Fiona Feng-I Roan is a Taiwanese American writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Ho Chie Tsai recently caught up with her to talk about her new short film, JIEJIE, which was recently selected as one of three finalists in the HBO Asian Pacific Visionary American short film competition. It will also be distributed nationally through HBO this May, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
JIEJIE is a portrait of young sisters being raised by a single immigrant mother in Los Angeles in 1997. It is Fiona’s autobiographical work that takes an intimate look at the Asian immigrant story—confronting issues of adaptation, acceptance and mother/daughter/sister relationships–from a young girl’s point of view. At the heart of the film is a touching commentary on the evolving relationship between sisters.
In our interview, Fiona talks about the motivation behind her film, reflections of her own family’s experiences, and her path as a filmmaker devoted to female-centered storytelling.
Ho Chie: Hello Fiona. Pleasure to connect with you! First of all, congratulations on this film being selected as a finalist for HBO’s Asian Pacific Visionary American short film competition! The film also is making its premiere at the 2018 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May! I’m super excited for you!
Fiona: Thank you! I’m very grateful to be sharing this story.
H: Let’s talk about JIEJIE. As a short film, it’s a beautifully crafted piece and sure does pack a lot in its 15 minute run-time. I’m impressed by how you capture so many different issues relevant to the immigrant experience including your own family’s relationships. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to share this somewhat personal journey?
F: JIEJIE was my thesis film from American Film Institute (AFI), where we were encouraged to tell our personal stories. Given the restriction that it had to be shot in LA, the challenge of fundraising and managing a large budget, and the working time span of a year, I felt like the Asian immigrant story told from a child’s perspective in a day was the most ideal for a short film format. This story is also something I knew inherently, giving me enough confidence to lead a creative team.
H: You intersect so many issues and portray the tensions seamlessly: Fitting in and finding home in a new community, the 1st vs. 2nd generation experiences, sister-sister and mother-daughter relationships, values conflicts… Did I miss anything?
F: I’ve always been interested in different waves of immigration, and different generations of the Asian American experience. My family came in the late 90s, when immigrants still depended heavily on religious communities for support. One of the visual elements that drew me to this story is the Chinese American Church, a place that plays an integral part in balancing new identities.
H: What do you hope the viewer take away from the film?
F: As I was making the film I was thinking a lot about my family, and looking back on how my mother really gave her best at difficult times. It wasn’t evident to me as a child. I also appreciated my sister more for being a part of my life.
H: Your actors are all wonderful, and the child actors are especially talented! Tell me about Eva Du and Harmonie Zhu. They were so natural in acting out their roles! How did you find them, and how was it directing them?
F: My producer Mianda Lu is also an actor, and has an amazing eye for casts. He sent me Harmonie’s tape and my team were immediately in love. Harmonie has the cuteness that lets her get away with anything, a quality we needed for the mischievous younger sister’s role. Eva stood out as we paired different actors for chemistry reading with Harmonie. She has a quiet presence and pride that fits the older sister role perfectly. She improved immensely throughout the shoot.
H: Also, Leann Lei who plays the mother is clearly experienced.
F: Leann is a professional actress and the girls benefited greatly from her. She worked as a teacher before so she has great patience and understands children’s temperaments. She brings a sense of dignity to the struggling single mother’s role. We were very lucky to have her.
H: Although the mother is not the primary character of your story, it’s clear that she has a certain influence over your main character and this film. I feel like there’s so much more you want to say, personally, about your own mother. I’m itching to know if you do.
F: My co-writer Michael Leung and I talked in the earlier drafts about whether or not it could be a mother-daughter story. The original title was called TRIO because it was about the three of them. In the film the mother is the one making active decisions throughout the film, taking them to church and questioning Fen about the clips. The scene with the mother alone after the slap was inspired by a memory I had as a girl. I saw my mother cry in the kitchen for the first time a few months after we immigrated, I was 7 and it’s something you never forget.
H: On your production team, you also have a couple other Taiwanese Americans. Tell me a little bit about them. And, what were their thoughts on the project?
F: Cinematographer France Chen is Taiwanese Canadian, and the production designer Yu-Hsuan Chen is my high school classmate from back in Taiwan. Both of them had younger sisters so they understood the sister dynamic intimately. Frances immigrated with her family in the early 2000s when she was in high school, and she also had to go through the same awkward phase as Fen did. Yu-Hsuan had relatives who immigrated to Boston in the 90s, so they ended up donating a lot of the 90’s props that we used in the film. We talked a lot about our memory of the 90s, and it was fun to recreate it together.
