INTERVIEW/A version of truth, a moment in time: Fiona Roan on 'American Girl'

02/22/2022 03:17 PM
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Fiona Roan Feng-i. CNA file photo
Fiona Roan Feng-i. CNA file photo

By Chiang Yi-ching, CNA staff reporter

"It was a crisis moment for all of us, and not just me."

That is how writer-director Fiona Roan Feng-i (阮鳳儀) remembers 2003, when she was uprooted from her life in the United States as a 13-year-old after her mother was diagnosed with cancer and brought back to Taiwan, where she had lived as a young child.

It was a turbulent time in Roan's life, but one that would later shape her debut feature film "American Girl," which earned her Best New Director honors at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards.

The film went on to gross over NT$10 million at the box office and will be available on Netflix in March.

Down Memory Lane

In a recent interview with CNA, Roan looked back at why she drew on that difficult period of her life to make the film, the process of putting it on the big screen, and how it helped her see her family in a more objective light.

Going the autobiographical route was a natural starting point for Roan for her first feature film, a decision she ascribed to her belief that storytelling depends on creating characters and understanding what makes them tick.

The most convenient character study for her was herself, she said, but as a creator she still had to figure out who she was and think about "how did I become what I have become and how has my backstory contributed to that?"

When Roan looked back on her own life, it became evident to her that 2003 was a "turning point" and a kind of "origin story" of her family.

Having to confront reverse culture shock and her mom's experience with cancer really shaped her as a person, she said, and the events, which she described as "a crisis moment for all of us," had a lasting impact on her family's dynamic that still lingers to this day.

A still from "American Girl." Image courtesy of iFilm
A still from "American Girl." Image courtesy of iFilm

In the film, it is clear that each member of the family struggled to adapt to their new lives. The children tried to adjust to the strict Taiwanese school system and make friends while being singled out as "Americans," and their parents had to adjust to living together again and dealing with the family's finances.

Through it all, protagonist Fen clashes repeatedly with her mother, Lily, about her wish to return to the U.S. Looming over them is the possibility of Lily's death, crystallized in a scene where Fen's sister asks her in tears, "Is Mommy going to die?"

There are still happy moments, though, like the two sisters dying their father's hair in the living room of their apartment -- "Why is it the color of poo?" he asks to the girls' delighted laughter -- and bonding with their mother over ice cream sundaes -- "Order whatever you'd like" she says when they excitedly read through the menu.

Yet, looking back on that part of her life, "the happy moments felt very brief and the unhappy moments felt very long," Roan said. "It was really, as one of my producers put it, like a sea of sadness."

Roan said that she discovered those joyful moments when she was writing, and realized how much these moments "helped us carry on for another few days" however brief they seemed.

A mirror, and a time capsule

As the film was based on her personal experiences, Roan decided when she started writing the story to focus first on the details and let the main themes build themselves naturally.

The dramatic theme that emerged is how the crises the family faced brought them closer, and the emotional theme is how confusing, messy, and difficult love can be, especially between mothers and daughters who are so alike.

"It is love that makes the relationship so difficult, and what makes it confusing. It is not hate. It is because we care so much and there is so much at stake," she said.

In early drafts of the script, the film was told from Roan's point of view as Fen, but she later decided on emphasizing the perspectives of each of the family members.

Fiona Roan Feng-i with Caitlin Fang, who plays the protagonist Fen in "American Girl." CNA file photo
Fiona Roan Feng-i with Caitlin Fang, who plays the protagonist Fen in "American Girl." CNA file photo

Through that process, in which she had to see things from each character's point of view and not take sides, Roan needed to remain neutral, creating some distance that enabled her to see her family with "a little bit more clarity."

In turn, her relationship with her family has shifted, though it did not change overnight. "It's like putting a mirror in front of all of us....They are a little bit more self-aware," she said.

Roan also acknowledged, however, that what she captured in "American Girl" was just one version of her family's truth and just one moment in their lives, and said the film served as a "time capsule."

There is a sense of relief now that the memory no longer belongs only to them, but is instead shared and safe with other people, she said. "I think that's quite a unique experience."

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