Star of the Month — June, 2017 - Taipei Film Commission
“A New Opportunity for Original Creations:” Interview with The Teenage Psychic Director Chen Ho-yu
(Article/ Catherine Huang; photography & video/ May Wen)
Director Chen Ho-yu of The Teenage Psychic in an interview with Taipei Film Commission.
The Teenage Psychic carries significant meaning as an original production in Taiwan.
Not only was it the first cross-border TV production jointly made between Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS), HBO Asia, and Singapore's InFocus Asia (IFA), it was also the first Chinese-speaking original series to be broadcast on HBO. This short six-part mini-series has made unprecedented success since its airing, and the people behind the magic were a group of 30-year old filmmakers who possessed the right expertise, creativity, courage and passion to open up new possibilities for Taiwan's audiovisual industry.
The story of The Teenage Psychic was adapted from director Chen Ho-yu's short film - The Busy Young Psychic, and incorporated a number of interesting elements including folklore, teen romance, and uncertainties of life. This interview will focus on the two equally great but distinctively enjoyable productions mentioned above, and the director's expectation to the audiovisual production environment in Taiwan.
"Coincident" and "intuitive" choice of story
Chen Ho-yu's decision to film about temples had arisen out of a coincidence, and not because of religious belief. When doing a school assignment, Chen Ho-yu looked for ideas in the "Variety" column of Apple Daily and became fascinated by the story of Sophia the Psychic ("Success Has Nothing to do with Supernatural Forces"). "It was an interesting article, one that told readers that supernatural forces do exist, but at the same time advised people not to be superstitious and should instead believe in themselves." Chen Ho-yu explained that the psychic story used to be told in two extremes; either we should be fearful of gods and ghosts and believe in karma, or believe nothing but science and everything else as superstition. Sophia, on the other hand, told people to respect supernatural forces, but rely on their own abilities for everything in life.
The story told Sophia's exciting adventures from becoming the first female umpire in baseball history to converting to Islam, and had been a great inspiration to Chen. Why then, did the director choose to make a film about a teenage girl's inside conflicts, out of all other options available? Chen Ho-yu said that it was a choice by "instinct." "Temple is perhaps the place where people of the most ambitious desires and most complex minds gather. How could I make these stories interesting to the audience? The answer, I thought, was through the perspective of a teenage girl." Indeed, having a confused teenage girl succumbed to the society's system and a higher being who points believers to the right direction all inside the same character created an interesting conflict that made The Busy Young Psychic and The Teenage Psychic fun to watch.
The moon and the sun
Yu Pei-jen, lead actress of short film - The Busy Young Psychic, graduated from School of Theatre Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts. Her expression-less appearance and spiritual character were the features that made her performance as a psychic convincing. Her natural and convincing performance won her the title of Best New Talent in the 2014 Taipei Film Awards.
Yu Pei-jen's perfect portrayal in The Busy Young Psychic had put Chen Ho-yu in a difficult dilemma when casting for HBO's The Teenage Psychic. In order to give the show a new look, Chen made a last-minute decision to have Kuo Shu-yao play the role of Xie Ya-zhen (Xiao Zhen) in The Teenage Psychic. Chen Ho-yu recalled that, given the complexity of the character, he needed someone who had experienced the challenges of life and still possessed the right level of naiveness to accomplish the role. It was not until when Kuo Shu-yao auditioned for the role that Chen finally found the right match. "She possesses the sincere and pure mind of a child, but has also been through the ups and downs of life. She began supporting her family at a very young age; she is well-experienced in front of camera and has seen much of life, death, kindness and cruelty that made her understand the meanings behind her dialogs. She is truly a rare find in our line of business."
Kuo Shu-yao of The Teenage Psychic is distinctively different from Yu Pei-jen of the short film in terms of appearance and character.
Chen Ho-yu said that main female characters in the two productions were custom-tailored to suit the qualities of the two actresses. "Yu Pei-jen and Kuo Shu-yao are distinctively different in terms of appearance and character; one would wave her magic wand under the moonlight, while the other sits high up in the face of the sun. Their distinctive qualities gave the characters different life and meaning. I find them both beautiful, and offer something that cannot be replaced by the other. While one appears cold as the moon, the other shines like a warm sun."
Baseball and drama clubs
Both productions spent an extensive amount of time depicting club activities, which described the lives of the two female characters at school. While The Busy Young Psychic used a "baseball club" for storytelling, the The Teenage Psychic chose "drama club" instead.
Chen Ho-yu saw this transformation as "a major breakthrough in the development of the screenplay." He said that baseball elements in The Busy Young Psychic had originated from Sophia's personal experience, but if it is elaborated into a long story, it has the tendency to "steal" the focus of the production. "We wanted to focus on the conflict between a teenager growing up and her role as a psychic; if we were to introduce baseball elements, they would overshadow the girl and make the series something like 'Kungfu Baseball' or 'Psychic Baseball'. The audience would naturally try to connect psychic with baseball, and expect psychic powers in baseball games."
