Filmmaker Spotlight: Jay Chern

The X1 Asian American Film & TV destination will feature “Thief,” directed by Jay Chern. You can find the film in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month collection this May. We had the chance to ask Jay about his inspirations, his filmmaking journey, and how his Asian American heritage impacts his work.

Tell us about your film featured on X1 this month!

Jay Chern: This was the first film that I shot after going back to Taipei to continue my film studies. The story came about after my cellphone was stolen and, coincidentally, that same week, I found someone else’s cellphone and for a split second considered keeping it … only for a split second. I quickly returned it to the owner, but I thought that split second of hesitation was interesting, and also since I always had very vivid memories of going to the night markets while back in Taipei on summer vacation when I was young, so these elements all ended up in the story of “Thief.”  As for the story itself … I don’t want to spoil it, so I will just paste the tagline here: In this exotic night market of Taipei is the perfect place to be if one is looking to crowd, shop, eat, and game, but on this night it’s not just fun and games for those who steal things from others.

(c) 2010-2011 Jay Chern and Wang Xi-Jie

How did you get into filmmaking?

JC: I got into filmmaking pretty late. I didn't decide to do my undergrad in film/video until I was 21. I originally wanted to go into music-I was a violinist. But my parents, especially my dad, were very much against that. I grew up in the dot-com era, so I was also very much into computers, too and thought, "I could just do that instead." However, after two years of studying Computer Science and working, it didn't feel like I wanted to be in that business for years on end. I realized my passion was still in the arts, so I decided to take a break and got back to practicing my violin while taking a bunch of different classes, including animation, photography, music composition and even acting for TV/film. It was kind of a soul-searching period in my life. During that process, I found that filmmaking allowed me to combine all of my interests, even computers, with film turning digital, which affects editing/post process/visual effects etc. It seemed like a good fit, so I decided to go for it and ended up enrolling in the film/video program at the University of Texas at Arlington.

What are some films and/or filmmakers that have inspired you?

JC: So many! Kubrick, Orson Wells, Godard, Tarkovsky, Spielberg, Ozu, Kurosawa, Peter Chan, Feng Xiaogang … I think there are too many to list. As for the films I have recently revisited the most, that continually inspire me, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Citizen Kane”, “Breathless,” “Tokyo Story,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” “Tian Mi Mi” (“Comrades: Almost a Love Story”), “When Harry Met Sally,” “Paper Moon,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “Amelie” …

Do you have a favorite Asian and/or Asian American film?

JC: Asian American film, definitely “Better Luck Tomorrow.” That was a big deal for me while growing up in Texas, and when “Better Luck Tomorrow” came out in 2002, I didn’t even think going into film was even a possibility. As for favorite Asian film … this is tough …I’ll go with “Tian Mi Mi” (“Comrades: Almost a Love Story”). If you haven’t seen it, go watch it!

How does your Asian heritage influence your work?

JC: I was born in Taipei, but grew up in Texas, so when I began studying filmmaking at UTA, I didn't know much about Asian films at all. My whole worldview was from a Western perspective. But after going back to Taipei to do my MFA in directing, it really opened my eyes to a whole other perspective. And it was great to get back to my roots, my parents' roots, my grandparents' roots. Knowing where you are from, the history, culture and the art surrounding that, helps one grow a lot as a filmmaker.

What is your outlook on the state of Asian American cinema?

JC: With trailblazers like Justin Lin and James Wan leading the way, I feel like there’s a great future for Asian American filmmakers. And with the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” it definitely feels like there are more and more opportunities for Asian American filmmakers to tell their stories and have a chance for the mainstream American audience to see them.

What’s next for you?

JC: After releasing my first feature film, “Omotenashi,”in 2018, which was a Japan-Taiwan co-production film, I co-wrote a Jay Chou executive-produced racing film with my director friend Jem Chen, who is a racer himself. It should be released sometime in 2019. I am also developing a couple different scripts, trying to decide which project could be my next feature–one is kind of a continuation of the themes found in “Thief,” and another one is an adaptation of a Japanese short story. Last but not least, if I may plug my film “Omotenashi” again, for friends in Houston, Texas, “Omotenashi”will screen June 20, 2019, at the Houston Asian American Pacific Islander Film Festival as opening film, and I’ll be there for the Q&A afterwards! Please come check it out if you’re in that area, thank you!

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.