Tuesday, July 22, 2008

INTERVIEW: Chao Yi-lan and Serena Fang of ‘Drifting Flowers’

‘Drifting Flowers’ (Director: Zero Chou)
2008 / Taiwan / 97 mins
Screened: Sunday July 13, 13:55 – Wald 9; Saturday July 19, 16:00 – Spiral Hall

Films wouldn’t get made without writers and directors, of course. But since the beginning of cinema, it is the stars we see on-screen that have always received the lion’s share of attention. As stars-in-waiting, newcomers Chao Yi-lan and Serena Fang were easily the most glamorous and attention-getting guests we had at the festival up to that point, and the audience response proved it. They spent a long time taking pictures and signing autographs with fans in the lobby after the screening. Serena looked extremely feminine, with flawless make-up, a flowing, semi-transparent silk top over blue jeans, and lots of delicate jewellery hanging from her neck, wrists and ears. Chao Yi-lan looked smashing in a black (men’s style) dress shirt and black jeans. Indeed, they both presented themselves very much as they appear in the film : Serena as vulnerable, girlish, and movie-star beautiful; Chao Yi-lan as a slightly swaggering but equally beautiful tomboy, with an adorable mop of black hair cascading over an unadorned face that even the most attractive among us would kill for. Everyone found the pair utterly charming - and they were.

When the frenzy around them had settled down, I had a chance to chat with them, with the help of my volunteer translator, Cynthia, who was also an active participant in the conversation. As it happened, however, both Elaine and Serena spoke excellent English. They only slipped back into Taiwanese to express more difficult ideas or to give longer responses. Totally relaxed and unpretentious though they were, I was concerned not to offend them by butchering or being too casual with their names. So I began by asking them how I should address them, which is when Chao Li-yin explained that she goes by ‘Elaine’ when dealing with English-speakers like me.

Guy: How did you come to use the English name ‘Elaine’?

Elaine: My father chose it for me because it sounds like my Chinese name, Yi-lan.

Guy: Have the two of you had a chance to explore Tokyo?

Serena: Oh, yeah. I love shopping, so we have already done Omote-Sando and Harajuku. On Wednesday, I got up at 5 :00 in the morning to go to the fish market at Tsukiji. The sushi was amazing.

Guy: Have you had a chance to travel to some other international festivals with this film?

Serena: Yes, we went to Berlin with it.

Guy: How was Berlin?

Serena: I really liked it. It was not so humid, so I liked the weather - and the food.

Elaine: No, the beer!

Serena: The food, the drinks - everything was incredible. At our hotel, they served champagne with breakfast. It was almost too much.

Guy: What kind of food was it? German food doesn’t have the best reputation - too heavy, or…

Elaine: You mean like sausages…

Guy: Yeah, and sauerkraut. But I imagine in a city like Berlin the food is very international?

Elaine: Yeah, it is.

Guy: So, Elaine, you were a university student when you got the role in ‘Drifting Flowers’. Are you still in school?

Elaine: Yes, I am in my second year, majoring in theatre, not film.

Cynthia: What do see as the main difference between theatre and film ?

Elaine: When you perform in theatre, you have to enlarge your voice, exaggerate your gestures. But in movies, it’s the opposite. You have to tone everything down.

Guy: Yeah, if you do stage acting in a film it tends to looks really stagy, really fake.

Elaine: Right. The director was constantly telling me, ‘You’re not in a theatre. Tone it down!’

Guy: This is the first feature film for both of you. How do you see your careers developing from here?

Elaine: I have no idea. I just want to explore different performing arts and develop my skills as a performer.

Guy: What are the opportunities for a Taiwanese film actor? I was reading an interview with Zero Chou where she said that they market for Taiwanese films is quite limited, particularly for ones with gay content, because they can’t be shown in mainland China.

Serena: Well, it’s true that until recently there hasn’t been a lot of investment in Taiwan in theatre and cinema. But now there are more opportunities. And Taiwanese films are reaching a wider audience around the world.

