2023. Filmed in Ether would like to thank director Arvin Chen and Taiwan Film Festival in Australia for making this session possible.