Ties that (Un)Bind: Q&A with Filmmaker James Y. Shih

James Y. Shih is a filmmaker currently working on a short film entitled Ahma & Alan–a drama about a Taiwanese grandmother who travels from her rural small town to Taipei to get her American-born grandson out of jail. TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Ho Chie Tsai speaks with James about his path in film-making and this current project now in post-production.

Ho Chie: Hi James. Good to chat with you today. What an interesting project you’ve been working on lately!

James: Hi Ho Chie! Thank you and TaiwaneseAmerican.org for having me! Yes, “Ahma & Alan” a short film, is my current passion project and has taken a good part of my life these days, haha.

H: So, tell me… What was the inspiration for this plot and project? Is there some truth to getting arrested in Taiwan?
J: After I graduated from undergrad, I moved to Taiwan to study Mandarin and to reconnect with my family and culture. Plus, I thought it’d be fun to live abroad.
Arriving in Taiwan, I needed to find a way to support myself and I knew most foreigners taught English for income. I visited multiple schools and while at a kindergarten, there was a police raid for illegal teachers. I was charged for allegedly teaching English illegally. There was a Taiwanese law that said foreigners who did not have a Taiwanese ID or passport were not allowed to teach kindergarten age children for fear the children would lose their Taiwanese identity. 

H: Really…
J: When I had to make a report to the police station, my ahma (grandma) and my aunt came with me. She told the officers, “My grandson’s Taiwanese. He’s innocent!” My ahma’s strength and determination was so endearing. Also, when the police officer questioned me at the kindergarten: “Am I American or am I Taiwanese?” the question hit me. What am I? These images and themes are still with me and inspired this story.

H: There’s so much truth in that question. I think many of us Taiwanese Americans struggle with that space in-between growing up here. So, English is your primary language, and you chose to set this story and film it in Taiwan. Were there any challenges in assembling your team or directing your actors?
J: Even after years of studying Mandarin, language is still an issue. There’s certain nuances that I still don’t know how to convey. Working with a Taiwanese actor I would use a lot of body language or simple phrases and examples. Assembling a team was tough; a month before shooting I only had a director of photography (Richard Sue) and the lead actors for Ahma & Alan (Mei-Hou Wu and Gregory Yuan). Eventually, through Facebook posts and reaching out to friends I had made in Taiwan when I first lived there, I was able to meet up with a local Taiwanese film producer, Cara Chiu. She connected with the script and together we went into pre-production overdrive for 2 1/2 weeks.

H: How did you find your actors? Tell me more about them.
J: The ahma actor, Mei-Hou Wu, I had met a year prior to production. I had visited Taiwan earlier to do some initial pre-production such as location scouting and a casting call. A friend of a friend connected me with a casting agent who set up a meeting with Wu. We did an initial read and I could see in Wu such a strong character and personality. We chatted afterwards about the relationship between a grandchild and grandparent, she was a grandma herself, and she understood what I was going for. 

H: And the protagonist, Alan?
J: For the Alan character, I did casting in Taiwan and in Los Angeles and saw over 50 talents for the role. Actor Gregory Yuan came into the LA  auditions. He did a decent reading, but I felt it could be stronger. I gave an adjustment and the way he was able to adapt and take direction was amazing. In the callback, we chatted about the Asian American male experience and family, and I could see he understood the themes I was going for. From his interpretation of the character and his own personal story, I knew then that he had a lot to bring to the table and would be a great collaborator to work with.

H: The actor playing the police officer character looks very familiar.
J: Officer Bei is played by veteran Taiwanese actor Akio Chen (陳慕義) who has done several Taiwanese TV shows and films. My producer Cara connected us. We were scrambling to find Officer Bei less than a week before shooting. He’s the main antagonist in the film and I needed an incredibly strong and formidable character that could also show vulnerability, which was very hard to find. After watching some of Akio’s work, I could see in him that quality. I adjusted the script to fit his age, he read it, and really liked the story. He was on board. We were so happy.

H: Very cool. Sounds like a strong cast. Shifting just a little bit… In the past, you’ve worked on several other short films, and most of them feature actors of Taiwanese or Asian descent. As a 2nd generation Taiwanese American, what are your thoughts in general about Taiwanese or Asian American representation in film and TV?
J: As Asian Americans we have to remind ourselves: our stories have value and are worth telling. There’s a lot of external and internal forces: our parents, our self doubt, society…that push us towards being quiet and, to quote T.S. Eliot, not “disturb the universe.” The first time I saw a Taiwanese family on screen was when I watched “Yi-Yi”, by Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, in high school. I was blown away. I finally saw something closer to my own experience plus it’s just a masterpiece of filmmaking. The film showed me how starved I was for Asian representation. What if…just what if…a Taiwanese American or other Asian American saw him or herself reflected in a film that was made by Asian Americans for Asian Americans? I think the power of that cannot be understated and we’re seeing more Asian American films and TV shows coming out now. Yet there’s still so much more room to grow and so many different genres and stories to tell from our community. We should disturb the universe, the universe deserves it.

H: That’s a great quote. I’m going to have to use it again in the future! Now, tell me a little more about yourself and your path to film-making. You actually studied Theatre at UCSD, right?
J: I grew up in Milpitas in the San Francisco Bay Area. Went to college at UC San Diego first as Undeclared. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but after acting in another student’s short film, I got really curious about the filmmaking process. How do you shoot? How do you edit? What does a director actually do? I told my parents I wanted to study filmmaking and they shut me down. So I compromised and did Economics as my major and, without telling my parents, I minored in Theatre with a focus on performance. That way I still had a creative outlet and I performed in the first Asian American Theatre Festival at UCSD, which was super fun.