Cynthia: It seems to me that in the past, Taiwanese films tended to be very serious. But now there is a lighter tone, and more mainstream, entertaining films.

Serena: Yeah. And there wasn’t so much gay and lesbian cinema. But now it is changing. The industry and the audiences are really opening up to these stories.

Guy: You both speak very good English. You could make movies in America or Europe…

Elaine: I’m not limiting myself to anything. So we’ll see!

Guy: So are you a celebrity at school now that you have done this film?

Elaine: No, all my friends are also appearing in films, so it’s not unique.

Cynthia: Actually, the film hasn’t been released theatrically in Taiwan yet, has it?

Serena: No. It opens August 15.

Guy: What about your families? How do they feel about you appearing in this sort of a film?

Serena: Actually, my father doesn’t know what the film is about.

Guy: [Shocked] Really?

Elaine: But he has to find out sooner or later!

Serena: Yeah, I am sure he will. I just told him I had to go to a film festival in Japan, but I didn’t say it was a gay and lesbian film festival! But my mother knows about it and is supportive.

Elaine: My family is really supportive of my work. My dad reads the papers, so he knows what is going on.

Serena: My dad reads the paper too, but he still hasn’t figured it out!

Guy: Were you both cast in the film through a similar process?

Serena: Yes, it was an open audition - the same for both of us.

Elaine: I met Serena at the second audition - my second, her first. We tested some scenes together, and I guess the director just liked the way we worked together.

Guy: Did you have to do anything special to prepare to show this relationship in the film?

Elaine: Well, we just rehearsed the scenes together before shooting, like you would in theatre.

Cynthia: How much of yourselves did you put into your roles?

Elaine: Of course, there is a lot of yourself in any role that you play. You take whatever life experiences you’ve had that you can apply to it, and you put that into the role. You want there to be a truthfulness to what you are doing, so that helps. For me, all I need to do to make a character real is to believe that a person like this really does exist in the world. When you have faith that someone like this exists, it comes easily. It’s easy to portray love or whatever else if you can believe in the reality of the character.

Serena: To prepare for the role, I just really focused on the relationships between Jing [her character] and Diego [Elaine’s character] and May [Jing’s younger sister], and tried to make them as real as possible. I am really glad that the director gave me a lot of freedom to create the character as I imagined her. She didn’t tell me how perform the role. She respected my own creativity and instincts as a performer.

Guy: There is a moment in the film when the foster mother suggests that Jing give May up to her, and Jing and Diego are both there, and the line is something like : ‘Your lifestyle is not appropriate to raising a child.’ But it’s a little ambiguous. What does she mean by lifestyle? Does she mean that they are a lesbian couple? Or that they are musicians who play in nightclubs, and thus are out late all the time? Or that she is blind?

Elaine: I don’t think it is emphasized that it is gay relationship. I think it’s actually downplayed. The focus is more on the sisters and their relationship, [which is deteriorating at that time].

We thought we had detained these two beaming young actors long enough, and released them to their fans again with warm wishes for their future success. My translator suggested that we are really catching the two of them before the storm breaks, that is, before the film’s inevitable success in Taiwan makes them into celebrities with screaming fans following them wherever they go. If the charisma they exuded at the TIL&GFF - and the corresponding audience response - is any indication, I think she’s right. For my part, I hope they are able to taste the fruits of success without suffering too much of the downside of fame. And I hope they can come back to us in a year or two years’ time with another beautiful, sexy, moving film to share with the Tokyo audience - which I’m sure cannot wait!


Argentina said...

Chao Yi-lan is absolutely stunning. The movie itself was intriguing as well.

shining_italy said...

It's just so hard to find any English sources about Chao Yi Lan, guess she's still at school then not so famous? btw, I love the film :) but I miss it last year in Melbourne's festival :(((((( . Thx for sharing

Seung-hee Cho said...

She's an amazing actress. I hope she shown herself in many other films so that her fans including me case watch her performing and shining.