Filmmaker and author Mickey Chen (陳俊志), 44, said he did not sleep the night before our interview in his cluttered Taipei apartment. The documentary director has been in a frenzy since his book Taipei Father, New York Mother (台北爸爸，紐約媽媽) hit the bookshelves in January and quickly climbed up the bestseller chart.
We settled down on the sofa, one of the few spots not covered with stacks of books or DVDs. Apologizing for his “casual attire,” the author explained that he had stayed up all night working on a documentary project that he started six years ago. The film’s subject matter is the same as that of his autobiographic book: Chen’s family history and personal scandals.
In the book, Chen’s story begins with his wealthy family falling on hard times during the 1970s energy crisis. Chen’s mother, whose own parents were born in China, and father move to the US to make money to feed their family in Taiwan, leaving Chen to be raised by his grandparents. After his parents split up, Chen’s father returns to Taiwan. Chen’s elder sister runs away from home and dies of a drug overdose aged 19, and his father, the embodiment of patriarchal oppression, is blamed for the Chen family’s many woes.
Chen is now an established documentary director and an outspoken homosexual activist who often refers to himself using the feminine nickname Lao Niang (老娘).
Here he discusses his artistic career, what it’s like to come from a broken family and his plan to adapt his book for the big screen, a project that has reportedly drawn the interest of Lee Lieh (李烈), producer of the Taiwanese blockbuster Monga (艋舺).
Taipei Times: You once said that cinema is your mother. Why?
Mickey Chen: Children from dysfunctional families have different ways of licking their wounds. My brother is addicted to gambling, my older sister died of an overdose, and my younger sister spends her life in the frantic pursuit of love. I choose to hide in the abstract world of literature and the arts. I became parentless at the age of 10. Cinema taught me how to become the person I wanted to be.
TT: After graduating from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University (國立台灣大學), you went to the City University of New York to study documentary filmmaking. Is that where you learned the theory and practice of activist filmmaking?
MC: Yes. Our school has a strong tradition of black cinema, and there’s a strong belief that minorities should write their own histories. It also has a lot to do with me being a foreign student in the US when China increased the missile threat to Taiwan in 1996. My homosexual identity and my awareness of being Taiwanese are somewhat related in the sense that I clearly understand the meaning of being a minority.
Chen is best known for making documentaries that focus on Taiwan’s gay community. His first, Not Simply a Wedding Banquet (不只是喜宴, 1997), was codirected with Mia Chen (陳明秀). The film follows Hsu Yu-sheng (許佑生) and his American partner Gary Harriman, who in 1996 became the first gay couple to hold a public, though not legally recognized, wedding in Taiwan. Chen’s Boys for Beauty (美麗少年, 1999) and Scars on Memory (無偶之家，往事之城, 2005) explore the lives of gay teens and older homosexuals in Taiwan, while the 2003 documentary Memorandum on Happiness (幸福備忘錄) explores the issue of domestic violence among homosexual couples.