Mark Jarrett, director and cowriter of The Taiwan Oyster (台灣牡蠣), was living in Taichung when the 921 Earthquake struck. Ever since, he has written, “Taiwan has been tattooed on my psyche.” The terrifying tragedy also cemented several friendships.
“I call it the foxhole phenomena,” Jarrett told the Taipei Times. “It’s like you go through a war with somebody — [they are] your army buddies. We were all in the shit.”
Though the temblor didn’t directly influence the plot of Jarrett’s first feature-length production, which debuted last month to generally positive reviews at South by Southwest (SXSW), the theme of friendship formed in the wake of a tragic event permeates the entire film. Part noir road movie, part coming-of-age existential angst flick, The Taiwan Oyster is a captivating and visually stunning indie film that ponders the idea of death. It will be shown on Sunday as part of the Urban Nomad Film Festival.
Set in Taiwan soon after the 921 Earthquake, The Taiwan Oyster follows the boozy adventures of Simon (Billy Harvey) and Darin (Jeff Palmiotti), two buddies from the US who steal the corpse of their “countryman” Jeb (Will Mounger) after he dies because of a silly accident. They strike out from Taipei, traveling south to find him a final resting place. Along the way they meet up with Nikita (Leonora Lim), a Taiwanese woman who serves as a kind of foil to their expat excesses.
The Taipei Times spoke with Jarrett about the making of the movie, expat life in Taiwan and putting together an independent film on a shoestring budget.
Taipei Times: The Taiwan Oyster is a road movie within a road movie. Not only are the characters far from their native US, they are also leaving Taipei to bury their countryman in southern Taiwan. Why set the movie in Taiwan as opposed to, say, Texas?
The Taiwan Oyster (台灣牡蠣)
Directed by: Mark Jarrett
Starring: Billy Harvey (Simon), Jeff Palmiotti (Darin), Leonora Lim (Nikita)
Language: In English with Chinese subtitles
When: Will be screened on Sunday at 4:40pm as part of the Urban Nomad Film Festival
Details: The film will be shown at Building 3 East A (3東A ), Huashan 1914 Creative Park (華山1914), 1, Bade Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市八德路一段1號). Tickets are NT$220, or NT$170 with a valid student ID
On the net: Visit urbannomaden.blogspot.com for a complete schedule and to purchase tickets
Mark Jarrett: I was thinking of some of my favorite directors and how a fair amount of them started out with a road movie. We were trying to think of a way to write a script that we could actually make, even with very little money.
And my cowriter Jordan [Heimer] and I thought: “Why not Taiwan?” I had all these stories from the years of living there. We didn’t really end up using any of [my stories]. But it is a [place] that is very important to me … And the idea of an American-style road movie in another country — it’s been done, like The Darjeeling Limited. But we thought that it would give us extra bang for our buck to offer this common motif story to American audiences, but set in a completely foreign backdrop.
The idea of the body came out of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, which I was reading at the time.
TT: Filming your movie in Taiwan opens up all sorts of questions about what brings people here, their motivations, their habits and their behavior, which, within the context of your film, tends towards the alcoholic.
Why is that an important element?
MJ: Well, the drinking to me is a part (pause) … I was not a good foreigner when I lived [in Taiwan]. And I feel somewhat guilty about, well, not somewhat guilty, I feel guilty about it. And I remember telling a good friend of mine that this film in a sense is my apology to Taiwan. I’m not sure if I want you to print that because I don’t know how it will be interpreted. But [Taiwan] formed me and shaped me in so many ways. But I was 22, 23, 24, and I was just a maniac, which mellowed by the time I left.