Being observant and having a good gaydar: An interview with team 'Dear Ex'

Actors Roy Chiu and Hsieh Ying-xuan as the leads in Dear Ex

According to director Mag Hsu(徐誉庭), Dear Ex (谁先爱上他的),the comedy was screened with an O+ rating in Taiwan, which means everyone can watch the film. Unfortunately, this film is rated R21 in Singapore, which is a real shame but we all know the extent of the struggle here for social progression. Struggling characterises the film Dear Ex to a great extent. Three characters are locked in a tug-of-war all because of one man. Song Zhengyuan passes away of cancer and leaves behind his gay lover Jay, his ex-wife Liu Sanlian, his son Song Chengxi and an insurance benefit. Without explaining too much, one can guess where this is going.

While this sounds like a recipe for high-pitched TV soap opera, co-directors Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-yen (许智彦) have taken pains to craft out characters that are worthy of the big screen dimension. They, especially Jay and Liu, are portrayed as both perpetrators and victims at the same time, for each side has their story to tell. With her theatre directing background, Mag Hsu evidently appreciates the power of performance and has created room for her actors to come full circle in their characterisation. Most notably, Hsieh Ying-xuan(谢盈萱) who played Liu stole a lot of the thunder with her broad-ranged acting that made Liu both obnoxious and yet vulnerable at the same time. Little surprise she picked up the Golden Horse Best Actress Award for that. Roy Chiu (邱泽) whose idol charisma still shines bright from his TV days, holds his ground as Jay, the emotional anchor of the film. Joseph Huang (黄圣球), who played the son Song Chengxi, was comfortable in a role that is possibly not too far from his actual self.

Singapore and SINdie had the privilege of meeting almost the entire cast (pictured left-L to R: Joseph Huang, Spark Chen, Hsieh Ying-Xuan, Mag Hsu, Hsu Chih-yen) here during the 29th Singapore International Film Festival two weeks ago, as they were here for the Special Presentation screening that included a red carpet segment. Mag quipped during the group interview that this gala brought together the entire cast and directors (sans Roy Chiu) for the first time in an event. Prior to that, they appeared in various pairings or groups at various film festivals and screenings.

Mag shared that she and Hsu, her co-director had no expectation when they made this film and were just hoping to see it appear on the big screen. The final version of the film came a long way, after having gone through a major ‘surgery’ in the editing process. Spark Chen (陈如山), who had a short screen time as Song Zhengyuan, the father who passed away in the film, recalls the first time the cast and crew were summoned together to watch the first edit of the film. He remembers everyone feeling strange watching it and there was an awkward two-minute silence after the screening ended. The lack of music aside, there was something amiss about the edit.

Working on the re-edit was rather nerve-wrecking and it took some chanting of sutras, smoking of cigarettes and several bottles of whisky before Mag found a breakthrough. Today, she is happy to finally be able to put that chapter behind her. When the awards and nominations came in, particularly being accepted by the Taipei Film festival and garnering eight Golden Horse nominations, it was very much a bonus to the entire team.

“We were so overwhelmed, because after all we just wanted to complete this film. It was just a story I wanted to share with people. We started receiving lots of good word-of-mouth reviews and on some days, I would wonder if it was all a dream,” said Mag.

When asked about the easiest part of making Dear Ex, Mag surprised us with a straightforward answer - getting funding.

“They were all my friends. I basically told my friends I have this script with Lu Shih-yuan and I needed money to make this film. And my friends just responded positively and invested millions after millions. Eventually, I managed to raise all the money within one week. And I was thinking to myself, how was that possible? I guess I am seen as quite trustworthy,” quipped Mag.

On the flip side, returning her friends their investment money would be the hardest part about making the film. Not all her friends, mostly in the 50s age group, were financially-privileged and they actually forked out money from their individual pension funds. So there is the pressure to generate the returns for them putting money where their faith was. After premiering in Taiwan on 2 November, the film has grossed TWD60 million and is currently approximately TWD20 million short of meeting their break-even point. It needs to hit TWD80 million to cover all their costs.

Co-directors Hsu Chih-yen and Mag Hsu at the Singapore International Film Festival Red Carpet event of the Dear Ex Special Presentation screening

Knowing the modest success the film has enjoyed up to this point, when asked if there was any scene she felt could have been better delivered, Mag mentioned how she had an ideal cast in mind for the theatre play within the film. Years ago, comedienne Lin Mei-hsiu (林美秀) was acting in the actual stage version of this production opposite Lin Jia Li. Both were relatively unknown at that time and because their performances were so hilarious, Lin Mei Xiu was talent-spotted and found her big break from doing this play. When casting for Dear Ex, it did cross Mag’s mind to cast these two actresses but for fear that their screen time would be too short, she decided not to.

“I do regret a little.”

On another funny note about the cast, young actor Joseph Huang was casted partly on the recommendation of Joseph’s father who is a good friend of Mag. Joseph had all the trappings of a teenage boy - fun, raw and careless. Mag recalled an incident in which Joseph lost his script and when asked if he had learnt his lines, he said yes. Then one day, Roy found his script and he and Mag decided to ‘test’ Joseph and put him on the spot. In one of the scenes involving Joseph, Roy made his character more ferocious than usual and to everyone’s surprise, Joseph took it in his stride and coped with the offensives from Roy with aplomb.

