An interview with Amsterdam-based Chinese American filmmaker Doris Yeung about her new feature film ’Taxi Stories,’ a co-production between China, Indonesia and The Netherlands. It premiers at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Wednesday, May 3rd, 8:30pm, at the Geffen Contemporary MOCA.
Your movie ’Taxi Stories’ is a startlingly authentic mosaic film. We follow a closeted taxi driver in Beijing, a trophy wife with her Indonesian maid in Hong Kong, and a child pedi-cab driver in Jakarta. We see the stark differences between the lives of the rich and the poor, moments when their lives intersect, and what happens when lines of sexual propriety are crossed.
What inspired you to make this movie? How did you come to choose these three cities for your vignettes?
Doris Yeung: ’Taxi Stories’ was initially inspired by a Facebook post of a friend who wrote about being picked up outside a gay bar in Shanghai and propositioned for sex by a taxi driver in lieu of paying his taxi fare. His encounter felt very cinematic to me somehow. I’ve always been fascinated by the immediate intimacy you are forced into in a taxi. The gulf between people from different backgrounds and social classes is somehow suspended for a temporary period of time in a taxi. Having studied and lived in Beijing for several years I knew that most Beijing taxi drivers are migrant workers from provincial villages. The fact that a provincial Chinese taxi driver was propositioning a sophisticated wealthy city gay led to the central conflict and theme of the growing divide between the social and cultural classes in Asia and to structuring three fictional stories in three different Asian countries highlighting this social divide. I chose Hong Kong to represent a first world capitalistic city, Beijing as a so-called communistic state, and Jakarta to represent the new Tiger economy of Southeast Asia. The characters in all three cities desperately want to connect on a basic human level but are their own worst obstacle.
There's something so beautifully natural and authentic with the people and settings you've captured on film. How were you able to make it feel so real?
A combination of improvisation and workshopping was used with actors to get the most out of the material and script. We worked with both professional and non-professional actors to add to the authenticity and realistic feel of the environment and the acting. Casting sessions were organized in each city and 80% of the actors in the film were non-professional. In Jakarta, we shot many scenes in the slums of the city and worked with Indonesian NGO Yayasan Interkultur to organize acting and film workshops for the inhabitants and the children as we wanted to give back and interact with the community and not just use it as a set location. We cast many non-professional actors from those workshops such as the Aunty of the lead character Adi in Jakarta.
How much of what's in this movie is personal to you, or based on real experiences—either yours or of people you know?
Themes in my work often deal with cross cultural migrant stories of home, identity, family and sexuality as I am a product of different cultures having spent the first 7 years of my life in Hong Kong, then moved to the U.S and then Beijing for my studies before immigrating to the Netherlands where I’ve been based for the last 16 years. I’m attracted to cross cultural stories about social class divide having grown up in Hong Kong in a privileged family where I was raised by a nanny for my most formative years. In my opinion, the bond between a nanny and child can be as strong and loving as a biological mother’s—the difference being that the nanny has been paid to take care of the child so there is also a commercial transaction taking place within the home. I explore this interesting dynamic in the film.
Was there any particular approach you took to your scriptwriting or filmmaking?
After the initial idea of the three thematically connected stories and cities, I sketched out each story roughly but had no actual script. I wanted to see how the shooting and editing of each story could affect the creation of the next story. I wrote the Beijing story first, shot and edited it, then went to Hong Kong, then Jakarta where I finished the script for each story in each respective city, did pre-production, casting and production in periods of three months each. In between I went back to Amsterdam to edit each segment before going to the next city. In total we spent over 2 years, developing, producing and editing the three stories separately then as a whole.
Your film stars renowned Hong Kong acting legend Ms. Petrina Fung Bobo (馮寶寶), Indonesian mega singer/actress Shanty and rising star Cora Cao (曹珊). How did they get involved, and what was it like working with them?
My producer was a friend of Petrina Fung Bobo (馮寶寶) and sent her the script which she liked, as she likes to work with young upcoming directors having been an actress since she was 4 years old. Shanty I met in Cannes film festival many years ago when we had a funny incident where I “rescued” her from walking back to her hotel, which she didn’t realize was much further than she had thought. I was looking for an Indonesian actress in Hong Kong, and mutual friends told me that Shanty had moved there. I sent her the script and she liked it and came on board. Cora Cao (曹珊) we cast from an open casting call where we almost didn’t get to see her at all, as we had closed the casting already when she came in very late. But once she auditioned, I was blown away and immediately cast her.
Home for you is the Netherlands, where you're the Director of the Board and Founder of the CinemAsia Film Festival. You grew up in San Francisco and Hong Kong, studied filmmaking at UCLA, Beijing Film Academy, and was a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute and a writer/director at Binger FilmLAB in Amsterdam. How has this influenced your work?
I think it gives me a global vision for how I see the world.
Where can people go to see ’Taxi Stories’?
‘Taxi Stories’ is having its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival this week Wednesday May 3rd at 8:30pm at the Geffen Contemporary MOCA. It will have its Asian premiere in Shanghai in June and is being released in Asia this fall.
This interview is cross-published in Alhambra Source.