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Born in Taiwan but raised in Texas, Jay Chern says he was not a film buff. But he was many other things – a violinist, tae kwon do champion, web entrepreneur and professional gamer. By 17, he already owned his own successful internet company. After joining the computer science faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2002, Chern’s life took a turn when he abruptly realized he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in front of a computer. So he quit, and enrolled in the UT film program. Returning to Taiwan in the late 2000s, Chern’s Thief won best short film at Taipei’s Golden Horse Film Festival. He followed that project with two critically acclaimed TV features, Dawn/Spring and Warmth. Now considered one of the most promising talents in Taiwanese cinema, the 36-year-old director’s feature debut, Omotenashi, about the clashes between the old and new keepers of a traditional inn in Japan, is one of two films opening the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival. The movie was partially financed by the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum Work in Progress Lab for close-to-finished projects. Chern recently spoke to THR about the challenges of completing his feature-length debut, why he chose to return to Taiwan rather than pursue work in Hollywood and the pivotal role The Godfather played in his decision to change careers.
You’ve made two feature films previously, but they were both shown on television. How does it feel to have your first theatrical feature opening the Hong Kong International Film Festival?
It is a wonderful honor, and I am so excited to share Omotenashi with the international audience that will be attending the festival. It’s really exciting and scary at the same time.
Omotenashi takes place largely in Kyoto, and it’s a Taiwan-Japan co-production. How did the partnership come along?
This co-production started with Shochiku Studio. I had an opportunity to meet Shochiku Studio president [Junichi Kitagawa] who had been trying to get this co-production film made for about five years before I joined. We discussed our ideal films and slowly put the pieces in place to make this production become reality. I was very lucky that they gave me a lot of freedom to come up with a story that wasn’t just for the sake of doing a co-production, but a film that reflects the world we live in and hopefully has some answers for those searching how to navigate this globalized world of many languages and backgrounds.
Omotenashi was one of the projects of the HAF Work in Progress Lab last year, how did the lab help you?
Being a part of the HAF WIP Lab was a great help. We were lucky enough to win the Wanda Award from HAF WIP, which really helped in postproduction, because while this film is a family drama, it actually is quite a visual effects-heavy film, even though you’re not supposed to notice that at all, because of the Ryokan (Japanese Onsen Hotel) by the lake. During pre-production we scouted and scouted, but just couldn’t find the right Ryokan that happened to be on Lake Biwa. So we had to use visual effects to combine a real 100-year-old Ryokan we found for interiors, with a partial set built on Lake Biwa.
You have a colorful background, having been a violinist, tae kwon do champion, web entrepreneur and professional gamer. Having so many past interests, what attracted you to a career in filmmaking?
The short answer is film was a combination of all my interests. In film, music is important, and when I started getting interested in film it was the beginning of the transition from film to digital, so that interested my tech background. And like most people, I liked watching films and working with different people. I also really like a challenge, but once I got into film, I found it was really challenging, because there are just so many moving parts you need to juggle at the same time just to even complete a film.
I had no idea I could pursue a career in filmmaking. Before I got into film, I didn’t even watch that many films, but I do remember films affecting me deeply. But after high school, going to college, going the safe route in computer science, already giving up on pursing a career as a violinist because my parents kind of forbid it… I just wasn’t happy for some reason. After my freshman year, I took a trip with a good friend, and during that trip I told him that I was thinking about changing my major, and maybe trying film because it was a mix of a lot of my interests. I wanted to know if he thought that was crazy, since I knew nothing about film. But he was super supportive and said even if film in the end isn’t the right answer for me, I should try it because obviously I wasn’t happy on my current path. Out of nowhere, he asked me if I’d watched The Godfather films, and I had to tell him no. So he forced me to watch part one and two, and that probably sealed the deal for me going into film.
Although you were born in Taiwan, you grew up in the U.S. What made you return to Taiwan and pursue a filmmaking career there, instead of pursuing one in the U.S.?
First and foremost, I had a conversation with my aunt, who is the only artist in my family — she writes novels and paints — and lives in Holland. To a kid from Texas, that’s already like, wow…. So I had just finished my undergrad studies in film and video, and showed her my undergrad thesis film at the time. She was pretty harsh; she was like: “It has good production value, but it’s lacking in humanity.” Basically, it was like, ‘You’re not experienced enough, you haven’t seen the world, you have no idea how to look at a story or characters from enough different perspectives to be able to comment on it through your filmmaking.’ And even though it was hard to hear at the time, it rang very true. I grew up in Texas, got to travel a little, but I didn’t really know about the world. And since I wanted to pursue film, which is a universal language, I [needed to] branch out. So the first stop was Taiwan. Since I had family there, it seemed to be a good place to start, learning where your parents are from, their background, which is also my background.
As for difficulties of minorities breaking into the film industry [in the U.S.], that wasn’t the main reason, but it was definitely in the back of my mind, too. I knew I had gotten a late start in filmmaking — so many amazing filmmakers stumbled upon it when they were young and are just so comfortable with the medium. And the U.S. film industry is so hard to break into, especially if you want to make a feature film. I had many friends go out to L.A., work there, and did really well making commercials, editing, etc. But at least in the circle of filmmakers I knew, no one was able to get their foot into that door. But it wasn’t just minority filmmakers, it was all filmmakers. So trying to be logical, my strategy was that since I needed to study more anyway, I’ll go back to Taiwan, work in Asia, try to make a feature there, and then hopefully have it be seen in the U.S. — and try to break into the U.S. film industry that way.
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