H: How did you find your way to making films?
J: After college and Taiwan, I went back to the states and studied filmmaking at community colleges in the Bay Area: De Anza College and City of College of SF. I actually met my director of photography Richard Sue at De Anza and we really connected over art house films and Asian cinema. During this time, I became a producer for director James Z. Feng’s mixed martial arts feature documentary “Fight Life”. After that project, I got involved with Jennifer Phang’s sci-fi feature film “Advantageous”, starting as an intern and eventually becoming a Co-Producer for the film. The film got into Sundance and it was an awesome whirlwind of a journey. However, I wanted to get back to writing and creating my own work. Not sure where to start, I applied for a Screenwriting MFA program at Cal State Northridge. I got in and graduated in 2017.

H: Congrats on that!
J: Thanks! It was a good experience. Having deadlines and talented classmates in grad school pushed me to create consistently. However, to be perfectly honest, to work in the creative industry it’s about what work you’ve done/doing and connections you’ve made more than anything. Having a degree is nice, especially if you want to teach, but I know plenty of awesome, creative people who did not go to school for their craft.

H: Back to your project at hand, Ahma & Alan… You’ve written an article for us in the past about your great aunt. And now, in some ways, this project is dedicated to your grandmother… and really both sets of grandparents. And just from speaking to you in the past, I know you have such a great respect for family and heritage. Can you speak more about that?
J: It’s part of who I am. My paternal grandparents helped raise me as a child and even though we didn’t speak the same language, there’s a profound feeling of debt and gratitude towards them. By trying to understand them and my parents and the country they came from, I’m trying to understand myself better. I want to see how these threads connect, how an old home in Lukang, a man and woman falling in love, war and occupation, all connect and where I see myself in that tapestry.

H: I think that as our Taiwanese American community continues to grow, paying homage to our forebearers becomes so much more important in the sense that our distance and generational gap widens with time. It’s more important than ever to capture these types of characters and stories.
J: I totally agree. My grandfathers both passed away years ago. My paternal grandma, who this story is based on, passed away about four years ago. My maternal grandma, who I also love dearly and only spoke Taiwanese and Japanese, passed away recently. All my grandparents are no longer with us. There’s this incredible feeling of loss as well as an urgency to preserve and capture the stories of the older generation while they’re still with us.

H: In your film, the antagonist is a Taiwanese police officer that does not like foreigners–in this case an American-born Taiwanese–coming to Taiwan. Was there any issue, sentiment, or statement you were trying to address there?
J: In Taiwan, there is this stereotype of male foreigners, including American born Taiwanese, coming to Taiwan just to party and fool around with women. The sentiment was stronger ten years ago than it is now, but there’s still this idea that the American born Taiwanese guy is a player, rude, and thinks he’s better than the average Taiwanese guy. There’s still a little bit of 崇洋媚外 (worshipping foreignness) from some of the younger Taiwanese women and there’s foreigners that take advantage of this. Also, funny story, there were some Taiwanese people that assumed I could rap or that I personally knew the LA Boyz (a famous Taiwanese American hip hop group) because I was from California. They’d also say I swagger too much, haha. 
There’s some truth to the stereotype, there are playboy, arrogant Taiwanese/Chinese Americans in Taiwan. In them, I saw my own flaws and I wanted to explore this stereotype and push it to a dramatic level.

H: Interesting. I can see how that stereotype exists. That whole topic could probably be an article of its own. So, Ahma & Alan is in post-production phase right now. What’s happening?
J: Right now I’m running a Kickstarter to raise funds to pay for post production and deferred production costs. At the same time I’m working with a Taiwanese editor on the rough cut and in talks with a composer for the score. All these people are helping out on deferred payment, meaning that they’re working with the promise that I will pay them later. That’s why I felt the need to launch this Kickstarter so that I can compensate them in addition to paying back loans I took in order to complete the actual shooting of the film.

H: For our readers, the Kickstarter link and social media pages will be linked at the end of this interview. We encourage people to support you and this project. It’s an all-or-nothing effort for sure.
J: Thank you so much! That’s greatly appreciated. Yes, Kickstarter is all or nothing; if I don’t reach my goal, I get none of the money raise. Making a film is expensive and a lot of hard work, but this is a story I believe in and that I feel will connect with many Asian Americans, particularly Taiwanese Americans.

H: Agree! So, looking ahead, what other projects have you been thinking about?
J: This is my main project for now, I want to complete this film and then hit the festival circuit and share this film with as many people as possible. Further down the line, I have a feature I wrote about Asian American high schoolers and bullying that I eventually want to make. First things first though, “Ahma & Alan!”

H: Such aspiration! You’ll definitely be going places. Well, James, good luck to you! We will be following you closely!
J: Thank you so much Ho Chie and TaiwaneseAmerican.org for having me. I’m incredibly grateful to you and your organization for providing a platform for Taiwanese Americans to share their voices. Real talk, it can get lonely and anxious trying to build and share something on your own. It’s great to know that there are communities, such as this one, that provide support and remind Taiwanese Americans that they’re not alone.

To learn more about James and his project:

Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jamesyshih/ahma-and-alan-a-taiwanese-american-story-filmed-in-taiwan

Webpage: http://www.jamesyshih.com/
Social media: FacebookInstagramTwitter
Email: ahmaandalan[at]gmail.com

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