The house we shot in also belonged to a Taiwanese American family–it was a time capsule and looked almost just like my childhood home. This project benefited greatly from the community that it strives to represent.
H: Let’s find out more about you. Where did you grow up and go to school? How old were you when you immigrated to the U.S.?
F: I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, moved to Salem, Oregon at age 7. My family moved back to Taipei when I was 12, where I was educated until college.
H: Wow. Oregon. There must not have been many Asians in the area.
F: Yes, there were very few Asian kids in my school. Oregon is not known for its diversity, but we got to spend a lot time out in nature.
H: How challenging was it for you growing up and becoming comfortable in your own skin?
F: I think it’s somehow always hard to accept who you are, and as girls we were even more aware of how we are being perceived, but I think it’s a great time for us now because everyone is different and they should take pride in that.
H: Do you find the time to travel back to Taiwan?
F: Yes, I love traveling back home. My family is still there so I try to go back twice a year. We Taiwanese can never live too far away from all the good food.
H: Agreed! So, what inspired you to follow a path into filmmaking and writing?
F: My high school Chinese teacher was a major influence, she showed us [the 1959 French New Wave drama film] “The 400 Blows,” and I remember falling asleep in class. Nevertheless, she inspired me to major in Chinese Literature. I later took Chinese opera and fell in love with scripts. I began to read screenplays and applied for grad school as a screenwriter. I was rejected the first year, which later prompted me to direct my own script and reapply as a director.
H: How has that journey been?
F: I think it came to a full circle with JIEJIE. I have a passion for the Chinese language and I still feel more at ease directing in Mandarin. It took a lot of pressure off me as a director on set since most of the camera crew couldn’t understand the directions I was giving the actors. Except Andy Chen, the AC, also a Taiwanese American.
H: It has been part of your personal mission to make films focusing on female protagonists and family relationships. Can you speak more about that and what motivates you?
F: I grew up around women, went to an all-girls middle school, and the variation and nuances in a female relationship still amazes me. I feel like so much is left unexplored. I wouldn’t be who I am without my family, so it’s only natural for me to write about what means to me the most. I am a filmmaker, a female, a Taiwanese American–all my identities contribute to my work but they don’t define it.
H: JIEJIE is a wonderful film–it’s so touching and relevant to many in our community who are themselves from immigrant families, and I personally hope it reaches a wide audience. What’s next for this film, and how can people watch it?
F: It will be available on HBO starting May 7th in the US.
H: Are you thinking or working on your next project yet?
F: Yes. My next project is the new original series LADY LUCK, co-written with Amy Tsang. Our pilot got into Sundance Episodic Lab round 1 and we’re really excited about it. It deals with gambling addiction within Asian Pacific American community. It’s also a family drama based on Amy’s family story. It’s like JIEJIE, but set in a casino with supernatural elements.
H: If you had to offer a piece of advice to anyone seeking a career in a creative or artistic field, what would that be?
F: Write and direct what you know. Be honest in your work, find people you like to work with, and live everyday with great attention to detail.
H: A couple final questions: What’s your favorite Taiwanese film?
F: Unquestionably Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A TIME TO LIVE, A TIME TO DIE.
H: Do you have a favorite Asian American film?
F: JOY LUCK CLUB had a major impact on me as a kid. It was the first time I saw Asians on screen speaking English without an accent. I couldn’t believe my ears. Unfortunately I can’t think of any recent ones.
H: And, what’s your favorite Taiwanese food?
F: Have to go with giant pork-veggie hun-tuen (餛飩). I eat at least three a day when at home. Not a good diet.
H: Good enough to feed your creativity! Fiona, Thank you so much for your time. I’m impressed with your vision and talent, and I’m looking forward to seeing where you go with your filmmaking career in the future!
F: Thank you! Please stay tuned for the award on May 4th.
Produced by Mianda Lu & Mikhail Makeyev
Written by Feng-I Roan & Michael Leung
Story Edited by Stella Zhou & Bing Li
Cinematography by Frances Chen
Production Design by Yu-Hsuan Chen
Edited by Mao Zekun