In the decade since she stole the audience’s heart as a teenager in Blue Gate Crossing, Gwei Lun-mei has accumulated an uncharacteristically versatile body of work that ranges from arthouse sensations to action thrillers. The beloved Taiwanese actress talks to Edmund Lee. Portraits by Calvin Sit.
Gwei Lun-mei was picked to star in the leading role of Blue Gate Crossing (2002) – a coming-of-age drama in which three teenagers navigate their attraction to one another – while she was still a 17-year-old student. Since then, the actress has completed a university degree in French, garnered acclaim with a range of hit romances (2007’s The Most Distant Course and the Jay Chou-directed Secret) and played action heroines in Dante Lam’s The Stool Pigeon (2010) and Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011). Coming full circle, it seems only fitting that Gwei, now 28, is back with GF*BF, a coming-of-age drama in which three teenagers navigate their attraction to one another – this time well into their adulthoods.
Set partly against the sombre reality of Taiwan’s martial law period (1949-1987) and partly against the newfound freedom that the once-oppressed protagonists are struggling to cope with, the film charts the tortured emotional lives of its three characters (played by Gwei, Joseph Chang and Rhydian Vaughan) over the decades. Recently in town for the Summer International Film Festival, at which GF*BF premiered as the opening film, Gwei sits down with Time Out to talk about growing up in Taiwan, her brush with existentialism and the secret to looking the part of a high school student.
GF*BF is partly set in the martial law period in Taiwan. Did you learn from your relatives about that period when you were a kid?
Occasionally they’d mention it. But when they talked about it, they made it sound like it’s something very ordinary – and not that austere. However, the truth is that the atmosphere of the time was both serious and austere. When [my relatives] talked about it, I couldn’t come up with a full picture of the period. In fact, even after making this movie, I still can’t completely imagine what those people at the time felt. It’s impossible.
Why do you think this period is of so much interest to the filmmakers?
I think this is a very important time for Taiwan. When it happened, I was actually still very young. I didn’t personally experience the mood or the happenings. It was after I grew up, when I was studying, that I [first] learned about it. When I became a grown-up, freedom was already something that we’d taken for granted. However, thinking back, the freedom that we have today is a consequence of what [the people before us] fought for. So this is a very important part of Taiwan’s history – it is the [origin] of our freedom.
As you mentioned, you were born a few years after your character in the film. How do you think your life would be like if you were born in her time?
This is really hard to imagine. [Pauses] I really don’t know how to answer this question. [Smiles]
How would you describe your character in the film?
I think she’s someone who, on the outside, looks clever, confident and very sure about what she wants. She looks strong on the outside but is especially fragile inside; she’s a girl whose heart may be broken if you touch it lightly. Of course, it’s also related to her family, because she’s never been loved by her family. So the objective of her life is to bravely find love and face herself. She came to this world alone.
Repressed homosexuality may be considered one of the major elements of GF*BF. Do you think it’s directly impacted by the film’s historical setting?
It’s true that Taiwan has a very conservative society. It’s gotten better these days but it’s still a relatively conservative place. I was just a kid then but I do believe there were many people who were discovering their sexual orientations and were finding it quite impossible to come out openly. There’s comparatively more information today – as in many other countries – so more and more people are getting familiar with the subject, and more and more can come out and face their sexual orientations.
It’s possible that the film GF*BF may remind some viewers of your first movie, Blue Gate Crossing, because it’s also about three youngsters exploring…
[Interrupts] …whether one prefers boys or girls.
Exactly. Did you have any special thought on this when you took part in the film?
When I first read the script, what I absolutely loved was its idea of ‘big love’. Love is big because homosexual and heterosexual people can form one family. The three protagonists are not divided by their different orientations; they are bound together by a pure sense of love. [Spoiler alert] The kids of [two of them] can be adopted by the third friend, who’s a homosexual, and they can form a new family. It’s an open-minded concept – I want to bring this idea of ‘big love’ to the audiences of both Taiwan and beyond. I don’t think we need to give a name to everything, which would set a limit on the possibilities of things. To me, the most enchanting aspect of this movie is the way love unites the characters as a family.
The director of GF*BF, Yang Ya-che, was also the writer of Blue Gate Crossing. Did you first meet him when you took part in that film?
He actually wrote the novel [on which Blue Gate Crossing is based on], not the movie script. I knew him before I was chosen for the part back then; I was still one of 10 candidates for the role. He was also the assistant director of the movie and he’d sometimes ride a motorbike to scout locations or come back to visit us. We didn’t see each other very much. However, because I was so young at the time, I always felt that [the production crew] was one big family; even though we didn’t talk much, I saw him day after day after day, so it felt a bit like family. We haven’t been in constant contact in the intervening years but our bond was strongly established a decade ago. [Yang comes into our room at this point. Gwei turns to him] Mr director, we’re talking about you! [Yang: “Don’t badmouth me!” Gwei stays silent until Yang leaves the room again].
Anyway, his first directorial effort, Orz Boyz (2008), was also a coming-of-age drama. Do you agree that the subject of growing up seems to be quite popular with Taiwanese film directors?
Well, I made a [coming-of-age] movie myself a decade ago. In the years since Blue Gate Crossing, there were more and more movies from this genre and, of course, they did very well too. It’s true that many Taiwanese directors like to work on this topic. It’s down to the suppression and control that [Taiwanese people] go through in their adolescence. Many adults will look back on their teenage years and they really want to turn it into a beautiful story or they want to present the suppression that they personally went through. When we look back, it was a cruel but beautiful time. The life of Taiwanese students is unique.
