You are here
Youths' growing pains fascinate this director
AT 55, Taiwanese writer-director Yee Chih-yen's teenage years are long behind him but he's continually fascinated with that period, and his recent output has all been based on the growing pains of high-schoolers. From Blue Gate Crossing (2002), which starred then-unknown Gwei Lun-mei, to the 30-part television series Dangerous Mind (2006) and now Meeting Dr Sun, it's a common theme which runs through all of Yee's works.
"I feel that period when you're about 15-20 years old can be the most dramatic because that's when many leave their homes and suddenly find themselves no longer under the discipline of their parents," he says in Mandarin over the phone from Taipei, ahead of his trip to Singapore this weekend where Meeting Dr Sun will screen as part of the 25th Singapore International Film Festival and is also in competition at the festival's Silver Screen Awards.
Although he claims his time as a youth was "boring", an incident when he was class president in high school left a deep enough impression on him and was the inspiration for the plot of Meeting Dr Sun.
Tasked with collecting school fees, Yee was frustrated at how some of the students took their time to pay up until a friend provided a reality check by reminding him money doesn't come easy for everybody as some of them are not as privileged as him.
Similarly, Meeting Dr Sun centres around a group of high-schoolers who decide to steal a statue of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen in order to raise the cash needed for their fees. Despite being a dark horse in the competition, the comedy edged out other favourites like the mainland neo-noir thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice and Chinese writer Xiao Hong's biopic The Golden Era to win the Golden Horse prize for Best Original Screenplay.
With only three films and one television series to his credit despite a 20-year career, Yee explains he works slower than the average filmmaker because of the amount of time he puts into researching each project before letting the cameras roll.
The casting process alone for Meeting Dr Sun took close to a year because he insisted on using only non-professional teenage actors. "When you see somebody in their 20s playing a student, it's not very realistic," explains Yee, who adds it is also difficult to find pros who are in the age range of 14-15 years. The effort has paid off as one of Meeting Dr Sun's fresh-faced leads, Wei Han-ting, was also nominated for Best Newcomer though he did not win.
Yee also spent about half a year talking to teachers as well as students from underprivileged families to get a better grasp of the topic, although the process was not an easy one. "Some of the students initially wouldn't talk to me but luckily they eventually warmed up when they started treating me as a friend," he revealed.
The problem of poverty is something most people view only as a government statistic because the image that most developed cosmopolitan countries like Taiwan portray is one that is modern and affluent, Yee notes. "Where are these people, you may ask, and I too didn't see them until I began my research on the film," he says. To his surprise, Yee found out that two of his actors were actually on welfare.
The incident portrayed in Meeting Dr Sun is actually based on the real-life theft of a drinking fountain by a group of students who wanted to sell it for money. But Yee used a statue of Sun Yat-sen instead to give the film a deeper political subtext.
"The statue of Sun Yat-sen is a revolutionary symbol but in Taiwan, his face also appears on dollar bills. So his image is also associated with money," he explains. "I thought it was interesting for the audience to see both sides of him. That couldn't have been achieved with the water cooler!"
"Meeting Dr Sun" screens at Lido on Dec 13 at 2pm. Tickets available from Sistic. For more details, check www.sgiff.com