With the recent shock results from the marriage equality referendum in Taiwan, in which majority of voters voted against marriage equality, Dear Ex can hardly be a more timely movie that brings to question what makes a family. But to Mag, the main point about the movie is not just about supporting a homosexual relationship but more an exploration of how we deal with things that we are ignorant about. And in the face of the unknown or the unfamiliar, it questions if we able to take a step back, and put ourselves in the shoes of the other party.

One happy outcome for marriage equality did arise from the movie. Mag recounts ,”I have a teacher whom I know who does not support gay marriage. Last week, during the referendum, the Dear Ex team was at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, so we did not get to vote and we were deeply regretful about it. But this teacher of mine actually went to watch Dear Ex and after watching it, she changed her mind and voted for gay marriage. She told me: this vote was made for you.”

Co-director Hsu Chih-yen also shared that he belongs to a big family and his whole extended family is actually in the same LINE chat group, which has about 20 odd people. He shared, ”When the gay marriage issue was hotly debated, one of my uncles suddenly became very vocal. He jumped on the topic and expressed his disapproval for gay marriage in the chat group. Having watched the movie, many people in the chat group said Liu (the mother) was very pitiful. So I am just glad that this movie has sparked off conversations even though it may not change people’s minds about homosexuality.”

Concerned about how Joseph Huang, the teenage actor would relate to the topic of the film, Mag took some time to chat with him about the topic and ask about his opinion. It turned out it did not matter to him whether one was gay or not gay. It could be the influence of his family which had an artistic background. Huang said, “I had no idea why people would oppose homosexuality. Maybe the younger generations thinks differently from the older generation. The older generation values system and tradition, and the younger generation is not so fond of that. For me, I support gays.”

Golden Horse Best Actress winner Hsieh Ying-xuan at the Singapore International Film Festival Dear Ex Red Carpet event The biggest winner from the film, actress Hsieh Ying-xuan appeared the polar opposite of her ferocious character Liu at the press interview. Speaking in a meek tone, she shared about her thoughts on winning and her fangirl moments at the awards, particularly with Chinese screen legend Gong Li, who was incidentally in the jury.

“I am happy to have received compliments from director Ang Lee. He is a director I like and who is also very well-respected. Of course, it feels good to be endorsed by him but I need to continue working hard. Gong Li also complimented me on my ability to take on the mother role despite not being a mother myself,” said Hsieh.

Mag recounted how Hsieh became extremely excited when she saw Gong Li at the awards and that she was seated in the row behind the Dear Ex team. Hsieh even asked Gong Li for a photo together, though Gong Li hesitated a little as she had to maintain a distance as a member of the jury.

“At that time, I felt the winner couldn’t have been me. So I was rather preoccupied with asking Gong Li for a photo and actually spent 3 commercial breaks planning it. I did take some photos of her back and posted them on Instagram. But later I thought to myself that if I do not step forward, there would be no more opportunities. So I went ahead to take a photo with her and after I did that, Roy Chiu said to me ‘you finally found the courage to take’,” Hsieh added.

The social status and behaviour women in Asia has long been a topic of Hsieh’s fascination. So when this role came about, it was a treat to her as it was a space for her to explore her understanding of what these women go through.

Hsieh explained ,“I think Asian women are very interesting by nature. They are expected to follow many societal and traditional rules and norms. Many face pressures to be docile in front of people yet at the same time, many of them have aspirations or want to be a modern woman. Yet it is so hard to become a modern woman. So I think Asian women are like chameleons, they have to adapt to many different roles in different settings. And when they become wives or mothers, it is possible that they lose themselves completely. While we often aspire to do so many things, the reality presents a totally different situation to us. Hence, the situation Asian women are in has piqued my interest greatly.”

Mag added that both the scriptwriter and the actors love to observe people. She said ,”There was one instance we went to eat steamboat and sitting opposite us was a wealthy lady. So we watched her and started imitating her and also analysing her. From her behaviour, we concluded that she is someone who belongs to the third generation of her family wealth. That meal seemed like an average meal to her, even though it was very expensive to us! So in our daily lives, we find inspiration from everywhere and do not just specifically look for certain examples. And I feel we must always be observant of human behaviour, sometimes it’s the outwardly mannerism that is interesting and sometimes, its their inner mood. We take these home and put them into different shelves so that we can easily refer to them when the need arises.”
Roy Chiu in Dear Ex

Finally, when asked what she would do if she discovered that her own boyfriend was a gay, Hsieh had this to say ,”I don’t think the probability of that happening is high as I have a strong gaydar. It’s the gaydar of an artist.”

Chiming in, Mag added ,”Our gaydars are both very strong. And between us we have a lot of gay friends. One of our wishes is that if we don’t get married later in life, I wish to stay with our gay friends. But I did realise one problem lately. We both like the same types!”

Interview by Jeremy Sing

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