Unique in what way?
Like you see in the film, we have a disciplinary master – a military authority – at school. There are ‘external’ rules like: our dress must not be shorter than a certain length; [the shirts] must be properly buttoned up; the hair must be this and that… things like that. There are also ‘internal rules’ to control our thoughts. It is… [pauses]. It may feel arbitrary but the [monitoring] authority
is out there.
Is it still the case today?
Some schools are still like this.
I think it’s like that in the schools of Hong Kong as well.
Really? Taiwan was quite strict at that time.
What were your feelings about growing up in Taiwan?
It was really the year I studied in France [as an exchange student for the third year of my university degree] that allowed me to reflect [on my life] from a different perspective. When you’ve stayed in and gotten used to a place for a long time, you’ll think that the whole world is like this. It’s only after you’ve visited different places that you can come back and look at your hometown in a more objective manner. When I was a student, we wouldn’t think about what we wanted, we wouldn’t think about what we liked and we wouldn’t know how to express ourselves. Everyone behaved and followed the teachers’ instructions and the parents’ wishes. When we applied for universities, for example, it didn’t matter which subject we [personally] preferred – we applied for a university that matched our academic results. It’s all like this. It’s only after I went overseas that I discovered the education system in other countries was not the same. They encourage people to be different, to work to one’s strength and to study according to one’s interest. The education systems [of Taiwan and France] are vastly different.
I read in one of your interviews that you were especially influenced by Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, as it prompted you to assert yourself in your own way.
It was a significant influence, that’s true. That book plays a very important role in my life. I used to be one of those ‘obedient’ students, studying what I was given – and so on. When I studied with other university students in France, I discovered something very special: all the students sitting around me had a glow in their eyes, because they liked what they studied very, very much. After that year, I went back to Taiwan for my fourth year. I approached my study in a very different way: I put a lot of effort into subjects that I liked and got very high marks, and I wouldn’t force myself to work too hard on subjects that I wasn’t interested in. You need to set your own direction. I think that’s a huge change for me.
So is acting your ultimate interest?
At this moment, yes. But sometimes I’d think: when the audiences stop liking me someday, what else can I do?
[Laughs] So what else can I do? I must try to explore some other interests after all; otherwise, if this road turns out to be a dead end and I have nowhere else to go, what do I do? Perhaps it’s precisely because of [the fact I have no alternative career paths] that I put so much effort to make this road a good one. [Laughs]
Have you thought about what you’d do if you weren’t an actress?
I was pondering what to do with my future like everybody else when I graduated from university. I couldn’t make up my mind on being an actress by then. I had honestly thought about going overseas to study dance. I think a dancer has her special charisma. [Laughs] I was either going to be a dancer or an actress, and as I had already started acting, I just decided to give it a try and see how it goes.
Will you consider performing in some dance sequences for your movies?
I very much want to. I’ve long wanted to do this but I still haven’t encountered such a script. My bigger wish is to one day perform with one of my favourite dancers in a small production at an actual theatre.
Speaking of your choice of roles, you’re playing a high school student again in GF*BF. It looks as if you’ve never aged since you played one in Blue Gate Crossing.
[Laughs] It makes me happy to hear that. I’ve been away from high school for… 12 years. I’m happy but, at the same time, I feel privately that it’s getting harder [to pull off]. It’s hard to hide away the ageing in your eyes. It’s getting harder. I hope… [Laughs] After I participated in his movie [Secret], Jay Chou joked that I could go on playing these roles forever. When he [subsequently] saw me in [the action thriller] The Stool Pigeon, he called me and asked: “Why did you take up a role like that?” But for me, I think I can’t play a student until I’m 40! Then again, maybe only the very professional actors are capable of doing this. [Laughs] It’s like [I’ve taken] the elixir of life, so that I can stay 17 or 18 forever.
Well, at least you look a lot more like a high school student than Jay Chou or your GF*BF co-stars, Joseph Chang and Rhydian Vaughan.
I think they should stand next to me and highlight how much younger than them I look!
Joking aside, how have you changed as a person since your first film?
It seems that there hasn’t been any major change… although I guess the biggest difference is that I’ve gradually become a calmer person. This is what I’ve always been after. When I graduated from high school or from university, there was something inexplicable knocking around in my heart. I think that’s because there were a lot of external constraints, which resulted in something powerful inside me hoping to attain freedom and be given extra space. Now that I have both the freedom and the space – and less constraints – my heart grows calm. My perception becomes sharper and, when I read books or watch movies nowadays, I can absorb them faster than I did before. Because of this, I think my possibilities have increased.
Considering your relatively young age, it’s remarkable to note that you’ve already become one of the most popular actresses in Taiwan.
[Embarrassed] Thank you! But please don’t say that – I’m still working hard [towards that goal].
Do you feel the pressure?
The point is: I still haven’t felt like [I’ve succeeded] yet. [Laughs] I don’t know what people are thinking about me – and I don’t know where I’m standing in the movie industry. I don’t feel like [I’ve achieved anything yet], so I’m still working hard as usual. I want to have my feet on the ground and become a good actress. I want my films to leave a little something in the audiences. I hope my films can leave their mark in cinema history. This is what I’m looking to achieve.
GF*BF 女朋友。男朋友 opens on Thu Aug 30.