In order to maintain focus of The Teenage Psychic, the production team put extensive thoughts into screenwriting. Chen Ho-yu even made a joke about how "guitar club" would turn the story into "Rock'n Roll Psychic" to explain the risk of weakened plot if they chose the wrong story setting. After carefully weighing his options, Chen found "drama club" to be an ideal setting because it offers neutrality and the freedom to explore plots that are related to psychic powers. Subsequent plots involving Xie Ya-zhen sleeping in coffin and public drama performance had complemented the series all because of this decision.
The "drama club" that formed a huge part of Xie Ya-zhen's school life was carefully constructed by the production team.
Ah Le's death
"Why did Ah Le have to die from a car crash few days after the two main characters began dating?" For many people, the grand finale of The Teenage Psychic was devastating. In response, director Chen Ho-yu has time and time again explained that: "This is not a romance drama; it tells the story of young people growing up to accept the uncertainties of life." This message is meaningful only if Xiao Zhen experiences the death of people around her, on top of the fact that she sees death of other people as a bystander. For this purpose, the production team had planned Ah Le's death right from the beginning, and the storyline was structured towards this ending.
Ah Le's death is inevitable for the purpose of making Xie Yazhen realize the implications of death and grow from it.
"But why not Mr. Kim or Qiao Wei? Why did it have to be Ah Le?" the audience may ask. Chen Ho-yu explained that Xiao Zhen's decision to leave the temple had originated from her affection towards Ah Le. In other words, love was the element that started the entire storyline. When that element disappears, Xiao Zhen will hold on to her views about life, while Ah Le's optimism continues to affect her. This is the arrangement that best delivers the message "to live in the moment and cherish the people around you." Killing off other characters would not achieve the same effect. Chen Ho-yu further revealed that Ah Le's death was hinted throughout the series in scenes such as: encounter inside the coffin, performance of "Romeo and Juliet," and the first line of the drama performance - "This is a story of love and death."
Success of The Teenage Psychic brings new opportunities to Taiwan's audiovisual industry
The Teenage Psychic had been a brand new attempt in terms of storyline and international co-production. To Chen Ho-yu, success of The Teenage Psychic proved that investors' willingness to take risks is far lesser than what the audience has appetite for today. He hoped that the series may somehow turn investors' conservative thinking around, and give young talents more room to create besides soap and idol drama. He said that, with the right contents, filmmakers would be able to create a positive cycle that benefits the audience, the creators and the investors, and progressively improve the audiovisual industry. "I hope to see The Teenage Psychic becoming more than just an over-praised TV series, but its effect on the creative environment and inspiration to new ideas in the future."
Making changes requires the government's involvement. Chen Ho-yu said: "The Taiwanese government has long been subsidizing the audiovisual industry, but what we need is more than just short-term investments; what we need are ways to make the audiovisual industry self-sustainable." In Chen Ho-yu's opinion, the keys to self-sustainability are "systematic education" and "fundamental talent training"; both of which require long-term and robust planning from the government. The next important issue involves "upgrade of industry hardware." He pointed out that The Teenage Psychic was broadcast in three different versions due to the different equipment used by TV network operators, and hence the sound and image could not be reproduced properly. "The public may not be aware of this shortcoming, but those who knew could do nothing about it." With the success of The Teenage Psychic, Chen Ho-yu hopes to direct the government's attention to the ausiovisual industry and inspire more active and practical actions.
[About the Director]
Born 1986, Chen Ho-yu was inspired by cross talk shows at a young age and grew strong interest in stage performance. As a child, he enjoyed making comedic performances, and had once assembled a drama club and competed in his junior high school years. He signed up to the entertainment club in his high school years, and developed the hobby of telling stories through image. He directed a production named Hitch! that became popular among Internet users.
After failing to be admitted into the Department of Radio & Television, National Chengchi University, he began his study instead at the Department of Drama and Theatre, National Taiwan University. "This coincidental choice of drama studies changed my life." Through theatrical performance, Chen Ho-yu discovered a new world for his life-long hobby, and discovered that his talent lies not in the role of "performer," but a "director" who coordinates an entire show.
Having identified his dream, Chen Ho-yu later enrolled into the postgraduate study of filmmaking at National Taiwan University of Arts. The Busy Young Psychic was Chen's first official production; it was aired on PTS Innovative Stories (student drama) and had won a number of awards including: Best Editing (Kao Ming-sheng) at the 48th Golden Bell Awards, Student First Prize at the 36th Golden Harvest Awards, and Best Short Film at the 16th Taipei Film Awards. The Teenage Psychic is a TV series that expands the storyline of The Busy Young Psychic.