TT: In recent years, you have dropped your activist role and focused on filmmaking. Why the change?
MC: I struggled between the roles of activist and filmmaker and realized that it was impossible for me to play both. After Boys for Beauty in 1999, I dedicated most of my time to the [gay rights] movement, and it exhausted me. Activists give themselves over to the movement, leaving individual activists nameless. The artist inside me is too strong to remain silent. Memorandum on Happiness from 2003 was a key point in my filmmaking career. That film is my Dogme 95 Manifesto. It is very simple and devoid of stylish trappings. To me, the film is a return to the basics: storytelling.
TT: So you see yourself as a storyteller?
Chen: If you look at all my works, you will see what separates me from other documentary filmmakers, such as Huang Ting-fu (黃庭輔), Lin Tai-chou (林泰洲) and Yang Li-chou (楊力州), is my strength in storytelling. When it comes to creating forms and styles, I am neither experimental nor avant-garde, but I am a storyteller who can be understood by the grandmother next door. My artistic challenge and achievement are to compose different narrative variations, to explore different approaches to storytelling. I am a witch of narration.
TT: In other interviews, you have said that as an artist, you are fond of exploring intertextual relations among different genres. Could you elaborate?
MC: Literature always plays an important part in my films. It is integral to the content, as in Boys for Beauty, or parts of the narrative structure, as in Memorandum on Happiness and Scars on Memory. But for the Taipei Father, New York Mother project, I will be creating three different types of cultural products — a documentary, a feature film and a book — from the same material. The interplay between the three will be much more complicated and exciting than any of my previous works.
TT: As far as the documentary project is concerned, will you change your approach to filmmaking because the subjects are people very close to you?
MC: No, it is exactly the same. All the documentary films I have made in the past 12 years deal with issues and people that cannot really come out of the closet. So I am trained to never find the answer I want by asking. I wait till the answer comes out by itself. In the book, I wonder how my mother deals with grief as we have never heard her talking about our sister after she passed away. My camera found the answer by accident one day when it captured the name of my late sister written on the first page of my mother’s schedule book.
TT: Your book is regarded as a work of diaspora literature that sheds light on the collective experience of 1970s Taiwan. What is your view point regarding that observation?
MC: My mother was forced to go to the US 30 years ago in much the same way that a Filipino worker comes to Taiwan today — to earn money to feed her family in an undeveloped country. We spent each and every day in our childhoods living the diaspora experience under global capitalism. The book is culturally challenging in the sense that it calls for a paradigm shift. Why do we still talk about 1949?
Big River, Big Sea — Untold Stories of 1949 (大江大海一九四九) is Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai’s (龍應台) account of her parent’s generation, which fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the Chinese Civil War to the communists. Chen speaks of two great splits in Taiwan. The first occurring in 1949 when the KMT forces fled to Taiwan, the second happening in the 1970s when many Taiwanese worked abroad to support their families.